Subscribe

Sonoma County filmmaker Jake Viramontez giving good works away: ‘Storytelling moves people’

Learn more about Free Exposure

To see the film on Ceres Community Project and to learn more about Free Exposure, go to freeexposure.org.

Jake Viramontez calls what he does “storytelling for social good.”

And it’s good storytelling.

Viramontez, 33, is a commercial filmmaker. His client list has included Chevrolet, Pepsi and Panda Express.

His job put him on a plane a lot so he and his wife decided that because he could fly out of any airport, they could move north from Los Angeles to Graton. They have been in Sonoma County a little more than a year.

And it’s from here that Viramontez has launched Free Exposure — a nonprofit venture created to craft documentary films about other nonprofit organizations at zero cost to the groups.

“At the beginning of this year I was walking my dog on the Joe Rodota Trail and I’m thinking ‘I miss being around those people, I miss being around something bigger than myself,” he said. “So I decided to give the films away.”

‘This isn’t where I want to be’

Viramontez’s interest in filmmaking started in high school. He volunteered his time and honed his talents doing film work for nonprofits in the far reaches of the world. But a guy’s gotta make a buck, so he started doing commercial work.

“If you want to make money, you have to be a commercial director,” he said. “That was cool, that was fun and I grew a lot. I guess you could say I leveled up professionally. I learned a lot of cinematography. But this isn’t where I want to be.”

His mind kept returning to the kind of film work that truly moved him. He wanted to help tell the stories of people and groups doing good works, whatever that may look like.

He launched Free Exposure.

He figured he could afford to do four free films in a year. But for which organizations?

He decided to ask for proposals: Tell me about your organization. Who do you serve? What makes you unique?

In exchange he asked for time and access but no money. He’d do it all for free.

Turns out all of that commercial work gave him skills to be a one-man-band when he needed to.

“I can gift these films free of charge because I didn’t need to bring anybody with me,” he said. “My whole life basically led me to this.”

‘It’s a huge boon for us’

The first short film featured Our Own, an LA-based nonprofit that offers kids from underserved neighborhoods access to college preparation and business internships. The second? Ceres Community Project in Sebastopol.

Viramontez highlighted the story of Ceres volunteer Hannah Ricioli.

Local sports fans will remember Ricioli as a powerhouse wrestler for El Molino High School, where she took second in the CIF Championships as a junior in 2020, a two-time folkstyle wrestling All-American and a Junior Folkstyle National Champion.

But she was also, before graduating high school last spring and heading to Stanford University this fall, a Ceres volunteer. And before that, she was a Ceres recipient.

In his 6-minute documentary about Ceres Community Project, Viramontez tells the story of how when Ricioli was 8, she watched her mom, Mindy, battle cancer. Ceres provided their family healthy meals and a human connection during a rough time.

Ricioli’s mom beat the cancer. On Hannah’s 16th birthday, the newly minted driver didn’t take the family car out for a cruise, she drove to a Ceres volunteer meeting. Viramontez told that story too.

“It’s a huge boon for us,” said Deborah Ramelli, communications director for Ceres. “It tells a story, a very personal story, this is very moving, that so many people can relate to in a way that we haven’t been able to do in that in-depth (way) before.”

Ceres officials, who have seen demand for organic, healthy, food-as-medicine meals skyrocket during the coronavirus pandemic, screened the film at a recent fundraiser. They have since sent it out to media outlets and posted it on social media.

“It will endure for a while,” Ramelli said.

‘Let’s give instead’

The timing for Free Exposure is painfully perfect.

Fundraisers, in the age of the coronavirus, are not what they used to be. It’s been almost two years since gala dinners were a regular thing, or wine tasting events dotted calendars or there were crowded meet-and-greets every weekend. Making money with social events is now incredibly tricky.

At the same time, most nonprofits are seeing demand for their services soar as people grapple with the fallout, financial and otherwise, from a pandemic.

So Viramontez’s plan fits neatly into a new reality where there are fewer extravagant fundraising dinners with live auctions and more low-key funding requests. A short, moving film can help nonprofit groups tell their story and gin up financial support, he said.

“A story can raise so much money in just a single email blast,” Viramontez said. “People who can’t come to a fundraiser or a gathering, they can watch a film. They can click ‘Play.’ People are moved by it and, ideally, they are crying six minutes into it, thinking ‘Here I am crying’ and thinking about going to my bank account and taking $500 out.’”

Learn more about Free Exposure

To see the film on Ceres Community Project and to learn more about Free Exposure, go to freeexposure.org.

As Viramontez’s list of completed films grows — he’s got one on tap about a work skills and education program for homeless people in Detroit and another about Small Steps for Compassion in Tanzania — he hopes to provide a hub of sorts, where people can come and essentially shop for places to donate.

“I want to have Free Exposure’s YouTube platform be a place where people can go come Christmastime, or birthdays, and say ‘I don’t want to do presents, we are adults and that’s kind of weird, let’s give instead,’” he said. “I want Free Exposure to be a place where a family can go and spend an hour watching 10 films and see where they want their money to go, see the faces of the people who are running it, and feel like they are educated on why they should give.”

‘Storytelling moves people’

Viramontez’s idea caught hold with executives at Sony.

He had, on a whim, reached out to the tech giant and asked them to donate one of their top of the line cameras, a newer model that is significantly smaller than previous editions, to his Free Exposure effort.

They said yes. Then they got him on the phone.

Viramontez is now spearheading, along with his Free Exposure and paid commercial work, an effort for Sony to essentially do what Free Exposure does but on a larger scale. Sony’s chosen groups not only get a film but also $50,000 in cash and $50,000 in Sony gear.

In addition, Sony is now offsetting Viramontez’s Free Exposure costs, he said.

“They want to help me as in individual,” he said.

In his grand plan, Viramontez envisions a program in which he recruits 12 to 15 people he deems “world class filmmakers” to craft short documentaries for social good. He would vet the filmmakers, help select the groups to be profiled, and manage the logistics of travel and such.

“Next year the invitation will be for filmmakers, editors, producers, ‘Join us,’” he said. “Listen up, I want to send you out on assignment to tell a story on behalf of a nonprofit.”

And a perk of running the show?

“I’ll cherry-pick like four of my favorite” nonprofits and make those films himself, he said.

There are too many stories out there of good people doing good things, he said. They need to be seen and their efforts need to be supported.

“The cold, hard fact is that storytelling moves people,” he said.

Agreed.

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

Have a story that is wild, wacky, bizarre or beautiful? Tell me about it. Have a question that starts with, “What’s the deal with…?” Let’s figure it out together. This column is about the story behind the story, a place to shine a light on who we are, what makes us a community and all of the things that make us special. With your help, I'll be tackling the questions that vex us: (the funny, the mundane, and the irritating.)

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette