Thursday, June 17, 2010

Dollars for Docs: Foundations, Fiscal Sponsors and Government Agencies

by Michael Rose

Note: This was original published by the International Documentary Association in the Summer Issue of "International Documentary."

Used by permission of the author.

Money's been called the lifeblood of politics, and it's clearly a vital ingredient that also brings documentaries to life. No matter how brilliant your idea is, without funding, it's just an idea.

"Film is the most expensive art form under the sun--except maybe for opera," says Morrie Warshawski, author of the book Shaking the Money Tree: The Art of Getting Grants and Donations for Film and Video Projects. "The most important thing they never tell you in [film] school is, if you're going to make a film, you'll need thousands of dollars, and 80 percent of your time will be spent raising funds."

As you search for funds, you'll have to share your ideas with others, and that makes some documentary filmmakers nervous. "No one will steal your idea," assured Warshawski. "Why would they? It's too hard for you to do."

Funding your dream may not take millions, and you might be able to exhaust your credit cards, hit up your friends, borrow from parents, hold bingos, pawn your comic book collection or set up a PayPal account to accept donations on your website to make it happen. But you shouldn't quit your day job while trying to tap the funding mother lode. "It's not practical to make a living as an independent filmmaker, full time," says Warshawski, who has counseled hundreds of filmmakers over the past 25 years as a fundraising consultant and in his former role as the executive director of the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC). "You'll usually need a paying gig on the side, a spouse who supports your 'jones,' or an inheritance."

Burst bubbles aside, that doesn't mean you shouldn't suck it up and start looking. In addition to appealing to friends, family and neighbors, you'll want to investigate foundations and government agencies that are in the business of handing out money.

Corporations and wealthy individuals and families set up foundations for tax benefits, as well as to perpetuate--and sometimes burnish--their legacies, and to support projects and programs that best reflect the core values and mission of the given foundation. These charitable organizations are obligated by law to give away five percent of their holdings every year; the one hitch: typically, the IRS requires the money to go to nonprofits organized under 501(c)(3) guidelines. You can start your own nonprofit or become part of a fiscal sponsorship program at a nonprofit, such as the IDA, that allows grant-seekers to use the organization's tax-exempt status for a fee-usually between three and 10 percent of the funding you obtain.

Choosing the right fiscal sponsor is one of your first challenges, and it depends on the interests of the funders you are approaching. "Some want you to work with a fiscal sponsor that deals with films, and some want you to work with a fiscal sponsor that is knowledgeable about the subject [of your films]," explains Warshawski.

Some people have more than one fiscal sponsor, but you have to vet them. "You want one that is credible, one you can trust and one where your money isn't bigger than the organization's budget," says Warshawski.

Some supporters, like the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), don't fund projects submitted under the umbrella of a fiscal sponsor. It has "to do with the interpretation of the [governing] statute by the [agency's] general counsel," explains Ted Libbey, director of the Media Arts Division at the Endowment. It "had been allowing fiscal sponsorship but had to phase that out."

What this means for grant-seekers is that they need to find a 501(c)(3) organization that will act as the fiscal sponsor of the project while allowing the filmmaker to maintain ownership of it. In real-world terms, it's pretty much the same relationship you'd have with any other funder, but it's something you'll need to know before applying. You'll also have to think about whether this will work for you as you apply to other potential funders.

Finding a nonprofit to take you under its wing as a fiscal sponsor is important, but like any funder, you too need to define your mission and core values and dig deep to answer a very pragmatic question--Why are you doing this?--before you start. The most important thing to remember, according to Warshawski: "When you ask for money, the reason someone will give you money is because you exemplify values they value."

Once you've sorted out your mission, it's time to start shaking the money tree. In his day-long seminar held as part of IDA's Doc U series, Warshawski outlined some of the steps needed to navigate the foundation and government grant path.

One of your first stops should be the Foundation Center. It collects data on all US foundations, corporate and private, and makes this resource available through its computer database. The Center offers free classes and live webinars (recorded and maintained on its website) that help you get started, or you can go to one of the Center's Cooperating Collections--usually a university library--and ask one of the trained staff to help you start mining the database.

While the Foundation Center only has five offices around the country, it maintains a network of over 450 Cooperating Collections that have to meet the center's standards and provide someone to help you use their extensive online resources, according to Leeanne G-Bowley, manager of national training at the center.

This vast trove began to be assembled in response to the McCarthy era in the 1950s, when Senator Joseph McCarthy sought to uncover evidence of Communist sympathizers working in US corporations. Corporations and private foundations looking for a way to demonstrate their transparency started the center. "There's nothing to hide if you have ‘glass pockets,'" notes G-Bowley.

Today, the Foundation Center is a tremendous tool for anyone who wants to uncover who gets funding. There are a number of different ways to research who might be a funding source for your dream project. "You can search ‘film' or ‘arts' to see who supports documentaries," explains G-Bowley. "Or, you can go to look up related topics--the issues you're focusing on and who funds those subjects."

Once you've compiled a printout of possible supporters, you can do deeper research. Foundations must submit 990 Forms to the IRS, which track their record of giving; these are available at the center.

One longtime supporter of the media arts is the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which helps fund such programs PBS' POV, Thirteen/WNET's Wide Angle and the International Media Development Fund of the Independent Television Service (ITVS). The foundation also supports the Sundance Documentary Fund as well as news producers like National Public Radio (NPR), PBS News Hour, FRONTLINE, the Center for Investigative Reporting and LinkTV. In addition, the foundation supports nonprofit media organizations like Kartemquin Films, the production company behind Hoop Dreams.

"To reach the broadest possible audience, the foundation supports programs intended for national public television and radio broadcast," says Kathy Im, director of general programs at the foundation. "The funding range is generally between $50,000 and $350,000 for documentary films, and higher for series and programs."

What might not be readily apparent is at what stage the foundation likes to come into a project. "We primarily provide support when a documentary film project is in production, preferring not to invest in the research and development phase so that we may base our review on a full and detailed treatment of the film," says Im. "Sometimes we provide support for post-production, when a film is in the editing stage and we are able to see some representative clips from the film."

Government agencies are also a major source of support for documentary films. In fact, these grants are among the most generous--and this is one important area the Foundation Center doesn't track. The top three US government funders for documentaries-the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)--award millions of dollars to filmmakers every year. A large portion of the PBS schedule is underwritten by this troika. And the agencies increasingly fund programs that appear on other outlets such as the Smithsonian and National Geographic Channels.

Not only do these agencies fund individual programs but they also support tent-pole series like American Masters, POV and Great Performances. The agencies also fund numerous film festivals. "We support the ecology," explains Ted Libbey of the NEA, when describing why it support programmers and well as program producers.

The three government funders have supported documentaries that tackle subject matter ranging from Wild Bill Hickok and Annie Oakley to the Buddha, from dinosaurs to Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange. For more information about grantees, areas of interest and the process and deadlines for submitting a grant proposal, check the agencies' respective websites.

While each agency requires an applicant to submit a rather substantial proposal, assemble a knowledgeable group of advisers and work out a distribution and evaluation plan, "the upside is that they'll give you six figures and they're easy to research," says Warshawski. The downside is that the process will seem slow to any filmmaker full of burning passion to get underway on an idea. There are set funding cycles and the decision-making can take months--and you shouldn't be surprised if the answer is "No."

"It's very competitive and not for the faint of heart," admits Valentine Kass, program officer at the Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings of the National Science Foundation. "Competitiveness for our dollars is even greater than it was before. We're getting more proposals, and budgets are increasing, so we can't fund as many projects."

Being rejected doesn't mean you won't eventually get funded, or that you had a bad idea. When she was just starting out as a program officer at NSF, Kass once reviewed a proposal that she thought was "excellent"--but it was rejected by the decision-making panel. She read the panel's notes and agreed that the proposal needed work. When the disheartened producer called, Kass told him, "Here are ten things I think you should do." After the producer thought about it, he reworked his proposal and called her back and said, "I've done nine; is that enough?" She responded, "My advice is to do ten." He resubmitted the proposal, and it received the highest approval rating from the panel-and the project was awarded a grant. "He'd done 9.5," adds Kass.

"Some come back two or three times," she continues. But if you can't do it in three times, she encourages applicants to find another project.

The NEA gives out smaller grants than the NEH or NSF, but a filmmaker can come back again to get funding for successive stages of a project, explains Libbey. It's possible to be funded for research and development, come back for production, again for post-production and again for distribution--which is one reason the NEA gives out "a larger number of grants, but in smaller amounts than the NEH," says Libbey.

It's also possible to apply to both the NEH and NEA. "If you use the NEH and NEA, it has to be for different aspects, for different parts of a project," Libbey advises. To make your application to the NEH stand out, be clear about "what the story is, what the message is and what is the viewing public going to learn," says Thomas Phelps, director of the Division of Public Programs at the NEH.

Common mistakes Phelps sees are that the media team (producer, writer, director) is not ready, the proposal is not well written, or the story in the narrative treatment and proposed shooting script "don't match." Libbey sees proposals with missing elements such as rights clearances for music and film clips, as well as unrealistic schedules and budgets that don't hold up to scrutiny. Having a complete application is critical, he maintains.

While pursuing and securing a grant from one of these government agencies is an arduous and lengthy process, it can open doors to other foundations. The program officers talk to their counterparts in the private foundation world, many of whom see this as a vetting.

Several of these foundations have turned to the Sundance Institute to manage the funding process for them. The Soros-funded Open Society Institute "came to Sundance [in 2002] because they didn't want to reproduce a film organization," says Cara Mertes, director of the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program. The success of this collaboration led to partnering with the Skoll Foundation for its social entrepreneur efforts and to a short-film initiative with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

These alliances have helped Sundance nurture stories others might overlook. Mertes looks for "the most important, relevant, creative, most under-heard stories." Her program attracts approximately 2,000 proposals annually, of which 40 to 50 eventually receive funding. She thinks three times that number merit funding, but her budget won't allow that yet. "We're seeing a lot more really great projects," she notes. "We're living in an incredibly visual culture and the production quality of the projects is always improving." The increase in production values is combined with a growing interest in documentaries. "There is a great willingness to share these stories--a hunger to understand, to find commonalities," Mertes maintains.

Other media arts organizations like Sundance have been supporting documentaries. On the East Coast, the Tribeca Film Institute has partnered with Gucci to form the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund, which, according to its website, "provides finishing funds to feature-length documentaries which highlight and humanize issues of social importance from around the world." Cinereach is a New York City-based nonprofit film production company and foundation. Its grant program supports both documentary and fiction features that "possess an independent spirit, depict underrepresented perspectives, and resonate across international boundaries."

On the West Coast, the San Francisco Film Society, through its SFFS/Film Arts Foundation Documentary Grant program, provides post-production support for projects by San Francisco Bay Area filmmakers.

In the end, "Filmmaking is hard, finding money is hard, and you have to keep the momentum up," says Warshawski. "That's how you separate the people who are serious."

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Funder Road

Navigating the Correct Path to Packaging and Funding Documentaries

Published by “International Documentary” Summer 2010

by Mitchell W. Block

I am frequently asked by students and emerging filmmakers about how to fund their first documentary work, and it is evident that there is a disconnect between most of the film training programs and the field. Students and emerging filmmakers generally do not ask this question until they are well into production. This is a mistake. The process of selling a documentary (or fiction) work has remained unchanged since Edison and company first started cranking them out at the turn of the 20th century.

My first rule of production is, get funding before you start. It’s fine to start pre-production and casting without funding—put together your sizzle reel, see how your subjects present themselves on camera and capture material needed for your film. It’s not such a good idea to complete the production unfunded (or unsold) if one looks at the success rate of the 1,644 documentaries submitted to the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Only a few of those films have found or will find, distribution, and fewer still will ever make back their cost.

1) Begin with the Idea
The idea is everything with a film.

a) Determine if Your Idea Has Already Been Done

This can be as simple as looking on to see if a video or DVD is being offered that is similar to your proposed project. Use search engines, looking by both topic and concept, to see what is out there. Talk with broadcasters, festival programmers, distributors and others to see what has been made. They are all gatekeepers and have seen thousands of works and have a good idea of what is in production as well as what has been produced. For example, when I started researching CARRIER (a 10-part PBS series about life aboard the US Navy aircraft carrier USS Nimitz), I kept finding references to numerous one-hour programs about aircraft carriers and a handful of books. I viewed every work that had been made about the subject, and read all of the books that were available. None of the existing nonfiction media works were character-driven, multi-part series, or even one-offs. They were focused on jets and technology, not people. I needed to be able to know what other works were out there and how my work would be different.

A project that has been done repeatedly is hard to sell. Always try to avoid news-type projects, if you have to raise funds. Ideas that can be produced by shows like 60 Minutes or Frontline or on network news channels (CNN, BBC, Fox) are best avoided because these broadcasters will get their work out well before yours, and the market will be even more difficult to crack when your film is finished. It is terrible to go to a meeting and have a buyer say he already aired a similar show or is making a program similar to yours. Be sure your take on the content is unique. Talk to as many people about your idea as possible. The more enthusiastic the funders or buyers are, the more you know you are on to something.

Do not underestimate foundations, television programmers and distributors as sources of information and as evaluators of your ideas. They pay a great deal of attention to what is in the market, what is coming in and how projects have been received in terms of reviews, ratings and box office.

b) Get the Rights

You cannot pitch a show when you do not have the exclusive rights to shoot, or some aspect of the shoot that makes your approach exclusive. With historical projects that cannot be filmed as they take place, be sure that you have footage to sell the story. What will be on the screen? While Fair Use can work in some cases to allow the use of footage, do not put together a pitch based on Fair Use footage without first talking to a knowledgeable copyright expert. While some networks allow the use of Fair Use footage, others that are owned by a company that includes a studio may insist on works being cleared. Can your work be based on a book (or books) or a newspaper or magazine story? Can some aspect of your work be exclusive? A film dealing with recycling, for example, needs a way to differentiate itself from the dozens of works made about recycling.

Do your homework and be sure that you will have “characters” that are interesting on screen; that you will have access to the process (the race, the show, the rehearsals, the results, etc.); and that you can shoot censor-free, or almost censor-free. Try to not give your subjects the right to approve what is shot and edited.

Be careful if your funding makes it look like you’re making a sponsored film. For example, PBS closely examines the funding to be certain that the funder does not benefit from the project or even “appears to benefit” from a project. The same PBS standards apply to many nonprofit and for-profit sponsors of works aired on PBS. For example, a film funded by the Ford Foundation about a program they are doing in Africa will not likely be aired in PBS’ core schedule because the film could appear to be “commercial” for the foundation.

c) Build a Production Team

If you are doing a first film, you will need footage to show how great the material is and that a film can be made based on your idea, your selection of the character, etc. Nothing, however, can replace an experienced production team with strong skills in producing, directing, camera, sound and editing. While it is great to give emerging filmmakers a start, it is difficult to get a serious financial commitment from any funder for an inexperienced director. Production teams should have at least one senior person who has made a successful film or series.

d) Make the Sizzle Reel Simple

Do not over-produce a trailer. Show characters, story idea and perhaps even some of the story arc. Recently, we pitched a show using a commercial the subject had developed. This 30-second spot summed up the idea of the show. It was dramatic and inventive and it had cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. One of our consultants had found it on YouTube.

Another show was sold to a network based on a 20-minute edit of footage shot with the central character. Another was sold without any footage at all, but with a great original concept. An Inconvenient Truth was sold on the basis of Al Gore’s PowerPoint presentation, although it also helped to have a former Vice President of the United States as the central character.

e) What is the Right Length for a Project?

The best length is the one the funder wants. A short documentary film for Academy Award consideration cannot be longer than 40 minutes. Television prefers works that will fit into 30-, 60-, 90- and 120-minute slots. Theatrical features generally need to be over 70 minutes. If you finish your film before you sell it to a broadcaster or distributor, it is likely that you will have to fix the length to fit the time slot it will air in. An “hour” is sometimes 44 minutes and sometimes 57. Some hours have no breaks for commercials and others have has many as six. The pacing of a commercial hour on A&E is different from one on HBO or PBS. Logic suggests that it is better not to “finish” a work until you have sold it. With computer-based software, you can make the best film for your portfolio and festivals and then make the version that airs on television and meets all of the network technical specifications. Series are even better, if the material can support a series.

2) The Proposal

Once you have the rights to the idea locked, write up the project. All that is usually needed is few pages about the show. What will the look and feel of the work be? What is special about it? What will the story be? How will you tell it? A proposal needs only a few things:

A short treatment, focusing on one or more of the following: characters, the event, the narrative arc of the story

A statement about the nature of your exclusive rights and access to the story

Description of the team making the show

Information about archives or footage that will be licensed for the show (if it’s a clip show)

A summary budget and a detailed budget

Some letters of support

Articles, news stories and other printed materials about your show’s content to provide a funder with a sense of how current or important your idea is

Sample works by team members and perhaps some footage that you’ve already shot

This proposal is the starting point. Get the idea on a single page for setting up meetings and pitching. Try to liven up the type with pictures; still images are a great way to sell your show. Try to have pictures of people who might look like your characters if you don’t yet know who your characters will be.

3) Paying the Bills: Selling the Film

Sorting out how to fund your film begins with locking the idea. The idea’s content, approach and form will further define the markets for the work. Once the length is estimated, then the filmmaker has started on the path to funding, since length helps determine markets.

There are only four ways to fund any work; one or more of these sources funds every film:

Funding It Yourself. This is the classic independent film model—for example, Andrew Jarecki's first feature, Capturing the Friedmans. While this approach can speed the funding process, it does expose the filmmaker to all of the risks of production if the work can’t be sold to recoup the costs. Funding films with credit cards, second mortgages or your retirement fund is not a good idea.

From Buyers. Networks, theatrical distributors and others who use works to draw viewers to their sites, sell copies, products or theatrical experiences are the best funders. There are also a dozen international broadcasters that fund documentaries of American as well as non-US-based companies. Ultimately these gatekeepers complete the process of making films, since they provide access to the audience or viewers and are in the business of promoting, marketing and selling films. As stated earlier, they should be the first stop for the filmmaker, not the last. Examples include those funded by studios like Disney/Miramax (Earth), The Weinstein Company (Fahrenheit 9/11) or Lionsgate (The US v John Lennon); specialized entertainment entities like Participant Media (Food, Inc.; An Inconvenient Truth); and networks like HBO (When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts). Of the ten highest-grossing documentaries of all time (according to, only one work, An Inconvenient Truth, was not funded by a studio-distributor. None of the 656 remaining theatrically released films on the BoxOfficeMojo list grossed more than $12 million, and most of these works were acquired, rather than funded.

Sponsors are a different kind of buyer. They fund films in large part to enhance their company profile and image. For example, General Motors supported Ken Burns’ films for over a decade. These sponsors are critical for public television documentaries.

Other examples of corporate-supported work include long- and short-form music videos (paid for by the acts or record label); and giant-screen films for museum and tourist sites, of which IMAX is a leading longtime underwriter. IMAX films are also funded by the museums and sites.

From Investors. There are individuals and investors who feel that funding a film and then selling it makes sense. Private placements, finding investors and selling shares are all methods that can be used to raise funds. Be sure to check with a security or business lawyer to make sure your funding strategy does not violate state or federal security laws and that your deal is properly papered. While this method is both risky for the investors and difficult for the filmmaker––since only a small percentage of documentaries actually make a profit––it nonetheless seems to account for well over half of the over 1,000 documentaries that are submitted annually to Sundance.

This method of making films generates hundreds of workshops and seminars. The deliverable is a business plan, or something similar, and this method sidesteps the problem of getting “No’s” from buyers. Business plans don’t reflect possible failure, only possible success. But be sure to consider the specific strategies of your plan; simply planning to market the film via the festival circuit or your website doesn’t work in the vast majority of cases.

From the Public Sector. Foundations, sponsors and individuals that want to support a project or filmmaker can do so with grants and donations. Government agencies such as the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts fund films, as do many state-level agencies. Thousands of foundations and religious organizations also fund works. Unlike buyers or investors, who generally focus on the bottom line when it comes to documentaries, public sector funding supports the production of works that further intellectual, cultural, political or other objectives of the funders.

PBS, via the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), and PBS strands such as POV, ITVS, American Masters, American Experience and Frontline provide funding for documentaries. PBS itself (and PBS member stations) generally requires distribution rights or equity positions as a condition of broadcasting the works.

The “PBS-gets-to-show-the-film” model allows filmmakers to raise grants and other support that includes funding from for-profit entities, and then allows films to be aired. PBS is particular cautious about the nature of the funding and how it appears to relate to the content of the work (for example, an environmental work funded by a coal company would be difficult to clear), but the PBS schedule is heavily supported with films funded from outside of the network. This model works well with PBS when advertising budgets of for-profit corporations can underwrite programs, but filmmakers need to clear the funding sources with PBS prior to accepting funding.

PBS and other broadcasters often show films without paying for them or paying the fair market value of their production costs. Filmmakers should try to get PBS to pay and/or help raise funds for outreach (marketing) and consider retaining video rights as part of this kind of deal. While the CPB-PBS Challenge Fund, ITVS, POV and Independent Lens actually do require an outreach and marketing component as part of their respective support, this component is difficult for independent filmmakers to raise money for, given that they’re already struggling to find funds to cover production costs.

It is fine to mix for-profit support with nonprofit funding. For example, a film funded by a grant or a foundation can be shown and sold to commercial television (or cable) and distributed commercially in DVD. While some filmmakers choose to make their films within nonprofit structures, this complicates the ownership of the project. I do not recommend that the filmmaker own and operate the nonprofit producing the film, either, since this really complicates the filmmaker’s ability to end up owning his/her own film. I generally recommend that filmmakers use a nonprofit conduit to receive funding and pass the funds on to their own business for the actual filmmaking. This allows the filmmaker to keep ownership of the work and directly derive revenue from it.

4) You’ll Sell Your Show on the First Pitch if…

The whole package makes sense to the funder

Your idea fits the needs of the network, funder or distribution company

You’re talking to the right buyer—ie, the decision-maker at the company

Your project can be produced within budget limits

Your team has a solid record of achievements

If your show is not selling, it is probably because one or more of these areas needs to be fixed. In my workshop, Documentary Tune-Up, I focus on why a show is not attracting funding. Much of time, the work can’t be sold. It is better to know sooner rather than later. Most documentaries that are not pre-sold never sell, much the same way most screenplays for fictional features are never produced.

Finally, a work-in-progress is worth more than a finished work. Once the work is done, you lose any leverage you ever had when it comes time to price it, unless you have that one-in-a-thousand work that is going to make several million dollars theatrically or win an Oscar. Not a smart bet.


It has never been easy funding films or selling a finished film. While the financial entry barriers for character- or process- or event-driven documentary production now are really negligible, the difficulty of making compelling selections, getting access and having the skill sets necessary to produce a work is complicated. It takes a lot of talent to make a good film. Just as the advent of the word processor has not created more great books, the prevalence of the low-priced camera and desktop editing has not produced a flood of great films, just a flood of films. Unless a filmmaker wants to approach filmmaking as a hobby rather than as a business, it is imperative to consider the pre-sale of work as a prerequisite for a work being financially successful. Filmmakers need to understand that while the demand for documentaries is increasing, the funding for individual works is not. More channels means more buyers but fewer viewers and smaller acquisition and production budgets to acquire, since the audiences are smaller. It also is relevant that the buyers know they can buy completed works for less because the Sundance statistic shows there is an over-supply. The good news is that there is a shortage of great ideas. These ideas, if properly packaged and presented, will be funded.

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