Learn the Art of Film Grant Writing with Oden Roberts
This is a guest post by Director, Writer, and Cinematographer Oden Roberts.
Mantra: Grant writing is not filmmaking. Once again: Grant writing is not filmmaking. It’s scholarly, tedious and political. Repeat mantra.
A few years back I began the arduous process of submitting my feature script A Fighting Season to the San Francisco Film Society for their prestigious KRF narrative production grant. The process, in a nutshell, parallels the scholarly disciplines guided by the Little, Brown Handbook than the craft I’ve been become familiar with known as “Indie” filmmaking.
As a screenwriter, you are rarely faced with long-winded explanations of who you are, but rather, you evoke with short concise keystrokes who your character is and build arcs connecting their journey and their conflicts. You are rarely faced with unabashed self promotion until you are actually in the cold confines of an air-conditioned conference room with 3 slacked-jawed development executives staring you down as you wait for their response: “Green light” or “What else do you have?”
With a grant, it’s all about your voice and who you are -- not your heroic tale. The screenwriting in some ways becomes secondary. The story of you, the person behind the project, becomes the focus. Grant committees are looking for original voices and groundbreaking social justice stories. They are the milk and honey of us, the “political” types, who shoot movies for social change (the ones the studios often avoid in fear of political upheaval).
The grant committees are thinking, "We want that voice of yours to make the changes we believe in," but they still make you fight to have it heard. It’s a weeding out process. They want to see if you’ll last, if you’re serious about your own success, and that you’re telling a story that will impact people on a higher level. The process takes months, if not years, considering most grants are annual or bi-annual. You're hit with many questions like, “How will your film impact or raise social justice issues?” or “What is success as defined by the politics of your subject?” What seems like easy answers sitting snug in 500 word limits, sometimes barely squeezes in, and other times, you draw a blank as to what they are really asking you. You might, as I did, apply multiple times before you even become a blip on their radar. Prepare for this. Reapplying is indeed part of the process and they watch what names come back. They too are in the practice of a good preseason scout of your film career and want in when you hit it big with a great idea.
Here are 7 simple rules to follow:
1. Make friends with the grant committee. They want to know you as a person, not just a name on the page. Basically, call until they sit with you. Don’t be a pest, but give them a reason to be invested in you, not just your project. Let them know what else you’ve done, why it should be this project and not your 15 million dollar sci-fi script. Show them your track record. Yes, you’ll need one.
2. You’ll need to present your project as having "impact." Grants are usually designed to support projects with social justice. So don’t waste your time with your sci-fi script (get the clue). They’ll say no every time. Let them know your film is an original story with a unique voice.
3. Attach some names. This is the bait on the hook. You might not be famous or have a career, but the commitment of an actor or producer that wants to jump on board once the funds are secured can make all the difference. Grants hold them themselves to a degree of not being affected by these cliché offerings, but remember, there are people behind those grant doors and everyone loves a name. It’s how this biz survives.
4. Know the politics. What kind of films are they looking for? How can you edge your project into the “it” stack? What kind of common ground and people do you know within the grant building? Sniff around, 7 degrees is more like 3 degrees on Facebook or LinkedIn.
5. Kill them with kindness. Nobody likes a poor sport. You will, as I did, be rejected the first several times. The rule of thumb is to finish the race. It’s a long haul. Show them you’re serious about the success of your film.
6. Submit and forget. Don’t pester them. Be patient. They’ll get back to you with their decision.
7. Have some humility. You’re gonna need it.
Although the landscape and notoriety of the SFFS has changed since I received my grant, the process is pretty much the same. With most grants, once they gain notoriety, the well might be tapped dry for lesser known filmmakers. They are a "business" at the end of the day, just like the studio system and peer funding. You must be persistent.
My advice, find the next big grant and remember grant writing is not filmmaking. It’s hard f*cking work.
Oden Roberts is a SFFS KRF 100k grant winner for his recently wrapped film A Fighting Season starring Lew Temple and Clayne Crawford. For more information about him, or advice on how to write a successful grant, visit him at www.odenroberts.com or email direct to firstname.lastname@example.org.