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Abigail Disney Explains Why Documentaries Matter, and How to Get Them Funded

Abigail Disney Explains Why Documentaries Matter, and How to Get Them Funded

READ MORE: 10 Must-See Documentaries at DOC NYC 2015

At the opening address for DOC NYC’s “Show Me The Money” day,  filmmaker Abigail Disney discussed what it’s like getting funding for documentaries today, and provided a few tips on how to find money for your projects. Disney is a founder of Fork Films, has produced several documentaries, including “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” and “Hot Girls Wanted” and entered the directorial fray with this year’s “The Armor of Light.”

During the chat, Disney spoke extensively about her experiences with documentary film and her tips on how to find funding for them.

Her Goals with Documentary and How She Approaches the Medium

“I learned a lot from my first film, which was about Liberian women who call themselves ‘Peace builders.’ That’s a thing. You build peace. Peace doesn’t just lie there waiting for you to arrive at it, it’s something you build toward. I take very seriously what I learned from these women,” Disney said.

“I’ve taken a lot of my thinking into ‘Armor of Light.’ You have to go to the opposite side of the planet to the person who scares you most and who you think is the most opposite to what your value system is and you have to sit down with them and talk. That’s what we don’t do in this country. I decided that with love in my heart, I would go and I would talk,” she continued. “What came out of it, was this film, I really wanted to bring love and acceptance to people who I don’t think share any of my values. In fact, they do share your values, they just understand the implications of those values differently.”

“This is a magic power we have in our hands and how many people are using it to promote violence, to promote sexism, to promote racism and widen every chasm in our society?,” Disney asked. “That’s why I love doc makers because, generally speaking, we use it to narrow the chasms and to build bridges and foment love. That’s the philosophy I take with me into the films I make and the films I want to support.”

The Unique Power of the Documentary

“I always said, ‘I don’t do films,'” Disney said. “Now I want to punch myself in the face for that. In the meantime, I spent a lot of time organizing for women, and that means I dealt a lot with the grassroots. You watch the way systems change and you watch the way attitudes change from the ground up. There are films that are grasstops films. That’s not necessarily how I want to operate as a filmmaker.”

“What I saw when ‘Pray the Devil Back to Hell’ came out, was that I made this story because no one had heard this story and I was infuriated that no one had heard this story. These women had risked their lives and they deserved to be remembered. How many women have we forgotten that we should know about? At the time, I thought it would be a nice side effect if other people saw it and felt inspired, but I never realized that that would be the core of what happened,” she said.

Disney continued, “That film has been to 70-odd countries and I’ve personally taken it to 32. I’ve personally sat there and watched a whole group of people shift on their axes. In Congo, we had men approach us and say, ‘I always thought women were kind of worthless, but now I feel sort of differently about this.’ That’s 78 minutes! That’s not enough to change a person permanently, but boy, that’s a powerful moment in a life and in the life of these people. I thought, ‘My God, all this money I’ve spent on social change and nothing I’ve done has even come close to touching what this one film did.'”

“I slammed on the breaks and I threw it in reverse. I realized I had found something incredibly powerful.”

Documentary Filmmaking’s Money Crisis

“I did the math the other day, and in seven years, I’ve raised more than seven million dollars for films. So filmmakers, I feel your pain. I’ve sat across from someone and looked across the table and thought, “I am really making sense. I am really hitting it out of the park. How do you not see that you have to give me money?'” I want to grab them by the collar and shake them!,” Disney shared. “I understand that this is a very frustrating business. We have a problem of not enough money. We need to talk as a community about how we bring money into this.”

“When I started raising money for ‘Women, War and Peace’ in 2008, a lot of the funders were leaving the space. They would say, ‘We don’t believe in docs anymore. We don’t think it makes a difference,'” she continued. “Part of that is their problem, they’re too addicted to measurement. That’s a problem in philanthropy that we have to work on. Part of that is also that we need to make our case better to other funders as a group, to create a better, healthier ecosystem.”

Disney said, “We need to go to philanthropy conferences. The Clinton Global Initiative should have at least one plenary session on film and social change. They need to sit down in front of that plenary and all those billionaires and say, ‘If you want to systemically change the world and make paradigm shifts, this is where it happens.’ We need powerful allies, we need a TED Talk. We need to go where the billionaires are.”

How to Find Backers for Your Film

“So you don’t know any billionaires, I know. Etiquette is a bit of a problem but button-holing someone up the hallway is a great thing to do. Button-holing someone is a good idea, go to a place where a funder is talking and go up to them. However, if you’ve button-holed someone and you’re not resonating with them, let them go. Let them leave. It only works if there is a reason for it to work,” Disney said.

“Finding people who resonate with what you’re trying to do is important. Try and find someone who has a connection to what you are doing and broaden who you’re looking at, try to be imaginative in that. If you look at other films that are in the same vein as your film, watch the credits all the way to the end. Read every name. Screenshot them. Do whatever you can do and research those people. They can really help you, not just in writing you checks, but in connecting you and introducing you to people. Try to find networks with people who resonate with your issue, not just the usual film funders,” she continued. “That’s where a lot of interesting support comes from.”

The Importance of Polite Persistence

“I don’t give up on a funder until they’ve said the word ‘no’ to me. I’ve nodded politely to all sorts of dodges or what have you, but I will not let them off the hook till they’ve actually said no to me. You’d be surprised how much money you can get from a person who just wants you to go away,” Disney shared. “They will pay you money to leave them alone.”

“I think that polite persistence is a really important trait because it comes from passion. You really have to believe in what you’re doing. It is a convincing quality. If you find a way to convey that in whatever you write and whatever you say, that make a big difference to a funder,” she advised.

What Producers Like (and Dislike) in a Filmmaker

“I’m not interested in filmmakers who are just making a film and moving to a new one,” Disney said. “That is why funders lost interest in our sector to begin with. They saw the kind of production line quality that was happening. Films have very long tails. I am still screening ‘Pray the Devil Back to Hell.’ You can make a good film that has a real resonance and changes people’s hearts and plays forever.”

She continued, “If you walk away from a film before it’s mature and before it’s had a chance to make that difference, then what has become of all that hope of social change that all those funders who paid for your film were coming on for? In my filmmakers, I want to see that they are committed and that they’re walking this thing out as long as they possibly can.”

READ MORE: Attention, Documentarians: 8 Essential First-Time Filmmaking Tips From Kirby Dick, David Thorpe and More

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