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Univ. New documentary films show how a Univ. of Washington student is linked to Amazon

A poster for the documentary film “Wildcat,” coming to theaters and Amazon Prime Video. (Amazon Image)

A documentary film about wildlife conservation and the redemptive power of nature, shot primarily in the Amazonian rainforest of Peru, has a connection to another Amazon — in Seattle. The film’s executive producer as well as the lead subject are also from nearby Bainbridge Island, Wash.

That trio of circumstances puts a unique focus on the latest project from Steve Hall, a longtime venture capital investor who has been inspired across a variety of interests — tech, conservation, filmmaking, music — by Paul Allen, the late Microsoft co-founder who was Hall’s boss at Vulcan Capital.

Hall is one of the backers of “Wildcat,” a film that follows Samantha Zwicker, an ecologist and founder of Hoja Nueva, a nonprofit working to address threats to the biodiversity of the Peruvian Amazon. The story tracks Zwicker’s relationship with Harry Turner, a traumatized veteran of the war in Afghanistan, and their efforts to help an orphaned ocelot rescued from the black market.

Samantha Zwicker
Samantha Zwicker founder of Hoja Nueva. (Hoja Nueva Photo)

Zwicker has bachelor’s and masters degrees from the University of Washington and is working on completing her doctorate in quantitative ecology. Hall was a long-standing donor to Hoja Nueva and currently sits on its board. When he heard two filmmakers wanted to tell Zwicker’s story, he jumped at the chance to be involved.

“I’m very passionate about what Hoja is doing, and Samantha is a real role model for the next generation of women scientists,” Hall said. “She’s kind of a Jane Goodall of carnivores in that region.”

Hall and Melissa Lesh are the film’s directors. It is their first feature documentary. The initial capital was used to get the film off the ground before 30West, a production company, provided the majority of financing.

“It’s like betting on your first founding team,” Hall said.

“Wildcat” is not his first involvement with making a film. Hall was the lead investor and executive producer in 2021 on “East of the Mountains,” the film based on the best-selling novel by David Guterson. Hall learned from this experience how investing in movies is different to investing in technology.

And Amazon Studios is certainly no stranger to the industry as the tech giant’s Hollywood arm has become a major player in film and television production and the acquisition of noteworthy projects. One report put Amazon’s price tag for “Wildcat” around $20 million.

Hall admitted his own bias for the film, but said Amazon was “a welcome partner” that was clearly interested in a “very moving, powerful story.”

“Films, like venture deals, are incredibly risky so having Amazon purchase and distribute the film is a very lucky and fortunate outcome and will help us get the story out to a large audience,” Hall said.

“Wildcat,” which was shot primarily in 2018 and 2019, first premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September and has been active on the film festival circuit since. It’s at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam this week and Hall and Zwicker will also show it off to a hometown audience on Bainbridge Island on Thursday. A sold out screening and Q&A will take place at the historic Lynwood Theatre.

Prior to its premiere on Prime Video, Dec. 30, it will receive a theatrical release.

Hall served as Vulcan Capital’s managing director for over 20 years. He is now a partner and venture partner of Cercano Management. He sits on the boards of the Allen Institute and the Allen Institute for AI and he’s the founder of his own Two Bridge Ventures.

Working with Allen for more than 15 years, Hall was inspired by the billionaire philanthropist’s ability to engage in so many areas outside of his original core focus and background in technology. Allen’s support for films such as “Racing Extinction” and “Ghost Fleet” are in line with what Hall is hoping for with “Wildcat.”

“What I found most striking and tried to apply is to take your expertise in one field and help [make an impact] in another field,” Hall said.

Telluride with Directors and Mallory
Members of the “Wildcat” team, from left: co-producer Mallory Bracken, director Melissa Lesh, executive producer Steve Hall, and director Trevor Frost. Steve Hall.

Hall is currently working on another documentary. In the pitch, Hall explains that they are looking for rare stolen stamps which were hidden in the basement in an apartment in Poland by a Nazi Officer during World War II. Document-series: The subject is trying to find the stamps, and then return it to its rightful owner.

Talking about movies and Paul Allen doesn’t lead to a storybook ending. At least not when it involves Hall, the beloved Cinerama theater in Seattle.

Asked whether he had any interest in upholding that part of Allen’s legacy, Hall said owning the theater, closed and in limbo since early in the COVID-19 pandemic, sounds like a daunting task.

“As much as I love movies, and as much as I’d like to believe the future of the theater-going experience will continue, that’s a challenging business,” he said, citing real estate costs, electricity costs, staff costs.

“I didn’t grow up in Seattle, so I don’t have the nostalgic connection that others do and that Paul had,” Hall added. “It’s an incredible icon and I have great hope and trust that it will have a good future. I know there’s lots of people thinking about that. Just not me.”

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