Sunday, January 07, 2007

How to Find Funding for Your Documentary?

From time to time, we at Docs in Progress get e-mails from filmmakers seeking our advice on fundraising. Some filmmakers who submit their films for consideration for Docs in Progress workshops tell us they are looking to the workshop to help them raise funds. We used to explain to filmmakers that the purpose of the workshops is really to get feedback on the story of the film, not to seek funds. But in reality, fundraising is a vital part of the story of every documentary and the two go hand in hand. Filmmakers screening their rough cuts at Docs in Progress are screening to an audience. Raising funds for a film is another form of screening to an audience – even if you have no footage yet to screen. So we thought we’d devote this entry to some advice about fundraising. It is by no means comprehensive, but will help give those who are lost some potential direction. We welcome additional suggestions and comments.

The first question you need to ask of yourself before you start fundraising is pretty much the same one we use to get the discussion rolling at our workshops “Who is the target audience?” Once you can identify who this audience is, you can target your fundraising more effectively.

The second question you should think about is whether your project is being produced non-profit or for-profit. This brings us to a reality check about documentary; in spite of the recent success of theatrical documentaries, the majority of independently-made documentaries do not turn a profit. In fact, many documentarians find it difficult to make a reasonable income from their films and often work on their projects as an adjunct to freelance gigs, commercial work, or day jobs. While there are niche documentaries which can turn a profit (say one which involves Paris Hilton in a compromising position), there are very few which will be credible for an investor to see a return. So our focus here is more on the non-profit model.

Does this mean you need to be a non-profit organization? Nope, but you will need to know one who is willing to serve as your proxy for fundraising. Having what is known as a “fiscal sponsor” will open up the kinds of grants you can apply for. It also means that you can receive private donations and the donors can get a write-off on their taxes because they will be making a charitable donation. Fiscal sponsors vary. There are film organizations which specialize in being fiscal sponsors – International Documentary Association (IDA), Independent Film Project (IFP), Film/Video Arts, Film Arts Foundation, IMAGE Film and Video Center, Women Make Movies, Film Forum, Documentary Educational Resources to name a few.

Or perhaps the topic of your film lends itself to partnering with a non-profit advocacy organization working on the same topic. Many film fiscal sponsors are content to simply be a “pass through” where they take the 5% sponsorship fee (to cover their accounting expenses) and do not get involved in your fundraising or editorial content. Advocacy organizations may want some editorial involvement in the project (not necessarily a bad thing if you can be mutually beneficial to each other in building an audience and doing outreach).

So now where to look?

Friends and family
Funny we should mention this first, but sometimes people forget the resources which are the easiest at hand. Tell your friends and family what you are doing. When you are starting out, even a little bit of support can be a big help. And remember the six degrees of separation. Get your friends and family to be your biggest advocates, both for moral support and financial support. Keep them informed on developments with your film through a blog, mailing list, or fundraising parties to showcase the trailer from your film. And remember that financial support can include in-kind donations, not just hard cash. Countless documentary filmmakers have relied on the old-fashioned barter systems to trade services, share equipment, and so on.

Ah, yes, the time-tested method for most documentary filmmakers. Some say grants have dried up. Others say they are as vital as ever. The key, as with everything else, is to target them strategically. As an independent filmmaker, your time is extremely valuable and you do not want to spend most of it writing grant applications. Do your research and apply for funds that are within the realms of possibility, not every grant that’s out there.

Many filmmakers know of the major sources of funding: National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Science Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation. And that’s just the problem. Everyone knows them, so lots of people apply. While these grants can sometimes fund the bulk of a documentary budget, they are extremely difficult grants to get without a track record and, in the case of some of them, require the equivalent of a graduate dissertation to fill out the grant materials. Especially if you are a first time filmmaker, it may be a better use of your time and energy to focus first on fundraising for smaller amounts.

Foundations are the tried and true method of major fundraising, but this is where you need to pay special attention to who your audience is for your film and know who you are targeting for funds. Start out by visiting in person or online The Foundation Center and researching which foundations (a) fund film and/or (b) fund topics such as the one you are trying to present. Next, look at other documentaries. Lots of them. Especially ones on similar topics to yours. Pay special attention to the credits. Note down the sources and research them. Look at films which have been screened through the Council on Foundations. Look at your network: who do you know who has been funded or knows a funder?

If you are frustrated by foundations which want you to have more of a track record of other films, consider creating a track record by bringing on a more experienced filmmaker who has successfully fundraised from foundations as an executive producer. This will give you the added benefits of that person’s knowledge and the potential funder the reassurance that the film really can be made.

While there are many foundations out there, some of the foundations which are known to be friendly to documentary projects are the Sundance Documentary Fund, the Paul Robeson Fund for Independent Media, The Jerome Foundation, the Playboy Foundation, and the Pacific Pioneer Fund. Pay special attention to geographic residency requirements and the kinds of films these foundations fund. Don’t overlook family foundations if they fund topics similar to yours. Again – and we sound like a scratchy record here – know the audience for your film and the audience to whom you are pitching.

If you aren’t ready to try for NEA or NEH, think about your state or local humanities and arts councils or ones which relate to the topic of your film. These grants are often relatively small ($1,000-10,000) but are often easier to get, especially if your project relates to the locality in some way. Don’t overlook small grants. They help establish your fundraising credibility. Note that humanities councils will usually require scholarly involvement with the project and some of these organizations may also require that the filmmaker or fiscal sponsor be resident or that the topic of the project relate to the locality in some way. Filmmakers in the Washington area may wish to look into these local organizations:

In Washington DC: Humanities Council of Washington DC and DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities
In Maryland: Maryland Humanities Council and Maryland State Arts Council
In Virginia: Virginia Commission for the Arts and Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

One very important note when you are writing grant proposals: Despite what we said about documentarians finding it hard to make a living, you should not compound this problem by thinking funders expect you to work for free. While you may think that a potential funder will look at a grant application where you have donated your services as being an indication of your passion for the project and budget-conscious nature, most funders will question why you have not set aside income for yourself. From their perspective, they want to fund films which will get made and finished as soon as possible. From a funder’s perspective, films made by people who obviously need to focus part of their time and attention on making a living from other means are not films which will be finished quickly, if at all. Communicate your passion through your treatment or trailer, not your budget.

Television Pre-Sales
This could be the topic of a whole book, so we won’t go into great detail here except to say that, unless you are Ken Burns or already have an existing relationship with PBS or HBO, you should not hold your breath to fund your project through an advance sale to American television (though a letter of interest from a broadcaster can be valuable in seeking other funds).

You may also want to look at the different programs of the Independent Television Service (ITVS). Funding from ITVS is technically not a pre-sale since ITVS funds do not guarantee broadcast on PBS. But ITVS funding is unlike a grant in that you actually are giving ITVS a Production License for the rights for domestic public broadcasting and direct broadcast rights.

Some films lend themselves to seeking funding from broadcasters in other countries, such as much of Europe and Canada. While commissions and pre-sales are more common outside of the United States, you should not approach this blindly. Very often, you will need an in-country co-producer or spend many years building relationships with European commissioning editors. The key to starting this process is to attend events where these individuals will be – generally international film festivals which have pitching forums attached to them such as the Toronto Documentary Forum at Hotdocs or The Forum at IDFA in Amsterdam. If you are serious about networking in Europe, you may also want to join an organization such as the European Documentary Network which provides members a directory of contacts at all the European television networks and also organizes smaller pitching sessions held throughout the year in various places in Europe.

Creative Fundraising
What we’ve described above are the traditional methods of fundraising. They can also be the most challenging and frustrating for independent filmmakers because there are many hoops to jump through and there is so much competition for relatively limited funds. The good news is that most documentary filmmakers are scrappy types who are capable of coming up with creative ways to fulfill your filmic dream. Before you start to consider the worst-case scenarios of maxing out your credit cards, drawing on your 401K, or doing anything illegal, you may want to look at some other ways to raise funds.

One of the easiest is to organize a fundraising party. This could be a one or two-time event where you invite your biggest supporters to a party where they will make a donation to your project. This can be held in a private home or a public place such as a restaurant or organization with similar goals to your project. Beg, barter, and borrow as much as possible so the costs of putting on the party do not exceed the funds you raise. Important elements are inviting people who will invite other people who will likely be sympathetic to your project and either establishing a fixed entrance fee or saving the call for funds for the mid-point of your party (when, if alcohol is being served, some guests may be even more generous than expected with their checkbooks). For much more on fundraising houseparties and fundraising in general, check out the website of Morrie Warshawski, long considered one of the top experts on film fundraising.

The recent proliferation of Meet-Ups has provided a variation on the Fundraising Party. The most noted success was that of Robert Greenwald. While he had previously used Meet-Ups to successfully distribute his political documentaries and engage viewers in discussions with like-minded activists, he took a new approach with his film IRAQ FOR SALE by actually using the online-organized houseparties to solicit funding in exchange for giving everyone who contributed a producer credit at the end of the film. While most of the donations were less than $100, Greenwald managed to raise more than $200,000. While not everyone has the name-recognition of Greenwald, viral Internet marketing is an area where many emerging filmmakers have the edge over more-established filmmakers who may be less web-literate. Heck, Docs in Progress even has a MySpace page now and a lot more people know about us as a result. Spreading knowledge about you and your film is the first step towards engaging potential funders and future audiences.

You don’t need to limit yourself to fundraising parties or online fundraising either. Think creatively. When DC-area filmmakers Gillian Klempner and Meghan Shea wanted to raise some funds for their documentary, THE NEW WOMAN: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ANNIE “LONDONDERRY” KOPCHOVSKY, about the first woman to traverse the globe on a bicycle, they took a lesson from their main character. In the summer of 2006, Klempner and Shea donned bloomers, got sponsors, and bicycled their way to various fundraising events between Boston and New York. They raised $10,000, enough to make headway on the film and get some buzz going in the process.

Final Thoughts
Don’t give up. Fundraising is not easy and, for many filmmakers, it is the last thing you envisioned yourself doing when you got into film in the first place. Through all the work and frustrations with raising money to you’re your film, don’t ever lose your greatest resource – your passion. It will often take you much further than you think.

If you have some additional thoughts and suggestions on fundraising, please feel free to comment.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Documentaries to Revisit: Lost in La Mancha

While every documentary should be unique, it is important for documentary filmmakers to be well-read when it comes to documentaries to see different ways that those who have come before them have dealt with the joys and challenges of non-fiction storytelling. Until recently, it has been difficult to see documentaries on demand. But now many documentaries are easily available through Netflix, Amazon, or the local video store. With this in mind, we wanted to revisit a few documentaries which reflect a wide variety of styles, but all share the power of effective story structure and character development. This time we examine LOST IN LA MANCHA by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe. The review is by Docs in Progress co-founder Adele Schmidt.

Filmmaking can be a very torturing process. Nowhere can this be seen more easily than in documentaries about the making of a film. Some documentaries have provided deep insights into how difficult it is to get a script onto a screen. Just remember the insightful documentary BURDEN OF DREAMS by Les Blank who follows German filmmaker Werner Herzog into the Peruvian jungle where he was filming FITZCARRALDO. As the documentary unfolds, Herzog encounters enormous problems during the shooting in the Amazons. Even after three years of stop-and-go, FITZCARRALDO was completed and Werner Herzog's dream fulfilled. But what happens if the fight to realize a dream ends in a fiasco? How does this affect the “Making Of” story?

Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, the makers of the documentary LOST IN LA MANCHA, lead us through that worst case scenario by documenting the making of the movie THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE, an ambitious film adaptation of Don Quixote by charismatic filmmaker Terry Gilliam. Sure, this documentary was planned with a different outcome, the “happy ending” of a finished film, but the reality unfolded itself in a different way and filmmakers Fulton and Pepe had no choice than adapt to that change. The film production of THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE failed after only one week on location. The documentary which intended to document the making of a $32 million movie turned into a film about the downfall of a production. Out of that production experience came not a feature film, but a documentary which every filmmaker should see to learn how to handle a story which goes off course from the one you expected -- and perhaps even find a more interesting story in the process.

In spite of the fact that Fulton and Pepe had just six days of shooting on location, they managed to document the passion which stands behind Terry Gilliam’s creation. At the same time, the documentary is constantly reminding us of one crude reality which waves behind every mayor film production: That next to talent, enormous management skills are needed to complete a movie and sometimes luck is not on your side.

The passion of filmmaking

Terry Gilliam is known for his eccentric futuristic fantasy films, such as Brazil and 12 Monkeys. This time, Gilliam is not projecting his imaginations into future but into the past, into the mindset of Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes who wrote Don Quixote in 1605. The plot is well known: An old man who has read so many stories about knights believes in a confused state that he himself is a knight and sets out with his horse to fight injustice. In one of his most famous adventures, he fights against windmills, believing that they are giants.

Unfortunately we never get to see the unfolding of the fight against windmills before the camera. The only thing we get to see from that scene is the casting of the three giants. Gilliam selects three big and comical looking Spanish men and does some camera rehearsals with them. What we see through the camera lens in that rehearsal makes us want to see more. Fulton and Pepe make it clear throughout their documentary that quite an outstanding film is on the way.

A look at the storyboard alone, illustrated in animated drawings, helps us to understand that. These drawings, a mix of surreal cartoons traced with extraordinary detail, are an art work unto themselves. Fulton and Pepe choose to start their documentary with these drawings to set up the high stylistic level of Gilliam’s film. These animations also give us a hint on how complicated this production will be, with huge set constructions and extravagant costumes. Gilliam, the fantasy auteur, envisions a film where magic dissolves into reality, where giants appear, and where gigantic handmade marionettes dance on enormous strings.

Most of all, we see an enthusiastic director who is in love with his project. The camera follows Gilliam as he interacts with his crew in preproduction. He macro-manages the overall look of the film, giving instructions to the set designer and at the same time micromanages details when we see him in discussion about Don Quixote’s armor. We get to know other crew members as they are all working full speed in each department to be ready for the first day of shooting.

Fulton and Pepe made important choices in editing in order to create the drama. By giving us from the start a good taste of the high production value of THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE, we fall in love with the project. We want to see the film happen. We want Gilliam to succeed with his dream.

Fighting the odds

The documentation of the downfall condenses weeks of pre-production and les than a week of production into 90 minutes. It points out the risk factors which can make any film production fall apart, especially one which aspires to Hollywood production values without being produced by Hollywood.

We are told from the beginning that the real cost of this film is $80 million. Gilliam was not able to convince any Hollywood studio to produce the film. He raises half of the money from European investors and sets out to Spain to shoot the film for $32 million. Filming at a less than an ideal budget is a scenario familiar to most documentary filmmakers. Gilliam faces similar tradeoffs and compromises that many low-budget doc-makers face.

Filming under budget means a director has less time or no time for rehearsal. Less rehearsal means more time on the set to get the acting and dialogue right. Selecting French actor Jean Rochefort to play Don Quixote makes sense for the European investors who need a hook to get the film into French cinemas, but Rochefort speaks shaky English. We are told that he started to learn English just to perform his part. All this contributes to problems on the set from the start.

Filming under budget also means crew and actors get paid less. Less payment means less commitment. Johnny Depp, who will play Sancho Panza, makes clear from the beginning that he has an extremely tight timeframe for the shoot between other film commitments and cannot extend under any circumstances.

Further, filming under budget means that the shooting schedule is extremely tight and must be executed as planned. There is no room for unexpected events, accidents or emergencies.

Fulton and Pepe select the crucial moments in the six days of shooting to document the challenges facing the production. We see Don Quixote riding his horse in a desert landscape. We soon learn that this landscape is located next to a NATO airbase, something one would think could have been identified during the location scout. On almost every take, a NATO fighter jet speeds through the sky, drowning out dialogue. The film crew spends most of the day on the rocks waiting for silence.

The next day, clouds make their appearance in the sky and turn into a severe thunderstorm with such a heavy rain fall that the crew has little time to hide in cars and secure the equipment under plastic sheets. The equipment gets flooded anyway and the next two days are used to restore it. Back on the set after four days of unsuccessful shooting, Jean Rochefort screams in pain as he unmounts his horse. It turns out that he has prostrate problems. He flies out to Paris to consult his doctor. Gilliam still hopes that the production can resume to shoot scenes where Rochefort is not needed, but soon learns that Rochefort is under doctor’s orders not to get back on a horse. Without their star, the insurance and the investors close the production down.

As we see the puppets get packed back into their boxes, we ask ourselves if everything can be blamed just on unforeseen forces that brought the production down. That is the argument Gilliam uses to convince the insurance company who has to come up with the lost money. But we have to wonder whether his unrealistic planning was also a major factor in the equation. Is it possible to act like a Hollywood director without having Hollywood behind you?

Fulton and Pepe do not get into details here because they have found a new story for their documentary. Just as Gilliam’s heart breaks over the loss of his dream, so too does the heart of the audience who had invested our hopes in the film being completed. What started out as a “Making Of” documentary found a new life as an “Unmaking of” documentary. A man dreams the impossible dream and finds invisible forces – many of his own making – block his way. Only the man is not Don Quixote, but Terry Gilliam.

When all is said and done, LOST IN LA MANCHA has two lessons for documentary filmmakers:

* Pay attention to what is within your control. Plan carefully to make your production a success. A low budget is not an excuse for poor common sense.

* Pay attention to what is outside of your control. The story you want to tell may not be the one which wants to be told. As you document what unfolds, go with the flow and you may find a new, even more powerful story.

© January 2007, Docs in Progress. Blogs and articles may not be reprinted without permission.