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How to Fund Your Documentary: an IFP Masterclass with Louise Rosen

03.11.13 @ 3:23PM Tags : , , ,

It seems counterintuitive to shell out $100 or more to attend a fundraising workshop when you’re desperate for money to begin with, but if your entire fundraising strategy consists of “getting a grant from a top granting agency” in today’s climate, well it might be money well spent. Fortunately for us, IFP has uploaded an entire masterclass from 25-year-plus media executive Louise Rosen for us to watch, and we don’t have to pay a dime. What Louise outlines right off the bat is that the documentary funding landscape is in flux. Today, doc filmmakers have to get more creative, and Louise outlines just how to go about getting started on raising your budget incrementally in the video below:

Gone are the days when TV pre-sales could be counted on to offset documentary costs. Rosen points out that it’s important for filmmakers to understand that today, your budget will probably not be coming in one lump sum.

“There is no question that in today’s marketplace, funding is very incremental. It is relying on small building blocks being pieced together, one by one. There are very few large lump sums, and when they do come, they tend to be close to the end of your process. So the question is how do you begin establishing these building blocks? I would say you have to first look locally, and I don’t mean your Uncle Dan the dentist, I mean even the smallest historical societies, arts councils. You may start in $500 – $1000 increments and build your way up. But that is the way we all have to do it now. And you don’t need to apologize for it, because this all helps build your credibility, and that is the thing, ultimately, the critical mass of credibility that gets you to the next step, and the next step.”

Louise stresses the importance of researching who will want to watch your film, and she makes a lot of solid suggestions about how to strengthen your outcomes, with anything from attaching more experienced names to the project, crowdfunding, editing your film as a series, going to Pitch events and Meet Markets, and keeping up with people even if they rejected you and/or a meeting didn’t instantly result in a big fat check to cover your film’s expenses.

Thinking personally about my own experiences fundraising my first feature, I wish I had taken notice of a master class like this when I began.

Four years ago, I found myself walking down the I-395 on a hot and dusty day, my thumb outstretched sheepishly. Behind me were my three loyal crewmates, hauling our no-budget equipment as we hoped, in vain, for a car to stop and give us a ride to the German automobile repair shop where we might retrieve our 1976 VW ‘Production’ Van. Three days earlier, we had been driving across country in the world’s slowest vehicle, when — in a twist of fate – the van lost control speeding down a sustained incline. As we went careening down, the smell of burning rubber coming in through the vents, and sweat beads dripping down my face, I thought to myself, this is not fun.

I had spent what seemed like an eternity trying to fundraise from sources I felt at the time were the most obvious matches. (It wasn’t; they weren’t.) And when things didn’t go my way, I found myself doing what many documentarians do, forging ahead on no budget at all. Hence a crew in an old van for 30 days with no money. If I had followed a few steps Rosen outlines at the beginning of the process, I might have spared myself (and my crew) needless suffering.

A running tally of Louise’s lessons that I botched:

  • Bulk up your marquee with an experienced somebody.
  • Improve your pitch and written/visual materials.
  • Don’t take rejection personally.
  • It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.

With documentary, there is often an urgency to go out and capture a fleeting subject matter, which makes incremental fundraising all the more agonizing.

After nearly five long years, my first feature documentary is nearly in the can. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret anything; some of the people I interviewed back on our penniless road trip aren’t around anymore. In retrospect, however, it might not have taken this long to complete if I hadn’t done fundraising so bass ackwards. The unsettling truth is that many independent filmmakers will never make a second or third film because either it was so difficult or they find themselves still in debt from the first. That’s a sad thought.

What are your experiences with documentary fundraising in today’s landscape? Have any of you come back from a harrowing no-budget short or feature to make another? Do you think it’s worth it to pull out the credit cards when you can’t find any money for a project?



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  • Thanks for the link, I’ll listen to it while I’m on the road today working on my documentary. I’ve been working on mine for over 2 years and managed to do everything they tell you not do. I spent my life’s savings, racked some credit card debt, and didn’t start fundraising until 18 months into the project. I did manage to raise $30K on kickstarter, but now that money’s been spent and I’ve got another 9 months to go with no money and a credit card payment. And I regret nothing. This is my dream project and it only could have happened the way it did. It’s grown organically and has resisted any attempts I’ve done to control and plan it. I’m too passionate about this project to compare it to some idealized way that I should have done it. Will I do the next one differently? Of course. That’s the wonderful trial and error style of life and work.

    • You spent your life savings, racked up CC debt AND blew 30K of other people’s money…for a documentary? Oh my.

    • Oakley Anderson-Moore on 03.11.13 @ 7:17PM

      Hey Adam, you’ve made it 2 years and you’re still alive, so congrats! While I know many people who have blown similar sums of money on their passion project narratives, it does seem like documentary in particular encourages this. Something about the way the format often resists “attempts…to control and plan it”. I just finished the IFP Doc Lab, and was somewhat reassured that a fair amount of teams working on their first doc were in a similar situation. (Shared misery, yay.) Though I definitely intend on doing things differently the second time round…

      • I know it may not be the most popular article on the site, but I for one would love to read about your experience doing the IFP Doc Lab.

        • Oakley Anderson-Moore on 03.12.13 @ 8:49PM

          I learned a ton of stuff and id love to share! Even if it ain’t the raciest of entries…(although I could try?)

  • I’ve only heard about a half hour of this panel so far, but I’m really impressed. The knowledge she shares is absolutely invaluable for both new filmmakers and those who might be more experienced (because it’s hard keeping up in this ever-changing industry). Thanks for passing this along!

    • Oakley Anderson-Moore on 03.11.13 @ 7:22PM

      Happy to! Like you said, the industry is always changing, so I’m just happy when people who have been in the biz as long as Rosen are kind enough to let the rest of us know.

  • Thanks for passing on the video. I am currently in the process of crowdfunding my documentary, and with that I hope to raise enough to finish up the project. We still have a lot to do!

  • what will self taught filmmakers do without NFS and the likes of oakley A-m! Thanks for sharing.

  • Greetings–thank you so much for posting this invaluable hour of presentation! As an emerging filmmaker it was chock-ful of important tid bits that I scribbled down and plan to put into action. Very grateful for the share!

  • Hi everybody,

    Oakley, thanks for sharing this panel. I found this post and Louise’s presentation very inspiring and valuable. I will launch my own documentary on Kickstarter in one month or so, I am glad that I came across. I am grateful to you and NFS for this type of knowledge!