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.
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.
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.
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.