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Notes from the Reel World, Fall 2021

By Brenda Robinson

Dear Documentary Community,

As the documentary financing business model continues to evolve, so have the strategies that filmmakers must pursue in order to secure meaningful funding for their important work. While the first hurdle we all have in common is in being able to actually secure a meeting or gain access to financiers in the nonfiction space,  a key part of this process, once you are face-to-face, involves establishing relationships with these funders beyond the transaction.     

It was already extraordinarily challenging for documentary filmmakers to find the money they needed to make their films, but now a greater challenge has presented in that documentary filmmakers are not just competing for funders, they are also competing with shifts in philanthropic priorities. For many private funders, issues pertaining to social justice, environmental activism, and public health disparities, brought more into focus by the pandemic and the glaring economic inequality that rages on, have taken priority. For these funders, allocating their foundation resources towards film projects is seen as a "luxury" compared to the needs presented by those communities impacted by these societal issues.     

This is where storytelling as a form of activism comes in. Documentary filmmakers, whose resilience as a community over the past year and beyond has really shone through, have made the case that the act of filmmaking is as worthy a priority in the long list of issues requiring our deep attention as a society. Storytelling makes it possible to impact all of the issues outlined above. 

With this as the baseline, it is important that filmmakers continue to give attention to the many ways in which to cultivate real relationships with funders that are not transactional in nature, but that lead to real partnership. When properly viewed as an opportunity for partnership, conversations with funders suddenly become less intimidating and far less burdensome, because there is a shared recognition that both filmmaker and funder have something to offer, and it is all towards developing a meaningful story that can have far-reaching impact.     

And with respect to equity funders versus grant funders, it is important to dispel the myth that equity financiers approach this process with the objective of "making money" or turning a profit. First, this is an unrealistic expectation on any side of the coin, as all film investment, regardless of the existence of any mitigating factors (i.e. a "great" or timely story, a prominent film team, etc.) is inherently risky. But beyond that, this downplays the real reasons that motivate funders to come into this space. The best funders are those looking to support not only a story, but the storyteller behind it. These are the same funders who, after supporting you, continue on with you to remain as your mentor or angel on your next project.

The lesson here is that both sides must recognize the important purpose that each serves and appreciate how they in fact need each other in order to reach our collective end goal: to tell a powerful story or give voice to issues that matter to all of us, so that we as filmmakers and funders can have the impact that we set out to achieve when we made the decision to dedicate our lives to storytelling.

In solidarity,

Brenda Robinson
IDA Board President