Spike Lee, a Knicks superfan, is feuding with the franchise and its owner, James Dolan, for what can be seen as a petty argument. Nonetheless, the influential director has more support on his side. Fans believe the Knicks, who haven’t had a glorious moment in recent history, are not doing themselves any favors by alienating their celebrity fans. Sure, the Knicks are a billion-dollar franchise and Spike Lee’s net worth is estimated at $40.0 million in 2020. But the filmmaker is far more influential for his creative genius and ability to tackle social issues with his films.
Spike Lee Got Commercial Success with His First Feature Film
Atlanta native Spike Lee was born on March 20, 1957 to Jacqueline Carroll, a teacher of arts and black literature, and William James Edward Lee III, a jazz musician and composer. The family relocated to Brooklyn, New York when Lee was a child, and he’s been a New Yorker ever since.
Lee’s father has composed the scores of several of his movies. His siblings have also worked in his movies.
Before films would become a family thing, Lee would get his start in the indie circuit. He made the movie Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads in 1983 for his master’s thesis at the NYU Tisch School of Arts. The movie’s score was composed by Lee’s father. The film won a Student Academy Award and was the first student film to be showcased in Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films Festival.
Two years after his student film success, Lee began working on his first feature film, She’s Gotta Have It. The film had a budget of $175,000, and was shot in just under two weeks.
Lee’s debut feature went on to become a commercial success when it released in 1986, grossing over $7.0 million at the domestic box office.
He adapted his first blockbuster into a contemporary series for Netflix in 2017. The show was canceled in 2019 after two seasons.
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Lee Won the Oscar for BlacKkKlansman
Spike Lee followed his initial success with more movies that were acclaimed for exploring issues like race, colorism, urban crime, poverty, and political issues. He would even star in some of the films he directed.
His 1989 movie, Do the Right Thing, would earn him his first Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay.
He made the 1997 documentary 4 Little Girls, about the girls killed in the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary.
The Oscars bestowed an honorary Academy Award on the filmmaker for his contributions to the industry in 2015. But he’d finally receive an Oscar for his craft in 2019.
The acclaimed BlacKkKlansman that released in 2018 was nominated in six categories at the Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, Lee’s first nominations in those categories. Lee won his first competitive Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for the film.
Lee Encountered Troubles Financing His Films
Throughout his career, Lee has encountered obstacles with his movies’ budgeting. Often, he’d lose a financier or be limited to a smaller budget.
She’s Gotta Have It‘s distributor signed him on for two more movies, including School Daze, which had an initial budget of $4.0 million. The production company would later pull out when the budget had risen to $6.0 million, and Lee had to seek a loan from Columbia Pictures. The movie raked in more than double its budget at the box office.
Lee’s critically acclaimed 1992 movie, Malcolm X, had earned several honors, including an Oscar nomination for Denzel Washington for playing the titular character. The movie grossed $48.2 million at the box office against a $35.0 million budget.
Spike Lee earned $3.0 million from the success of the film, despite several budget issues that cropped up during the making. Lee had been paid $1.0 million to make the movie, which he ended up putting into completing the film. But the budget was used up before the movie could be completed after the studio Warner Bros. cut off funding.
Lee had to cut down staff and other expenditures, but refrained from the idea of cutting run time and changing how he wanted the final product to be. So he reached out to wealthy friends to help fund the movie.
African-American celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Janet Jackson, and Prince donated generously to the production of the movie. But it was NBA legends and bonafide rivals, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson that Lee looked to for some sizable donations.
A cunning Lee banked on Jordan and Johnson’s competitive natures as two of the greatest players on and off the court. So when Jordan found out how much Johnson had donated to Lee’s movie, His Airness made sure his donation topped Johnson’s.
Their contributions were donations, and not loans or investments. It helped Lee create the movie exactly how he envisioned it.
The award-winning filmmaker has never shied from talking about what goes into making a movie, including raising the funds for it. He’s never had a problem asking for money to make movies as he trusts his capabilities and those he works with.
Lee, who was the first black person to be Cannes jury president, made the 2015 crime musical Chi-Raq, which premiered on Amazon. It was filmed in Chicago, and he was looking for a tax break from the city to make it. In 2013, he ran a Kickstarter and crowdsourced $1.4 million to make Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.
Lee Owns a Production Company
Besides making groundbreaking movies, Spike Lee has diversified his filmmaking brand into a broad venture. It started with setting up his production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, in 1978, named after the famous Reconstruction era order issuing 40 acres and a mule to newly freed Southern blacks.
With a growing popularity from movies like Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, Lee expanded the 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks brand beyond movies. He began merchandising the brand with clothing collections across multiple stores.
He also forged merchandising partnerships with brands like Nike, Eckō Unltd., and Brooklyn Denim.
The company also has an exclusive advertising division, Spike DDB, which has done Super Bowl commercial spots for Nike and Lay’s. Besides movies, the company has produced commercials and music videos by Lee.
Lee directed commercials for Levi’s in the ‘90s, and Nike had enlisted him to directed the early commercials for Air Jordans. Through the advertising subsidiary of his company, he has directed commercials for Converse, Jaguar, Taco Bell, and Ben & Jerry’s.
The filmmaker had directed Miles Davis’ music video with a production budget of $65,000.
Among his other ventures, Lee has also taught filmmaking at Harvard and his alma mater at Tisch.
In 2016, he was hit with a lawsuit by the directors of three union-industry plans. The lawsuit claimed that an audit of the companies’ books found nearly $45,000 in unpaid contributions for a period between September 2007 and March 2010, with reference to Lee’s 2008 film, Miracle at St. Anna.
Lee has the ability to raise funds for causes outside of movies, too. A big-time Obama supporter, he and his wife raised between $200,000 and $500,000 for the former POTUS’ second election campaign.
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Spike Lee Owns Real Estate in New York
New York has been Spike Lee’s home and playground for years. His production company is based there and he works from there, too.
He and his wife, Tonya Lewis, own a townhouse in the Upper East Side that they listed on the market for $32.0 million in 2014. The place was reportedly owned by a member of the Vanderbilt family at one point. The house was later taken off the market.
40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks had begun operating from an old firehouse in Brooklyn. Lee moved the company once in 1985 and then in 2008. The company’s headquarters was valued at $820,000 in 1991. Adjoining properties in the same block are now worth from $2.0 million to $4.0 million.
Besides his New York residency, he also owns a two-acre estate in Martha’s Vineyard. He had purchased the property in 1989 at $400,000.