Fans kick in to get Union soccer movie made

Union fans, known as the Sons of Ben, cheering at PPL Park, are subjects of Jeffrey C. Bell's documentary.
Union fans, known as the Sons of Ben, cheering at PPL Park, are subjects of Jeffrey C. Bell's documentary. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 08, 2013

New York filmmaker Jeffrey C. Bell faced one not-so-little problem while working on his documentary about the Sons of Ben, the hard-core Philadelphia Union supporters group:

He needed $20,000 to keep production going.

Bell turned to Internet crowd-funding, asking friends, sports-lovers, film fans, and total strangers to donate so he could tell the tale of an unlikely band of soccer heroes.

It happened that many people were willing to do exactly that. As of Monday night, with hours left in a 35-day campaign, Bell had surged past his goal, raising $22,451.

"The amount of support everyone has given us, it's unreal," he said. "It's mind-boggling. We are so grateful."

The money will finance a third and final round of shooting in the Philadelphia area.

The film, Sons of Ben: The Movie, explores the rise of the fan club and its role in redrawing the local soccer landscape. With the Union ensconced at PPL Park in Chester - and currently 3-3-3 in its fourth season - people forget how long fans here struggled to land a Major League Soccer team.

Bell became captivated by the idea that a supporters group could develop for a team that did not then exist and that the group's determined lobbying could succeed, when MLS named Philadelphia as its 16th club in 2008.

Bell, recently relocated from Los Angeles, where he directed music performances and short documentaries, raised the money through Indiegogo. The site charges a 4 percent fee to fund-raisers who meet their goal. Donors were offered incentives such as T-shirts, scarves and posters.

Bell started the campaign unsure whether the $20,000 goal could be reached. He worried that constantly pushing the film and its fund-raising on social media might turn people off.

On the first day, he hoped to raise $500 - and $5,000 came in.

Of course, more expenses lay ahead for Bell and co-producers Debbie Axel and Mike Dieffenbach: Paying an editor, for music licensing and color correction, and beyond that for entry into film festivals and also for marketing and promotion.

But Monday was a time to reflect, the goal reached before the 11:59 p.m. deadline.

More than 270 people contributed, some of them fans of the New York Red Bulls, the Union's hated rival.

"I was like, 'You got to be kidding,' " Bell said. "It was really generous and cool of them, considering the rivalry and relationship."

And particularly since two fund-raising films involved throwing a Red Bulls birthday cake off the top of a tall building.

The movie is expected to premiere in January, a capstone to a long and improbable journey.

People expected Philadelphia to be a shoo-in for expansion after MLS began play with 10 teams in 1996. Instead, a decade passed while other cities got teams. In 2006, MLS was again thinking expansion, and a small number of fans here began talking.

The Sons of Ben was founded the next year. Membership quickly jumped from a few dozen to several hundred as the group lobbied soccer officials and state politicians, and gathered thousands of signatures on petitions.

When the Philadelphia area was awarded a team, Bell saw the announcement on TV, noticing Sons of Ben cofounder and then-president Bryan James. Bell knew James as a childhood friend from Wilmington, where they grew up on the same street.

Bell later got in touch about making a movie.

Since the start, the Sons of Ben have packed the River End stands, leading the crowd in chants and songs.

Bell said a few investors are interested in backing the film, which has generated some buzz in soccer circles. He's as committed to completing the film as the Sons of Ben are to the Union.

"I know as a fact, it will get done," he said. "One way or the other."


For more information, see www.sonsofbenmovie.com.

Contact Jeff Gammage at 610-313-8205, jgammage@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Jeff Gammage.

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