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Documentary's 'F' Word: Funding Challenges for Personal, Experimental Works

By Shelley Gabert


In 1991, Doug Block directed The Heck with Hollywood, a documentary that follows the tumultuous journey of three independent filmmakers trying to complete their projects and find distribution. Little did he know that their stories would also reflect his own trials and tribulations trying to make personal documentaries--an effort that's even harder now in the current climate, where a substantial portion of funding for nonfiction media goes to issue-oriented docs with broad appeal.   

"The big thing now is urgent, timely social issues, and more and more foundations support films that affect change," says Block. "Participant Media is doing a fantastic job and other companies too, and there's nothing wrong with making it your mission to change the world." 

Funding--the "F" word in documentary filmmaking--has never been easy. But lately the traditional funding models seem to be about supporting films that deliver a message or promote an agenda to the largest audience. And while organizations prefer to deal with a "sure thing"--supporting films that win awards at film festivals or offering completion funds--what about funding for films in the research and development stage?

This is not to deny the artistic strengths of issue-oriented films. As Block points out, the Academy Award-winning The Cove, while intrinsically about the slaughter of dolphins in Japan, was, above all, a riveting tale with all the earmarks of a compelling thriller. But the art-for-art's-sake type of films--those that are less conventional, more experimental, essayistic or personal--often have a much harder time finding support.    

"Personal documentaries are the most challenging kind of film to get funding for," Block maintains. "It would be wonderful if an organization made it their mission to fund them, too."    

What's more, the personal documentary is harder to define in the early stages of production--the pitching stage--since the journey the filmmaker ends up taking is rarely the same one he or she had envisioned. "It's usually a process of discovery," Block notes. "You go in thinking it will be one kind of film and it turns out being totally different, and that can be hard to sell."

Funding often comes down to the track record of the filmmaker. In Block's case, 51 Birch Street, a film about Block himself discovering secrets about his parents, resonated with audiences in the US and abroad, and helped him pre-sell his new film, The Kids Grow Up, which follows his daughter's last year at home before she heads off to college. His nine-minute sample attracted funding, and it's now a co-production among four broadcasters: HBO, ZDF-Arte in France, Channel 4 in the UK and VPRO in the Netherlands. "This is the first really decent salary I've ever made on a film, one that I could actually live off for a while," says Block, who also produces documentaries by other filmmakers, but supplements his filmmaking as a wedding videographer. "Still, even when you get decent money, it's all a patchwork, a little at a time. It's not like it comes in all at once and people are throwing money at you." 

These days, filmmakers are spending more time raising money to make their films and, once their films get made, marketing and distributing them. "You can't be a solo artist anymore," says Morrie Warshowski, author of Shaking the Money Tree, who has worked with numerous filmmakers. "Documentary filmmakers are entrepreneurs-business people, whether they like it or not." While some filmmakers are more secretive about where they find their funding, Warshowski is seeing more filmmakers finding investors and mixing those funds with nonprofit sources. With more competition for dwindling dollars, even those filmmakers with a track record don't always receive support from foundations. 

"I was on a respected panel that funds many independent films, and a proposal turned up from a well-respected, experienced filmmaker with an incredible body of work," Warshawski recalls. "My take was, Just give him the money. But I was in the minority.

"There is no guarantee," he continues. "That's why I'm pushing more clients into other ways of raising money and using the community-building strengths of social networking sites to market their films in the early stages." 

Yet those types of grassroots methods seem better suited to social issue documentaries, where filmmakers can leverage a cause and find organizations and a community. But that approach doesn't work for established filmmakers like, say, Alan Berliner, whose formally innovative essays on oftentimes existential subjects has earned him more attention--and funding--in Europe than in the US.

 "Alan is an odd fish in that his work has all been supported by substantial grants or HBO, yet he does personal work," observes Warshawski. "It would be difficult for him to fundraise like many social issue filmmakers are doing with house parties, asking individuals for support." 

For Jay Rosenblatt, making his films is a personal endeavor and one he prefers to remain mostly private, so using the Internet for social networking would not be an avenue he would pursue. Throughout his 30-year career, Rosenblatt has made provocative short films that deviate from the traditional narrative documentary; they've aired on HBO, IFC and Sundance Channel, even though, as he maintains, "I don't make my films for television."

He also distributes his films, when not teaching filmmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute. And he serves as festival program director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. His latest film, The Darkness of Day, is about suicide. "It's not reportage and I don't have any talking heads," says Rosenblatt. It premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, and he received a grant from the NEA--not all the money he was hoping for, but it helped. "More and more people find the social issue angle to their personal film when they're applying for grants, but all of us have to be more creative and ingenious in finding ways and sources of funding," he explains.

This is especially true for filmmakers who play with the form. Esther Robinson couldn't find significant funding in the early stages of production on her documentary A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory, so she relied primarily on credit cards. Eventually, she did receive support from Chicken & Egg Pictures, Women in Film, Gretchen Bender Fund and New York State Councils on the Arts, among others. And Robinson is no stranger to money matters: She is the founder of ArtHome, a nonprofit business that helps artists and their communities build assets and equity through financial literacy and home-ownership. Scottish filmmaker Amy Hardie struggled to find money for The Edge of Dreaming, about a series of disturbing dreams she had that either came true or manifested themselves in some form. She did eventually receive some funding from the Scottish Documentary Council, and her film was also recently picked up by PBS' POV.

Block believes that sometimes the erroneous perception that personal films cost less to make comes into play with funders. Sometimes, like in the case of the 1993 film Jupiter's Wife (Dir.: Michel Negroponte; Prod.: Doug Block), which profiles a homeless woman living in Central Park and which won awards and acclaim, the low cost can be a marketing hook.

That was the case too with Tarnation, a film by Jonathan Caouette about living with his mentally ill mother. "That film was made for a low amount, under $500, but it required hundreds of thousands of dollars to cover sound, score, the print, music and clip clearances before it was released in 2004," says Block. 

"Our films are so story-driven that it takes a lot of editing, and a good editor costs money, as does a composer," Block continues. "I give all my editors a co-writer credit, and cinematographers need to be recognized. There's definitely not enough nurturing of documentary as an art form on any level."

Earlier this year, Block had The Heck with Hollywood re-mastered and color-corrected because he wants to re-release it due to how timely it is today. "I have a different agenda when I make my films; I want them to be as relevant 10 years from now as they are today. Unfortunately The Heck with Hollywood couldn't be more frighteningly current about the difficulty of making films and raising money."


Shelley Gabert is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer covering film and television, culture and travel.