At the 17th Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina, which ended last weekend, several nonfiction industry bigwigs gathered for a series of panel discussions called the A&E IndieFilms Speakeasy (moonshine was actually provided, perhaps to loosen up the speakers’ inhibitions). Top programming executives from A&E IndieFilms, POV, CNN Films and Al Jazeera America as well as funding specialists from the Catapult Film Fund, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Tribeca Film Institute and Indiegogo shared advice with attendees about how to get funded and go the distance in today’s competitive documentary environment. Read our full report from the festival here.
Here are the 7 top takeaways for documentary filmmakers:
1. Think commercial—if you want to attract a big broadcaster.
The major documentary broadcasters—HBO, A&E, CNN Films, Al Jazeera—are all interested in films about social issues, but projects need more mainstream elements in order to get primetime attention. As A&E’s Molly Thompson said, “We look for ways to hide the aspirin in the apple sauce.” Because A&E focuses only on 2-4 projects a year, all aimed at theatrical distribution, the company’s documentaries—”big, splashy and character-driven,” according to Thompson–have some of the highest budgets in the space. With more slots to fill—approximately 10—CNN Films’ Courtney Sexton said the company’s new documentary unit wants films with “commercial appeal to a wide audience”—the kind that can spark discussion across CNN’s programs. Al Jazeera America’s Cynthia Kane called for “timely, relevant social issues documentaries that can open up the conversation.”
2. Beware of the competition (the odds are against you).
As you might expect, documentary funders and broadcast outlets receive thousands of submissions — so it’s easy to get lost. P.O.V’s Cynthia Lopez said they get about 1,200 submissions each year for approximately 36-40 slots. The Tribeca Film Institute’s Ryan Harrington said they receive about 2,000 submissions (of those, 45-50 will get some support). Statistically, that means only about 2-3% of projects get funding. With odds like that, said Lopez, “You need to look at your business model very carefully.”
3. Find the right development money for your project.
If the chances of finding funding may be stacked against you, there is money to be had from a variety of different funders and foundations, but look closely at which funder is the most appropriate for your particular project. TFI, which looks for “good films that happen to be docs,” according to Harrington, has an annual funding budget of about $2 million (which is shared between documentaries, narrative films and cross-platform projects). The Catapult Film Fund provides up to $20,000 in start-up money, helping to get documentaries off the ground. The National Endowment of the Humanities, which focuses only on non-profit projects that “educate the public,” according to the NEH’s Chrissy Cortina, will offer up to $70,000 for films at the development stage and $450,000 for projects in production.
4. Know when to apply for what money.
Funders aren’t exclusive, as one can see from the number of different entities often attached to documentary projects. And some funders would prefer to be approached early on, while others prefer to be approached later in the process. For instance, filmmakers might go first to the Catapult Film Fund, which helps develop a more thorough pitch and clip reel, and then take that material to the Tribeca Film Institute for production funding, and then take that more complete package to a broadcaster.
5. Story matters.
When pitching projects, it’s about the story, funders seem to universally agree. A cool premise isn’t enough; it’s how that premise unfolds into a compelling three-act narrative — ideally, with a compelling character to carry the story. “Documentary filmmaking is creative storytelling,” said TFI’s Harrington. “My biggest pet peeve is when a filmmaker tells me why I should care about the story, rather than convey the story itself.”
6. Use video footage to sell your story. And make sure it’s good.
Because documentaries are a visual medium, pitches should include video clips or visual material that shows funders what the project looks like. If you haven’t shot anything, look for preexisting footage—on YouTube or elsewhere—that can give funders a sense of what your characters look like and how they appear before the camera. And if funders ask for 7 minutes of footage, “Don’t send a 3-hour rough cut,” said Harrington. “This is your chance, and you should put your best foot forward: Show how unique your character is. Show how unique your story is.” According to Indiegogo’s Kristen Konvitz, the pitch video is also the most important element of a crowdfunding campaign. “People don’t read,” she said.
7. Don’t forget to follow up.
Particularly when it comes to working with funding organizations, whether the NEA or TFI, don’t be afraid to talk to a human being about your project. The NEA’s Chrissy Cortina said she frequently tells applicants whether their projects are suitable or not, and what they can do to improve their proposals. And if your project is rejected, they’ll consult with you on why it was passed over and may even offer further consultation. Unlike film festivals, which simply reject you without explanation, funders will frequently cast you off with a more gentle, helping hand.