If you've been searching for inspiring documentaries about the twists and turns of owning a business, you're in luck: Three new 20-minute films, produced by Tribeca Digital Studios and American Express, are debuting on Wednesday. All three are available to watch online for free. Here's a primer on each of them.

1. A Dream Preferred 

Directors: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady

The Taharka Brothers, Baltimore-based ice cream makers, hope to raise $28,000 in 29 days on Kickstarter. The reason? The money will help them buy an ice-cream truck. Not just any ice-cream truck, but one called the "Food for Thought Truck", a literal vehicle for change in Baltimore's neighborhoods. 

After 10 days, the company is well short of its goal. What happens next -- a marketing blitz resulting in celebrity endorsements from Russell Simmons, Shaquille O'Neal, and Whoopi Goldberg -- will make you believe in the power of positive messages.  

Best quote: "Ice cream is the secret to social change." 

You'll really like it if you like: Managers who mop floors. Or the pain of getting ignored by your own customers as they eat your ice cream. Watch the film here

2. Buffalo Returns

Director: Gini Reticker

In 2008, Native American Natural Foods, the company behind Tanka energy bars, which are made with buffalo meat and cranberry, made about $20,000 in revenues for the month of July. The next month revenues dropped to $2,000, due to the crippled economy.

This meant founders Karlene Hunter and Mark Tilsen of the Oglala Lakota Tribe (based in the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota) had reached a classic entrepreneurial inflection point: They had to borrow against all their possessions to save the company. The movie is about what happened next, and where the company is going from here--as a business, and as a pillar of privatized activity on the reservation. 

Best quote: "In every entrepreneur's life, there's the proverbial 'cliff' moment. Do you stop or step off?"

You'll really like it if you like: Stunning visual contrasts, from the open green spaces of South Dakota to the streets of Manhattan, where employees set up a vending table and hand out free samples. Watch the film here. And for further reading, Inc.'s Leigh Buchanan penned a superb profile of the company in March.  

3. The Downtown Project

Director: Morgan Spurlock

Of the three documentaries, this one covers territory you're most likely to know about if you regularly read business news: the $350 million entrepreneurial initiative in Las Vegas known as The Downtown Project, founded by Zappos's Tony Hsieh. 

The most inspiring parts come when the film profiles founders whose business dreams have come true thanks to The Downtown Project. Chef Natalie Young, owner of EAT, an award-winning restaurant, poignantly pays back her $225,000 loan to the project in a year and three months. 

If there's a downside, it's that the movie skirts some of the well-reported challenges surrounding The Downtown Project. A recent article in The Atlantic, for example, notes that "the last six months have showed that even $350 million might not be enough to revitalize a city." 

Whereas Buffalo Returns and A Dream Preferred paint a not-entirely-rosy picture of business-building, The Downtown Project at times seems a bit too clearly to be a movie that was co-produced by American Express. It's still visually gorgeous, effortlessly informative, and genuinely inspiring. But perhaps a minute or two on the thornier (read: as-yet-unmet) challenges of jump-starting a distressed city would have provided meaningful contrast to the successes. 

Best quote: "One pancake at a time, I paid off my loan." 

You'll really like it if you like: The idea of Hsieh telling a doctor-entrepreneur to "drop everything, move your whole family to Vegas, and help us fix medicine." The doctor, Zubin Damania, the founder of Turntable Health, does just that. Afterward he says, "It wasn't as hard as I thought." Watch the film here

Published on: Jul 15, 2015