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Reality Checks: How Rich People Are Influencing the Documentary World

Reality Checks: How Rich People Are Influencing the Documentary World

Before documentaries made news headlines and set out to change the world, nonfiction filmmakers found funding through big foundation grants, public television, and friends and family. And while those sources still provide a steady source of doc financing, there’s a new game in town: “filmanthropists.”

In the last several years, an increasing number of high net-worth, often progressive-minded individuals have gotten organized, gathering together around the idea that documentaries can make a difference. As SnagFilms founder, multimillionaire (and Indiewire owner) Ted Leonsis told Indiewire in 2008, “Filmanthropy is finding these films that shine a light on a tough subject and activate discussion and charitable giving and volunteerism around a cause.”

READ MORE: Back and Forth with Ted Leonsis and Eugene Hernandez

And judging from the documentaries selected at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, filmanthropists are having a huge influence on what docs are getting made and seen.

Impact Media

Impact Partners, for example, supported six films that are heading to Sundance, including world competition titles “How To Change The World,” “Chuck Norris Vs. Communism,” “Censored Voices,” “Dreamcatcher,” and “Sembene,” and Kirby Dick’s Premieres entry, “The Hunting Ground.”

Founded in 2007, Impact Partners, headed by former documentary filmmaker Dan Cogan (“The Lifestyle”), is now made up of 39 investors. The company has been involved in the financing of several past Oscar docs (“The Cove,” “The Garden,” “Hell and Back Again,” “How to Survive a Plague”) as well as current high-profile films “The Overnighters” and “E-Team.” Since its inception, they’ve injected millions of dollars into 60 documentaries, ranging in amounts per project as high as $600,000 and as low as $25,000. (In 2013 and 2014 alone, total investments have amounted to $5 million.)

Unlike many of the other documentary funders that exist, Impact Partners does not give out money as grants, but as equity investment. “Our goal is to put money into a film, and be able to get it back, so we can roll it into the next film,” explained Cogan. “If we can do that, we could put more money to work, so the money becomes a renewable resource.”

Cogan dispels the idea that Impact Partners profits from the films that they support.  “It’s an investment strategy that comes out of Silicon Valley,” he explained. “It’s not about just making successful films, but making them sustainable, and able to stand on their own feet.”

Impact Partners receives 500-600 submissions every year. According to Cogan, they look for three things:

1) “Does the project have the potential to be great cinema?” — i.e. great characters, a narrative arc — and “will it be entertaining and emotionally engaging?” because, as he notes, commercial success and social impact often go hand-in-hand.

2) Does the project deal with compelling social issues? The current Impact group’s most popular topics are women’s empowerment and international human rights.

3) Can the project make its money back in the marketplace? “If a film jumps through those hoops, then we present it to our investors,” said Cogan. And once the investors see the project, some can choose to invest, whereas others can decline. “Every film has its own coalition,” said Cogan.

Like many documentary funders, Impact Partners’ partners aren’t looking to make a buck, Cogan explained. “They’re doing it because they believe in the power of documentary filmmaking as a means for social change.”

Impact Partners could grow larger, but Cogan said they’re capping their size at 40 in 2015. “If you have too many people,” he said, “it ruins the sense of intimacy.”

With a waitlist of a dozen people wanting to join Impact Partners, the model appears to be attractive enough that it’s being replicated elsewhere.

Expanding Partners

“I like to say that Dan Cogan changed my life,” said Steve Cohen, a Chicago-based attorney and political activist and fundraiser, who recently launched the Chicago Media Project (CMP).

Together with Paula Froehle, a filmmaker and formerly the dean of the Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy, CMP launched in the wake of the 2013 Chicago Good Pitch, BRITDOC’s traveling pitch event, which has similar aims to match filmmakers with philanthropists, foundations and brands interested in social issues. After Cohen and Froehle saw the success of Chicago Good Pitch, which they helped produce locally and which raised just under half a million dollars for the selected documentaries, they decided to harness the local filmanthropic community in a more permanent way.

“One of the things that we wanted to achieve with CMP is that we could untether documentaries from the dependence on foundation money,” explained Cohen. Instead of doc-makers seeking major foundation grants, CMP could pool individual smaller investments of $5,000 or $10,000 to get the same amount. “And not only do they put in their money, but you also get their intimate personal investment in a project,” said Cohen. “And that’s what we’re trying to develop.”

CMP, which is also a formal partner in Impact Partners, now has roughly 30 members of its own (and expects to top out at 70). In exchange for annual membership fees that float CMP’s operational costs and are going into a “Leg Up Fund,” which will provide seed grants of approximately $5-10,000 to projects, CMP members are invited to “Big Table” dinners, where filmmakers pitch their wares. Recent dinners included introductions to other funding organizations such as Chicken & Egg Pictures and the Macarthur Foundation, and a locally made Kartemquin-backed production called “Serving Time,” about an Italian chef who teaches Chicago prison inmates how to cook.

While there is no expectation that everyone in the room will give money, the dinners allow “the beginnings of lots of conversations,” said Froehle. “I look at it as a live Kickstarter.”

CMP is now gearing up for its first Sundance, where Chicago Good Pitch 2013 alumni, Kim Longinotto’s “Dreamcather,” will premiere, along with the competition entry “(T)error,” which was also selected as one of six films for Chicago’s next Good Pitch event in May 2015.

It Takes a Village

There is plenty of overlap with these organizations. “Dreamcatcher” has been supported by CMP, Impact Partners and Chicken & Egg. “[T]error” is also supported by Chicken & Egg. The Catapult Film Fund, which provides grants to projects at early stages of development, is headed up by Lisa Chanoff, who formerly was a member of Impact Partners. Catapult and Impact both helped “The Overnighters” at different stages in its production process.

“There is a large community of people who are interested in supporting good documentaries with social messages,” said Lilly Hartley, who formed Candescent Films in 2010, which has supported documentaries such as prior Sundance entries “Fed Up” and “Private Violence” as well as 2015 Sundance competition docs “3 ½ minutes” and “Cartel Land.”

“If we have a great project, we definitely like to connect everyone to it, because for documentaries, it’s important to have a community,” added Hartley. “There’s not that competitive sense when you’re doing something important.”

Like Impact Partners and CMP, Hartley has a small group of investors — only four at this point — which provide equity to nonfiction projects. While Hartley said Candescent could start a non-profit arm in the future, for the moment, they are focused on funding docs with the ability to recoup their investments; “The Queen of Versailles,” for example, an early-Candescent-supported picture, made its money back. “So there is that opportunity,” said Hartley.

Still, most of those working in the social change documentary space have very different motives. As Steve Cohen said, “The major common thread is people who love film and believe in its power to inspire, ignite and incite people.”

But it is still a struggle to connect these films—and their issues—to audiences. The challenge, according to SnagFilms’s Ted Leonsis, has only increased, given the “greater content clutter than ever before,” he said. “[But] the more that funders, filmmakers and advocacy organizations work together, the greater will be the impact.”

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