June 20, 2019

Want to Fund Your Documentary Film? Here Are Some Tips

Oregon Doc Camp 2019
What happens when 75 documentary filmmakers gather in the woods of Oregon to talk about funding? 

Funding and fearlessness was the central theme of the 6th annual Oregon Doc Camp, held at Silver Falls State Park in Sublimity, Oregon from May 30-June 2. As more than one attendee joked, you’ve got to be fearless to raise money for a documentary film.

“All independent film is inherently entrepreneurial. If you’re going to do this for any length of time, you’ve got to get better at figuring that out, at least for the long term,” said award-winning filmmaker Laura Nix (Inventing Tomorrow, Walk Run Cha-Cha) in her keynote address.

Nix, along with Doc Camp’s other expert guest presenters, dispensed funding and distribution tips throughout the weekend retreat.

Below are some of the key takeaways from the weekend’s panels, presentations, and discussions:

Do Research Before Your Crowdfunding Campaign

It may seem like an obvious tip, but you'd be amazed at how often people underestimate the time and energy it will take to raise money for their film via a crowdfunding campaign. Filmmakers should schedule about six weeks to prepare for the launch of their crowdfunding campaign, according to Liz Cooke-Mowe, Directory of Documentary film at Kickstarter.

Determining the funding goal is often the trickiest part of a campaign. Filmmakers should consider their outreach strategy before setting a number. “Once you have a sense of the scope of that and the landscape of what your possible network and audience will look like, that will better inform what the number is,” said Cooke-Mowe.

Cooke-Mowe advised filmmakers to “err slightly on the conservative side" when setting a campaign goal and to remember that "there is no one right number that works for every project. I wouldn't trust anyone who tells you they know for sure what the right number is. You can make an informed choice on it, but that's the best you can do."

Filmmaker Iyabo Boyd, who has run several crowdfunding campaigns, advised looking at other similar projects on the site in order to see what they offer for backer rewards and how they've managed outreach. Boyd said that crowdfunding is “a dynamic process” because it enables you to see in real time where your pledges are coming from. “If you’re not getting any pledges from Twitter, for example" Boyd said, "then stop spending time on Twitter. Personal e-mails was where we got most of our pledges.”

If you want your project to be highlighted by Kickstarter, Cooke-Mowe said that you should create a compelling video. “You don’t have to have a project video, but you sort of do," she said. "It doesn’t have to be super-slick, but if your project video sucks, what’s your film going to be?"

"If your project video sucks, what’s your film going to be?"

Treat Grant Proposals As Their Own Separate Project

Having previously held positions at First Look Media, Kickstarter, Good Pitch, Chicken & Egg Pictures, Tribeca Film Institute and IFP, Boyd shared her insider funding knowledge with Doc Camp attendees. She advised filmmakers to treat the grant proposal and any footage they submit as its own separate project. “It’s got its own language and visual communication. Most funders aren’t filmmakers so they don’t always understand the kind of things you think are really clear,” she said. Boyd, who is also the founder of Brown Girls Doc Mafia, suggested that filmmakers should “get a sense of what a specific funder likes to see by talking to filmmakers who may have been funded by them.”

It's important that the writing and the visuals in the proposal align. “Funders are thinking ‘I just got 1,000 applications for 3 grants. How do I say no to 997 people?’ In your application, you want to remove as many barriers as possible," said Boyd. "Ask yourself: Did I spell check? Does this thing make sense?”

Most importantly, Boyd said, filmmakers should remember that funders are “looking for any angle, a different way into something they may have seen before. If you have something unique, singularity is always the golden ticket.” Then tell the funders why you are the right person to make this particular film. “Finding that personal connection is huge.”

Ingrid Carlson, grants officer with the Regional Arts & Culture Council, which serves the Portland tri-county region, reminded the filmmakers to spend more time researching the right grants for their project than filling out applications. 

"Like it or not, grant funding and the evaluation of people’s projects, is subjective. You’re going to put your best foot forward in the grant applying cycle, but you’re not going to know if the right people are in the room who get it," said Carlson.

Oregon Doc Camp 2019
Oregon Doc Camp 2019Credit: Jan Sonnenmair Photographer

Remember to Raise Money for Distribution 

So often, filmmakers focus all of their fundraising efforts on getting the film made and neglect to consider the cost of distribution. "There's not a filmmaker out there who doesn't hope for the golden ticket - a spot at Sundance and an A24 deal," said Mia Bruno, a distribution consultant and impact producer. But, of course, winning the so-called golden ticket is a rarity - and even then, it requires work - and maybe even money - on the part of the filmmaker. 

"More and more filmmakers are understanding that the distributor is a partner," said Bruno, who recently worked on documentaries such as 306 Hollywood and Meow Wolf Origin Story.

"Most distributors are going to do exactly what they're telling you. If they're not offering money upfront, the marketing is going to be on you." Bruno urged filmmakers to "be as engaged in your distribution as you are in your production." In order to make money, you often need to spend money on marketing and publicity. "To be a filmmaker is to be right and left brained. It’s not just about the art. It’s about the business and you’ve got to be artful about the business," said Bruno.     

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Thanks for the great tips!

June 21, 2019 at 10:11AM

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