Beg, Barter, and Strategize: 8 Tips From Doc Funding Experts

Leading doc film funders drop knowledge on how to apply for grants and the pros and cons of crowdfunding.

Every year, DOC NYC brings together industry giants with the goal of educating emerging filmmakers. This year's First-Time Doc Maker Day was a series of back-to-back panels covering a range of topics from funding to gear. On the Funding Fundamentals panel were Andrew Catauro, Manager of JustFilms at the Ford Foundation, Loira Limbal, Vice President of Firelight Media, and Kristin Feeley, Associate Director of the Sundance Institute. They spoke about launching yourself into the industry, the endemic issue of underpayment, and solidifying relationships. And they confirmed that the field of documentary is indeed, very, very small. 

No Film School checked it out, and here were our top eight takeaways. 

The Cinema Travellers
"The Cinema Travellers" was funded by The Sundance Institute.Credit: Cave Pictures

1. Get to know the landscape

"The first thing that I say to folks that are starting out is: watch documentaries." Limbal kicked off the panel.

"If you know in your heart of hearts that you want to make a film that could some day premiere at Sundance, look at the list of winners from the previous year and hunt those films down. Same with PBS: watch POV, watch Independent Lens." Watch these films, she said, to get a sense of what gets funded. "At Sundance they're looking for films that are cinematic and I think that's really the case across the board. Documentaries have really become much more cinematic, and have entered the popular sphere in a much different way." Limbal said she's surprised by just how few documentaries first-time filmmakers seem to be watching. 

"The first thing that I say to folks that are starting out is: watch documentaries."

Catauro added that you should not only watch the films, but also make sure you stay for the credits. "Make case studies for yourself of films that are similar to yours. Not necessarily in artistic approach, because that's all you, but if you're trying to lay out a plan for how you're going to get your film funded," he said, the best way is to see which foundations are credited, and to "talk to the filmmaker." 

"There are so many filmmakers out there doing what you're doing," Carauro continued, and unfortunately there far fewer funders. "We are kind of hard to get ahold of, but if you talk to someone about how they made it work, that's kind of like a short cut." 

If you live in a smaller community where you might not bump into other filmmakers every day, he also suggested getting involved in online communities.

BRITDOC Resources
Credit: BRITDOC

2. Use online resources 

There are also several sites that are key to documentary filmmaking success. Two were displayed behind the panelists, and all three agreed they were the best. The first was BRITDOC, a non-profit resource specifically dedicated to "enabling great documentaries."

Catauro listed the benefits. "BRITDOC has a resource page for all kinds of things related to making your film. In the Fs they have all the crowdfunding places, some advice on how to asses them against one another, film funding calendars—not just one, but three." And for those really, truly just starting out, he showed BRITDOC's roster of important figures in the documentary field. 

The second resource was POV's calendar. "You can plug it into your own Google calendar and use it to remind yourself that if you don't send in an application, you're going to have to wait a year to approach that funder again," Catauro said. 

POV Calendar
Credit: POV

3. Know your story, maybe even more than your subject

In terms of what makes a strong proposal, Feeley first noted that there are many resources and more specific examples on the Sundance Doc Fund website. "But just broadly speaking," she continued, "you're crafting a story. It sounds cheesy, but it is story first." To craft a great proposal, Feeley recommended working with a grant writer. "We want to know how you understand your story path, and how you write that story in a precise way."

"It sounds cheesy, but it is story first."

Second to story is knowledge of your subject or issue area, she insisted. "I know it might seem like the other way around, if you're working with a social issue funder, but it is a film first."

The third most important aspect, Feeley said, is "your vision—who you are as a filmmaker." What does that mean, exactly? "That can range from: why you are inspired to make this film, why you believe it has to be out in the world, why you are the person to tell it."

4. Find the funder that's right for your film

"There's a difference between writing a grant application to a media funder versus putting a proposal together for an individual investor." Feeley noted. "When you're going out to an investor, they want to know that you have everything covered, that you can do it for $5, and that they'll make money on the return." 

It's not like that with media funders. They understand that filmmaking can be hard, and isn't necessarily about making money. So be honest on your application. "It does take a village, it takes multiple funders to get a film made, so we are actually hopeful in seeing that you are aware of the support that you need to move forward." 

BRITDOC Impact Field Guide
Credit: BRITDOC Impact Field Guide

"Every funder is looking for something different." Limbal said. "There are some funders who really care about artistry, and supporting artistic endeavors. And then there's people that really care about connecting with certain audiences or particular social issues." So, it's necessary to really consider where your film aligns.

"In terms of approaching social justice organizations who maybe have never funded a film before, it's like a third type of application." Catauro said of a less common type of funder. "You're not only explaining your vision (and leaving behind what you don't know), but you're also explaining how films work in the world." He suggested looking to the BRITDOC Impact Field Guide for the best language to explain your film's potential impact.

"We are actually hopeful in seeing that you are aware of the support that you need to move forward." 

"Within the public realm you have local humanities councils," Limbal added. "These are grants that I see emerging filmmakers often overlook." Don't just go straight for Sundance without bolstering yourself with local, more accessible, support, she urged. "What you end up doing is shooting yourself in the foot because you're not ready."

5. Don't apply before you're ready, and don't lie about being ready

If you're not ready, they can tell. Limbal reminded the crowd that each of the panelists reviews thousands of applications. 

Film fundraising has an arc, with three acts, she explained. "Research and Development funding is the first act, Production funding is the second act and Post-Production funding is the third act." So know where you are in the process. 

Film fundraising has an arc, with three acts.

"The gaps are going to be evident, the red flags are gonna come up." It's important, Limbal said, to consider your reputation in the industry when you write these applications. "Integrity is a part of that."

6. Focus on your relationships 

"I know that those [stages of funding] might be hard to asses when you're working on something for the first time, but that's why it's crucial to reach out to folks for help," Limbal went on to say. "Beg, barter, do whatever. Whether it's a friend or someone whose work you respect, someone you would eventually like to be a mentor." Ask for help. 

"Don't ask to pick people's brains eight times in exchange of a cup of coffee."

As representatives of foundations that care deeply about both filmmakers and social justice, all three panelists agreed that being gracious, and taking great care in your relationships, is a key factor to success in the industry.  

So when you're asking for help, "be respectful of people's time," Limbal cautioned. "Don't ask to pick people's brains eight times in exchange of a cup of coffee."

Weiner
"Weiner" was funded by The Sundance Institute. Credit: Weiner

The willingness to work for free or low pay came up several times throughout the panel, as a major issue within the documentary field. "For that to change, we have to change." The bottom line is practicing respect and reciprocity in all your interactions, Limbal urged. 

"The way that we move through the space is equally as important as the story that we're aiming to tell. It really matters. You see us nodding to each other up here and that's because we know each other, and we're in communication all the time. The field of funders, unfortunately, is not that large."

"Before you consider putting a line item for Impact in your budget, please consider putting in a line item for your director and producer."

7. Be realistic, not aspirational, with your budget

You can address this issue of free work within your budget. Feeley made a plea for prioritizing the filmmakers' time over things like "Impact."

"I would say really quickly, before you consider putting a line item for Impact in your budget, please consider putting in a line item for your director and producer." She continued, "because it's something that's an endemic issue in the field. For a myriad of reasons people don't necessarily calculate their time, or put money in there for themselves, and we do actually look at your budgets." 

"It's something that we as a field are trying to address, particularly for producers who are often the first ones to take themselves out of the budget. And if there isn't a change in mentality, it's going to be very hard to have a change on the other end."

In terms of Impact, Feeley explained, Sundance actually encourages an entirely separate budget. 

"I firmly believe that if your film is not a great film, it's not going to have any impact."

Limbal quickly explained what they meant by "impact" in this context. 

"It's how your film becomes a tool to support positive change. How is it used to reach, serve, engage audiences, mobilize and connect people. That can mean a range of things, it can be policy change that you're aiming for, it could be conversations and simply raising awareness, it could be very specific calls to action."

United Skates of America
"United Skates of America" was funded by The Sundance Institute. Credit: United Skates of America

Limbal added that they're of the same mind at Firelightthey too encourage a separate budget, and separate focus entirely, for impact. "We do think it's separate and don't encourage filmmakers to include impact line items in their production budgets. That's mostly because I firmly believe that if your film is not a great film, it's not going to have any impact. You have to make a really great film for it to matter. So it deserves its own attention, and as a first time filmmaker you have so many hurdles already."

Just because you don't include it in your budget, doesn't mean you can't mention it in your proposal, however. Limbal said, "if you have a really clear understanding of how this film can be impactful in the world, it never hurts to tell people that. I just think it's important to separate production funding from impact funding." 

 "The thing that's scary is that the majority of filmmakers going to their first festival might be putting that cost on a credit card."

Feeley reminded the audience that filmmakers will likely be taking on a lot of unexpected costs in terms of distribution, and may need to choose carefully how their money is funneled. 

"Talk to filmmakers who've had a film released in the last year to understand the hidden costs." She continued, "One thing we don't talk about is the budget that's required just to go to a film festival, just to get your film out in the world in some way that is unrelated to your social issue impact and engagement goals." Though media funders don't necessarily finance that portion of your release, they're aware that it's important. "The thing that's scary is that the majority of filmmakers going to their first festival might be putting that cost on a credit card."

8. Consider both sides of crowdfunding

The conversation turned to alternative forms of funding. Instead of public and private organizations, filmmakers often turn to crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, GoFundMe, and Seed&Spark

"I think that crowdfunding is definitely a great and here-to-stay tool for filmmakers." Limbal said. "It is particularly important and interesting because of the opportunity that it provides for filmmakers to connect directly to their audiences." Again, there's a serious emphasis on relationships. "These are communities of support that hopefully you can carry with you from project to project."

Bill Nye Kickstarter
Kristin Feeley cited "The Bill Nye Film" as one of the most successful Kickstarter projects she'd seen recently. Credit: The Bill Nye Film Kickstarter

"The campaigns that I've seen be successful," Limbal continued, "are the ones that are creative with bringing audiences and communities into the process, you're giving people access and a role that is meaningful and connected to the film."

However, the panelists cautioned that for a campaign for be successful, it must be strategic. 

"I've heard people suggest to take a few months, before you launch the campaign, to prepare yourself, to get together lists, and engage people on social media." Limbal continued in more detail. "It's almost like you have to plant people, you have to know that someone's going to give you that $2,500 donation on day twenty-two of your campaign, and that's already pre-arranged before you launch the thing, so you have a bump right at the campaign where you need it so people see that there's momentum and enthusiasm and feel excited and inspired to be a part of it."

"Ask yourself: are you ready to be out on social media?"

Feeley agreed that considering your timing and audience are key. She then added a final point of caution, "Consider that what you have out in the world as your crowdfunding campaign video, lives out in the world." For many documentary filmmakers, whose projects cover sensitive subjects, this could be dangerous. "Ask yourself: are you ready to be out on social media?"


See all of our coverage of DOC NYC 2016.

Featured image from  'Mudflow', which was funded by The Sundance Institute. Photo credit: Tracie Holder.

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2 Comments

Such a great topic, it's not needed to have money in order to make an exciting film or doc, but it is if you want to continue doing that as a career. I feel this subject is not talked about very often and I think in the Netherlands it's all about knowing the right people. Unfortunately for me, I'm still getting to know them I guess ;)

November 14, 2016 at 9:52AM, Edited November 14, 9:52AM

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Gerbert Floor
DP / Director / Camera / Editor
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Super awesome article. Really digs deep. Thank you. And yet I still have no idea what "impact funding" is? Will someone please give me a few examples of actual things I'm paying for that are considered impact? Like is it money to hire a social media person? Hire a PR person? Money for web hosting? What is the tangible thing I'm paying for.

November 15, 2016 at 9:46AM

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