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Catapult Film Fund Celebrates a Decade of Doc Support

By Katie Murphy

From Assia Boundaoui’s 'The Feeling of Being Watched,' which received funding from Catapult Film Fund. Courtesy of POV

When Bonni Cohen and Lisa Chanoff founded Catapult Film Fund in 2010 to support documentary filmmakers with development funding, “The fundamental idea,” according to Chanoff, was to “provide funding for documentaries at a stage when there was, at that time, very little support; and when we were thinking of development, we were thinking before there was any proof of concept, sample or trailer.” Catapult has continued to grow and evolve over the past ten years, providing grantees with continued mentorship and access to follow-up Momentum Grants and Consulting Grants in addition to development funding, but the original commitment to early support remains. As Chanoff explains, “We don’t have to be the first funds that a project receives, but we are very happy to be the first. We love taking that leap.”

Documentary spoke with Cohen, Chanoff and Senior Program Director Megan Gelstein about the importance of development funding, the future of Catapult, and how the fund is supporting filmmakers during the COVID-19 pandemic. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

DOCUMENTARY: Tell me about the origins of Catapult and how has it evolved from there.

BONNI COHEN: Lisa and I met through a mutual friend and had an initial lunch together where we talked about film. Lisa had seen a film I made called The Rape of Europa; she’s a lawyer and an art curator, and was speaking so articulately and critically about the film. I was very taken with the conversation. About halfway into lunch, Lisa said, “So, what do you think is missing in the documentary field? What kinds of holes are there in the support of the documentary community?” We started talking about those holes—of which, as we know, there are many—and I said, “No one has really come forward with development funding because it’s the riskiest time to put money in. It’s hard to know whether films will get finished at that stage, because development money is often helping to unlock access, or to shoot something for the first time, or to see whether a story works on screen.” One of the most surprising moments of my life was when Lisa looked at me and said, “I think we should do that. That sounds really important and exciting.” I remember going back upstairs and telling my partner, “I think I just met somebody who wants to support the development of documentary film.” It was like a fairytale. From that moment forward, there was a commitment on Lisa’s part to see that through, and we started working together to figure out how to make that a reality.

D: What makes Catapult unique in addition to providing that development funding? 

: While not necessarily the largest amount of money, development funding is, in some ways, the most important money that a filmmaker can raise. It’s validation that you are onto something and it allows you the time and the space to pursue it. The early stage of any film is critically important because it often sets the tone for the whole project. It's such a risky time with so many unknowns, so having the freedom and support to get it right is so valuable.

When I came onto the Catapult team about five years ago, I was so struck by the care and commitment that Catapult provides for each film that we support. We get about 800 applications a year; we support about 20 films of those 800, and we stay with the life of that project from its very early beginnings until it makes its way out into the world. What makes us unique is that we’re small and nimble, and able to pivot quickly, which in many ways mirrors the experience and work of an independent  filmmaker; at its best, Catapult support gives the filmmaker the feeling that they have a partner who is their corner and advocating for them as they navigate the challenges of making an independent documentary film.

LISA CHANOFF: We try to address what the film needs along the way, whether it’s fundraising strategy, or concrete advice about production, or banding the team. We do what we can to connect the filmmakers with other potential allies, whether they’re funders or distributors. 

And so we’ve evolved a bit. In addition to development, there’s inevitably another super-stuck moment in fundraising, and that we could really help the films that we’ve initially supported in development get out of that stuck moment with another modest grant, a Momentum Grant, which at we can turn around pretty quickly. All of our development grantees are eligible for a Momentum Grant, and it can come in at all sorts of stages and can really be extremely helpful. We also initiated consulting grants. 

We had two application rounds a year initially, and at some point a few years ago we decided to go to a rolling application, feeling that would better serve our filmmakers. We’ve also tried to help launch new initiatives with other organizations. About five years ago we partnered with True/False and we do a Rough Cut Retreat with them every summer. The last one just finished up a week or two ago. We partnered with SFFILM for a development fellowship. 

BC: There is a very of-this-year example of how to visualize Catapult: When Jim LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham were first conceiving of Crip Camp, Jim came in—I’ve known Jim for years; he’s sound-mixed many of my films—he came to our office, pulled out his laptop, opened up the screen, and showed us the home movie footage of Camp Jened, which is featured in Crip Camp. We were sitting there looking at this amazing footage and talking to Jim and Nicole about the concept for this film. We ended up supporting Crip Camp with its first grant and continued to support the film with a little more money and mentorship all the way to what became the opening night film at Sundance this past year. That is the fantasy: Somebody comes in and they have this idea, they’re not quite sure how they’re going to get it off the ground, they’re not sure anyone’s going to believe in it, and then they get this shot of support and belief, and they can get going on their way—and look what can happen.

From Jim Lebrecht and Nicole Newmhan’s 'Crip Camp,' which received funding from Catapult Film Fund. Courtesy of Netflix
D: What does the future look like for Catapult and where do you see areas for growth? What might the next ten years look like?

BC: Because we come in really early and stay with the project all the way through, we intimately see what the lives of filmmakers are like and how possible or impossible it might be for them to sustain a lifestyle that allows them to make films, which is a question that’s been swirling around the community for some time now. We are constantly assessing where we can add support for filmmakers so that they have an opportunity for a sustainable career in filmmaking. Just as an example, we are considering a new initiative that would be like a pre-development grant, where a filmmaker could have time to think about and research an idea before they’re willing or ready to submit it for development, just to have some breathing room. We really believe in not just the individual project, but the sustainability of a career in filmmaking.

LC: Part of the impetus of that grant is that it’s an area that, just like 10 years ago when we were looking at development, is an unfunded moment: the research and development before you’re even ready to put in your first application for traditional development funding. It's an important area to focus on for a variety of reasons, including lowering barriers to entry for filmmakers and storytellers.

This moment of COVID will pass, but also, this is a good time to be conceiving a project, not necessarily shooting a big introduction. We’d also like to bolster some of the things that we do, like the Momentum Grants. The initial $20,000 for development obviously could be a little more, but our Momentum Grants, we would love to be able to offer more in those other moments where filmmakers really need a boost.

D: You mentioned the pandemic. How are you supporting filmmakers during all this and how has it affected your own work?

MG: Right at the beginning of the pandemic, we reached out to all the Catapult grantees who are currently in production to find out where they were in their projects. Some of them were lucky enough to have finished shooting and were in post-production, but needed support to continue their edit; some, of course, were stalled and had to put a pause on their productions; and some were very much in that early conception period. We were able to work directly with those early-stage filmmakers to expand the definition of what “development” means. Is that a period of longer research, writing, or developing a point of view? We were able to gather where everyone was, and what we heard was that a lot of filmmakers were wondering how certain issues, like sales, had changed in the documentary landscape. We invited Josh Braun, co-president of Submarine Entertainment, to join us for a webinar that Bonni moderated. It was a very intimate, direct conversation about what the impacts of COVID are on the documentary landscape. It was really successful, and I think that webinar format is something that we will continue to do in the future.

D: Tell me about the Rough Cut Retreat and how you shifted it to a virtual domain.

MG: The Rough Cut Retreat is something we do with True/False, and it’s our second year to have the support and partnership of the Chicago Media Project. It’s a week-long workshop that unites five filmmakers with five mentors in a creative and engaged atmosphere. We select the mentors not just because they’re brilliant people, but because their editorial insights and their generosity of spirit provide critical, supportive feedback, at a time when filmmakers are usually so close to the material. The goal is to help move films from rough cut to final cut, with an eye towards the winter festival deadlines. 

We called this year’s online retreat “Assistance from a Distance,” and we tried to bring a radically innovative spirit to it, creating a virtual environment with the same sense of community, camaraderie, and constructive criticism for which we’ve been known. Every night we had a cocktail hour; we would have masterclasses; we had a spa night. It might sound a little surprising, but it was miraculously connective; that Saturday after the retreat, everyone was texting that they missed each other and had really sought that connection. You worry with Zoom that everyone might get over-Zoomed, but it was a very special week. 

From Loira Limbal’s 'Through the Night,' which received funding from Catapult Film Fund. Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

D: With the national movement to address systemic racism, has it shifted your funding priorities? Has it shaped your work moving forward?

LC: Yes, definitely. The impetus for the new grants that are in the works, it’s something we’d been thinking about for a while. We could do some very intentional outreach and make sure that we’re reaching all the communities that we’d like to reach with this new grant. 

And it’s really much less of a project grant than the Catapult Development Grant; it’s much more of an artist’s grant. One of the things that we can do as a small organization is we can help do our part to expand voices that are able to tell stories. So I think the new grant is part of that. 
The question that we ask on every application would be, Why are you the right filmmaker to tell this story? This moment is shedding light on why that’s such an important question. We’re focusing even more, and more thoughtfully, on that. As we’re thinking about the partnerships and the initiatives we can really support, we’re really focusing on who’s doing work in this area and how can we help support that.

We think it’s better to help support organizations and work that’s being done by people who are really entrenched, rather than try to do something unique ourselves. 

D: Is there anything else you want to add before we close?

: It’s very exciting when we get to see year over year that the impact of a Catapult grant can have an increasing sort of weight and influence as these filmmakers make their way out into the world and start seeking production funding and post production funding. And just knowing that that was helpful is really gratifying. 

Katie Bieze earned her bachelor's degree in Literature with certificates in Documentary Studies and Film/Video/Digital from Duke University. She earned her master's degree in Film and Video from American University. She currently resides in Washington, DC.