5 Tips on Documentary Grant Writing From the Pros
Show us the money!
For many filmmakers, “grant writing is a necessary evil,” says Jenni Wolfson, Executive Director of Chicken & Egg Pictures. No one is pretending it’s fun, but since many of us consider it part of a fundraising strategy, it’s important to know how best to approach the task so we can benefit from the time and effort we put into it.
We joined funding specialist Tracie Holder, Jenni Wolfson, Iyabo Boyd (of Brown Girls Doc Mafia), and moderator Michael Gibbons of Creative Capital at DOC NYC 2018 to get some insights on the topic.
There are many approaches to fundraising for documentaries, including finding equity investors, donations from individuals, crowdfunding, house parties, and self-financing. While the applicant pool has grown and the odds of getting a grant are low, here’s what the panel shared can help you nab the coveted awards.
“We’re working in a visual medium and grants have to come off the page so that the person reading it can imagine the film in their mind's eye.”
1. Don’t forget that we’re storytellers
“We’re working in a visual medium,” says Holder, “and grants have to come off the page so that the person reading it can imagine the film in their mind's eye.”
Wolfson shared that some of the qualities Chicken & Egg Pictures looks for in its applications include why a filmmaker has chosen to tell a particular story, why she is the person to tell it, and how she is going to tell it. She says her team is also concerned with the style of the film, what’s revealed, and what the story arch is. “How is it building on previous films that are out there?” and “What is the story we can’t stop thinking about?” she asks.
Chicken & Egg is unique because the filmmakers it funds have to have at least a 50% female film team to qualify. On top of that, Wolfson says, they’re concerned with “putting together a cohort that is diverse and represents a lot of different perspectives. We’re looking at race, class, sexual orientation, disability, geography, age, etc.” Having checked all those boxes, sometimes it’s the films that inspire the funders with an emotional or visceral reaction that win them over.
For Holder, who has been on both sides of the grant writing table, preparing a grant has become part of her creative process. “I have to clarify for myself what my story is,“ she says, and then she’s able to write successful applications. Viewing it this way also adds value to what could otherwise be seen as a futile practice to some. Having a clear story map is helpful to have regardless of the grant outcome.
“Funders can’t just fund the best films they’re seeing, they have to fund films that align with their mission."
2. Know the funder
According to Holder, us filmmakers are often so caught up in our own worlds and needs that we can neglect to take the vital step of really researching and knowing who the funders we go to are. ”Know the funder to whom you’re applying,” she says. “Funders can’t just fund the best films they’re seeing, they have to fund films that align with their mission. You have to make the case that you are the best thing that’s ever happened to them and that you’re aligned with their mission.” One way Holder finds funders appropriate to her film’s subject is to skip to the credits of films like hers to see who funded them.
There are also several useful online sources that collect and share info for all the current, upcoming, and past grants so you can read the descriptions and decide for yourself which are a match. Wolfson shared that the best resource pages include POV, IDA, and Doc Society.
“If you’re not getting no’s, you’re not asking enough."
3. It’s a numbers game and you have to put yourself out there
“If you’re not getting no’s, you’re not asking enough,” says Wolfson. In other words, expect and accept that getting rejected is part of the process. “Every time you send out a grant I think of it like planting seeds,” shares Holder, "even if you don’t get funding, you get on the radar.”
If a particular organization does not fund you on one round, it doesn’t mean that you’ve wasted your time applying. The funding world is “a small space” says Holder, where many “funders know each other. Building your network of relationships is critical.” You can do this by joining and attending film groups in your area, going to film industry events such as festivals, workshops, and pitches and then following up with an email or social media ping when you meet new people. Wolfson adds that it’s important to talk to everyone on the team, not just those in charge of a fund. “It’s often the most junior person doing the first [grant] rounds,” so don’t ignore the assistants thinking others will have more clout, or people may notice and remember this when it comes time to judge your application.
The doc field is unique in that it’s a world where many filmmakers know and help each other.
“We’re rooting for each other, and there’s a generosity of spirit which cuts down the isolation” of making documentaries, Holder offers. Not only is it important to meet potential funders, but also to know your fellow filmmakers. There are many helpful filmmaker groups with international chapters that you can join, such as Film Fatales (for female directors), The Video Consortium, and the D-Word.
While the panelists disagreed about whether filmmakers are more likely to get grants if they are already on the funder’s radar, they did agree that it can’t hurt to consistently be building these relationships. “Fundraising is all about relationships and all about confidence,” Holder shared. And while Wolfson said that Chicken & Egg has funded projects they didn’t know about until they applied, all were in agreement that the human tendency to be more comfortable going with something familiar and vetted is still at play here.
In short, it’s not usually enough for filmmakers to only do the creative work of making the film; who they are as artists and people is also under consideration when money is awarded. While you have to have talent and a clear plan, meeting people, staying in touch, and being a good person can also get you somewhere in the field.
Grantors want simple clarity and they need to trust that a filmmaker knows what they are doing. They’re investing in you, after all.
4. Get clear and inspire confidence
To write a powerful, effective grant proposal, Boyd says that “the writing has to distill the greater meaning of the film. It’s about transcendence. What is the audience member going to take away at the end of the day? What is the thing that gets you in the gut?”
A tip she offers is to start with the skeleton, or the core, of the film and then build. “You don’t need fancy language,” she says. Just be clear. In her own experience as a reviewer looking at 100s of applications, she says that funders, facing stacks of papers, are “looking for a reason to say no.” Grantors want simple clarity and they need to trust that a filmmaker knows what they are doing. They’re investing in you, after all.
“Who are your main characters? What’s the arc? Why are you telling the story?“ Boyd says, are some of the simple questions filmmakers should address to avoid confusion. Another core issue all the panelists cited is that filmmakers should be careful to clearly connect their work sample to their written application, as they really represent two halves of the whole. If there is a shot you don’t yet have but you plan to get, you should say this, or if there’s a thread that seems unrelated, talk about why you put it in there and how it will connect to your greater story. “Filmmakers need to connect the dots themselves,” she says, and don’t leave that to the funders who may be seeking reasons to reduce their options.
Film funders “need to know you’re going to get this film made come hell or high water."
5. Anticipate every question
Part of researching a potential funder is getting to understand their concerns and proactively addressing them in your application. For example, what are some of the variables that could arise for your particular film project? Is a particular subject cagey or difficult to pin down? Are you hoping to shoot in a dangerous area that requires special clearance?
Thinking about specific challenges and how you would deal with them will show grantors that you are looking at the bigger picture and have carefully thought out possible scenarios that could affect your production. Film funders “need to know you’re going to get this film made come hell or high water,” says Holder, and that should come through in your proposal.
If you’re an emerging filmmaker without credits to inspire this kind of confidence, you can work around this by including experienced people, such as advisors, producers, or an editor that will show you are getting guidance from others with a track record. Or, if you are making a film about a community other than your own, grantors look favorably on having an advisor or crew members from that community to ensure they are being accurately and fairly represented in your project.