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How to Fund a Documentary: Eight Takeaways from the Film Independent Forum

How to Fund a Documentary: Eight Takeaways from the Film Independent Forum

Geared to giving up-and-coming indie filmmakers the tools they need to get their films made and seen, this weekend’s Film Independent Forum  provided many practical, business-minded takeaways. All the conversations at the documentary panels led back to the vital but soul-crushing topic of financing.  

Luckily the Documentary Case Studies panel with Frank Evers and Lauren Greenfield (producer and director of “The Queen of Versailles”) and Jennifer Chaiken and Jacob Kornbluth (producer and director of “Inequality For All”) approached the topic through two success stories, giving filmmakers a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel:  

1. Hang on to your rights. The panelists focused on the difficulties of scraping together production financing, but they agreed that it worked in their favor not to sign away any of their rights too early. It left things open for them creatively and allowed them to hold out for theatrical distribution.

2. You don’t always know if the lights are still going to be on the next day.  A patchwork of funding is the norm for docs, which means that you’re often financing each piece of the process as production goes along.  For “Inequality For All,” this meant scheduling shoots without knowing where the money to pay for it would come from, and balancing that fear with an unwillingness to make creative sacrifices for budgetary reasons.  

3. Making a movie about a buzzy issue helps.  Both “The Queen of Versailles” and “Inequality For All” went into development before the economic downturn, and didn’t start picking up buzz from investors until later on.  It wasn’t until Occupy Wall Street and the real estate crisis made “income inequality” and “the housing market” into buzz words that the films started to gain traction. (Leonard Maltin’s review of “Inequality for All” here.)

4. Pleasing your subject is important, but not so important that you give them approvals. Both films rely on vibrant characters (economist Robert Reich and billionaire trophy wife Jackie Siegel, respectively) to carry their stories, and benefited from the full-fledged support of those subjects, but neither gave their subjects any deciding power on the final product. Greenfield knew she was right to do this when Siegel looked back at the film and said the only thing she’d change was that she would have worn make-up in every scene. (TOH’s interview with Greenfield is here.)

The FIND Forum also featured a “Fund That Doc” panel, featuring John Lightfoot from The California Documentary Project, Lisa Kleiner Chanoff from the Catapult Film Fund, Luis Ortiz from Latino Public Broadcasting, Rahdi Taylor from the Sundance Institute, and Michele Turnure-Salleo from the San Francisco Film Society.  Some of their takeaways are below.  

1. Doc funding is competitive, but also democratic.  But also really really competitive.  These organizations fund on average less than 5% of the applications they receive.  However the panelists went out of their way to emphasize how democratic the process is, that it’s not about who you know or what you’ve done, but how good your end product is going to be.  With that said, experience does make a difference because it’s evidence to your ability to get the job done. Basically: good luck, young filmmakers, you’re going to need it. 

2. There’s no such thing as free money. Sundance and the SF Film Society demand that all their fundees come back and serve as mentors, a practice that Turner-Salleo pointed out was often viewed by filmmakers as too much work.  The SFFS looks at the long view of a relationship with a filmmaker and developing that talent.  And while it’s not true for any of these particular funders, many organizations attach their money to deliverables, rights, or recoupments.  

3. Many funders are trying to be catalysts.  When deciding who gets money, grants givers often focus on who the money would do the most for.  They want their money to cause a project to gain momentum.

4. Ultimately, the end game is getting as many good, worthwhile stories and talent out there as possible.  For these panelists, the most important return on investment was telling a great story that needed to be told. 

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