founder and president, NakedEdge Films
For me, a film is like any other startup. Everything from the business to the legal to the deal-making came from my Tuck experience or my work experience after Tuck.
Like many others, Jim Butterworth’s life changed drastically on September 11, 2001. Butterworth, a T’91, was living a few blocks from the World Trade Center. He was about to turn 40 years old and he’d spent years working high-profile jobs in finance, technology, and venture capital. But after losing friends in the terrorist attacks, he decided to overhaul his life. He packed his bags and moved to Colorado, where he got a job as a ski patroller at Vail Mountain for $9 an hour.
But first, let’s rewind. Butterworth got his start studying engineering at Georgia Tech, then worked in the computer industry in Atlanta for five years before enrolling at Tuck. At Tuck, he got a summer associate position at Lehman Brothers and was offered a job there after graduating in 1991.
In 1995, Butterworth had an idea for a streaming audio service over the web, a concept that didn’t exist at the time. He called it Netcast, a network of around- the-clock audio stations that was 20 years before its time. “Everyone was telling me that live streaming wasn’t doable over the internet,” he says. “But I knew enough about technology to think it might be.”
He ran the company for three years in New York, then launched a $40 million early-stage venture capital firm called LC39. “We wanted to do it differently,” Butterworth says. “We wanted to provide an incubation platform. This was 1999. Nobody was doing that.”
But then, the dot com bubble burst and 9/11 happened. Butterworth found a new lease on life in the mountains of Colorado, but he knew he needed to be doing more than just skiing.
In the summer of 2003, Butterworth discovered that nobody was talking about the human rights conditions in North Korea, the two million people who had died from famine and hundreds of thousands of refugees escaping across the river into China. So Butterworth and his girlfriend at the time looked at each other and said, “Let’s make a documentary film.”
They bought a few books on how to make a documentary, acquired some cameras, then flew to China and snuck into North Korea. The resulting film, called Seoul Train, which took over a year to make and debuted in 2004, won a duPont-Columbia Award for excellence in broadcast journalism and played in over 20 countries on national TV. In 2007, Butterworth received Dartmouth’s esteemed Social Justice Award as a result of the film.
By 2008, he had moved to Boulder, Colorado, and co-founded a production company called Naked Edge Films, which has since produced over 20 documentaries, including three in 2018. His films have earned an Oscar, two duPonts, and four Emmy nominations. “Our focus is on making really good, character-driven films in the context of really important issues,” he says.
Their 2016 documentary, Southwest of Salem, about four gay Latina women in San Antonio in the 1990s who were wrongly convicted of child molestation, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and won a Peabody Award. The film ultimately helped exonerate all four women. Butterworth was the film’s executive producer. His latest documentary, called United Skates about the decline of American roller-skate culture, will debut on HBO in 2019.
“I had a nontraditional path that took me through investment banking, technology, and venture capital. I had a foundation in business though,” Butterworth says. “For me, a film is like any other startup. Everything from the business to the legal to the deal-making came from my Tuck experience or my work experience after Tuck.”
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