One of the Largest Documentary Film Funds Is No More: What It Could Mean for You

2016 Macarthur Foundation documentary grantees
The MacArthur Foundation has discontinued its Open Call for Documentary Films, ending a fund that has supported over 300 films. But could this actually be good for filmmakers?

With its announcement today, the MacArthur Foundation has sent shockwaves throughout the filmmaking community. Having been in the field myself for over a decade, I have dozens of friends and colleagues involved in nonfiction production. Let me tell you, my Facebook feed hasn’t buzzed this much since Laura Poitras was detained at the U.S. Border for documenting the Iraq war.

Documentary filmmakers have a reason to feel anxious. As traditional funding opportunities continue to dwindle, the MacArthur Foundation’s documentary fund was one that seemingly could be counted on. Not only is it one of the country’s most well-established grants, but it is one of the most generous. In 2016, 19 grants totaling nearly $2.5 million were awarded. Its grants—which could be up to $200,000—dwarfed those of some of the other standbys such as the Sundance Documentary Fund and the Tribeca Film Institute, whose grants cap at $50,000.

The MacArthur Foundation is not leaving the nonfiction space entirely and, in fact, claim that these changes are intended to further the work of documentary filmmakers by supporting more partner organizations. An open letter to grant applicants explains:

We have been steadily increasing grant levels to Sundance Institute, Firelight Media, POV, Kartemquin and others, and we plan to establish new relationships with additional partners that fund nonfiction film and new media projects, provide training and mentorship, and assist with distribution, engagement and impact. By 2017, MacArthur's total investment in the documentary community is expected to be larger than ever.

Simon Kilmurry, Executive Director of the International Documentary Association, thinks that this change might bring about better days. “They say that they’re looking at increasing the fund’s overall commitment to the field,” he reflected on a phone call earlier today, “and they have been committed to this space longer than anyone. That’s a track record that I take seriously.” Kilmurry explained that one benefit of spreading the wealth among several organizations is that there will be more people making decisions about which projects get funded, and therefore, more diverse projects might get attention.

They say that they’re looking at increasing the fund’s overall commitment to the field, and they have been committed to this space longer than anyone. That’s a track record that I take seriously.
-Simon Kilmurry, International Documentary Association

However, the statements that MacArthur has released so far give no indication that those partner organizations will be mandated to provide the funds that they receive directly to filmmakers. And it was filmmakers, and the important films they made, who benefited from the open call in the past, and who will be most impacted by this decision either way. The fund has supported over 300 documentary projects, many of which launched the careers of some of our most prolific colleagues or touched audiences in significant ways. Funded films include everything from 2012 Cinema Eye honoree The Interrupters to two-time Academy Award winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple's Betrayal of the American Dream.  And could we envision a documentary landscape without Hoop Dreams, a 1994 MacArthur grantee?

Given how impactful the fund has been on the field, it’s hard to imagine that its absence won’t make as great an impression. What do you think? Is this move majorly damaging to filmmakers, or will it benefit even more people by being distributed through partner organizations?     

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3 Comments

I know I'm not going to shed a tear. They've funded some good projects but none that truly appealed to me or benefitted people from truly diverse backgrounds. I agree, that spreading it out will help some money reach those diverse projects.

March 4, 2016 at 5:01PM, Edited March 4, 5:01PM

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Justin Gladden
Producer
603

MacArthur just represents the death of another gatekeeper that did about as much harm as they did good.

Thanks to technology, we no longer limit the idea of, and ideas in, Documentary work, as it had been for the generation that relied on funding sources like MacArthur.

March 6, 2016 at 3:19PM, Edited March 6, 3:19PM

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The sad part about partnering is it now means you must produce to a "lower common denominator" which usually also means "what they decide is 'appropriate' or needed".

There are probably several thousand "documentary" film makers out there all covering the exact same set of "under-served/under-represented" groups: women, LGBT, and minorities.

With so many people "addressing the needs of these groups" one has to ask: "Are they really under-represented?"

March 7, 2016 at 5:13PM

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Robert W.
243