‘Million Dollar Duck’ documents duck stamp art competition

Filmmaker used crowdfunding website Kickstarter to fund documentary
Ducks Unlimited members are very familiar with the federal duck stamp, but that isn’t the case with everyone. A new documentary is aiming to tell the stamp’s story and hopefully broaden its fan base.

Filmmaker Brian Davis came up with the idea after a trip to the post office. “I noticed the stamps I purchased were just bar codes,” he said. “In a way I felt ripped off. Even though I hadn't really paid much attention to stamp art in the past, I definitely missed it when it was gone.”

Davis’ wife told him about a radio interview she’d heard featuring three brothers who “always end up winning” the Federal Duck Stamp Art Competition – those would be the Hautman brothers, Jim, Robert and Joe. After a little research, he read “The Wild Duck Chase: Inside the Strange and Wonderful World of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest,” by Martin J. Smith. The book – and its coverage of the only juried art competition sponsored by the federal government – struck a chord with Davis, who contacted Smith and asked if he could make it into a documentary.

“The biggest thing I took away from the book was how passionate the artists were [about] their craft,” Davis said. “There was a connection to nature there that seems to be getting lost in today’s society. The main thing, though, was that I couldn’t believe that I hadn't heard of the duck stamp before. I think when people hear about this unique American subculture of the duck stamp, they will fall in love with it like I have. I thought a film was the best way to introduce people to it.”

About seven months into filming “Million Dollar Duck,” Davis ran out of funds. He turned to the Kickstarter website for help. Kickstarter allows people to post ideas and ask for donations to fund them – anything from recording a CD to starting a restaurant. “Million Dollar Duck” surpassed its fundraising goal of $20,000, with a final cumulative donation of $27,000 from 394 backers. 

Ducks Unlimited joined in the crowdfunding, donating $3,000 on the final day of the campaign, but Davis said not every donor was as familiar with the duck stamp as DU.

“Most people comment that they couldn't believe the duck stamp program existed and they hadn't heard about it,” he said. “They want to see the film completed so they can see more [from] the duck stamp world. We've even had people contribute to the Kickstarter campaign from other countries despite it only being a U.S. stamp.”

“Million Dollar Duck” primarily focuses on the art competition, but Davis said you can’t talk about the duck stamp without discussing what it does for conservation.

“One part of the film that we will be developing over the next year are the current threats to the stamp, which include rising land prices, a slight decline in waterfowl hunters and the current stamp price not rising with inflation,” Davis said. “Overall, I am supportive of a price increase. I bought two stamps this year – one for a hunting license and another for safe keeping – and I would still buy two even with a price increase. When you consider what’s at risk, I think paying a bit more to protect the habitat is the right thing to do.”

Find out more about Million Dollar Duck