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Finding Funding: A Primer on Financing Your Documentary

By wanda bershen

Making a film is a huge undertaking, and definitely not for the faint of heart. A major part of the work--more than you ever imagined--is the process of generating funds from various sources to get it done. So the first big decision is about how to do that, what kind of help might be needed, where to go looking for dollars and, most important, the difference between the budget you would like and the budget you can live with.

Fundraising these days is tougher than ever; the competition is fierce and the funders are smart and savvy. There is not and never will be enough money out there for all the good projects. So settle in for the long haul and equip yourself for the realities. Describing all your good intentions and hard work is only the beginning. You need to create a pitch for your project that sounds exciting and relevant and reflects a thorough knowledge of both the subject and the audiences you are targeting.


You need proposals for fundraising, and you need to commit up front to incorporating the planning and time for fundraising as an absolutely essential part of the work. You also need to consider seriously if you can do all of that research and writing yourself. Even if you are good at those things, put funds in the budget for some help.

Think about proposals from the point of view of the funders, and particularly the panelists reading hundreds of them in far too little time, trying to make good decisions. They need to know in clear and concise language what you plan to do, why you chose to do it and how you will get from a good idea to a strong work. They need to know all of this in detail, with concrete information about the topic, why it is important at this time, who the people involved are, what the stylistic approach is, what your work plan and timetable are, how you intend to raise money and what your plans are for getting the finished project out into the world.

The latter means laying out a variety of audiences, and a variety of approaches to reaching them. Unfortunately, neither PBS nor a raft of distributors is waiting breathlessly for your film, so think outside the box. Are there specific regional and/or national organizations dealing with your subject? Do they have newsletters or mailing lists? Are there publications dealing with your subject, and if so, who might be interested in writing about your film--preferably before, during and after completion? Sure, festivals are important, but so are all the college and university screening series--along with the people who run them and the faculty they work with. Are there academic professional organizations (regional and national) with which you can partner for outreach and distribution?

Be sure to incorporate Web promotion into your budget and distribution plan. A simple site can be built for a few hundred dollars, and has all kinds of options. During production and distribution, you can put up images, feature particular issues and/or organizations working with you, get linked to partner organizations, track screenings and festivals and announce the DVD edition. Anything that will bring attention and reach more and different constituencies is good. All funders need their support to be visible and useful over the long term.

Since all of this has to fit into just a few pages, your proposal needs to be really well written, thoroughly edited and devoid of vague aspirations, unsubstantiated assertions or sloppy formatting. If you outline four months for post-production, make sure the budget covers four months--not six or two. If you plan to use archival materials, make sure to describe them in the narrative and indicate the rights costs clearly in the budget.

Something I find very useful in proposals is information about other films, books or major publications on the topic. It shows you have done your homework, and offers an opportunity to make the case for how your approach will contribute something new or different. Talk about those other projects (and don't ever be negative) and demonstrate how your project addresses different aspects, a different group of people, place, time or age group. This is not about being better; it is about contributing to a public discussion that can only benefit from diverse points of view.

As for the sample work, make sure it is consistent and incorporates both a key aspect of your topic and some stylistic qualities you plan to employ and have described. That does not mean lots of fancy special effects. The most compelling thing is usually a person and or scene with strong content. Reviewers will see only a few minutes--and a lot of other filmmakers' sample tapes--so think about how to make yours stand out.


There is no substitute for researching what funders are looking for and what they require, so take the time to read all the guidelines, talk to staff people and make sure you have a good grasp of what they need and how they define the areas they support. All funders review their priorities and change them periodically, so make sure the written information is current.

Public agencies like state and federal arts and humanities councils have very specific application processes and highly structured review protocols, and the names of panelists are usually a matter of public record. Their program officers can be your advocates, so talk to them and take the time to check out what they suggest. Also, read those guidelines carefully and observe them to the letter. If something is not clear, ask. Do not risk getting your proposal disqualified because of some detail you missed, or some form you neglected to include.

Foundations range from small and medium (Paul Robeson Foundation, Jerome Foundation) to gigantic (Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation). Beyond the very few that consistently fund media, identifying some that may be appropriate takes time and research, and your project needs to be consistent with their areas of interest. Since so few foundations fund much media, they will need to be convinced that your project will be particularly effective for giving visibility to the issues they promote, and to the audiences they consider important.

Check out the online Foundation Directory. That will tell you what each funder's guidelines say in detail, what has been funded in the past and what the specifics of their application process entail. Call and ask questions, if possible. Often foundations ask for a brief letter of inquiry to determine whether they will entertain a full proposal. This letter needs to be both substantive and concise and lively and engaging; condense it from one of your proposals. It should read like a terrific press release--but leave out any hype. When following up, be sure to be polite and friendly with whoever is on the telephone, and thank everyone for his or her help, no matter how brief.

As for individual donors (beyond your family), it can work well to do private events with a high-profile host, a brief set of video clips and a terrific presentation. Put together a guest list that includes people equipped to write checks and supporters who can sing your praises. That is as much a networking and word-of-mouth process as a straight fundraiser, and sometimes friends of friends will contribute afterward. You can use the same kind of two-page information sheet as you would for letters of inquiry, but be sure to tailor it to the kinds of guests you expect.


Okay, so you did everything right, hired a professional and got very positive feedback from the funder--but no money. Sadly, this is not an unusual scenario. It is certainly frustrating and time-consuming, but it is not personal, so don't take it as a comment on your work. Call the funding agency, try to get some feedback from the review, and find out if and when you can re-submit. Public funders will probably have more feedback; they are required to keep those records (it is public money). Foundations will try to offer some information, and often will say up front if they cannot offer much, usually because the volume of proposals to staff is overwhelming. Keep re-submitting; every panel is different, and the other projects with which you are competing change with each round.

There are lots of resources out there to direct you to good information about proposal preparation. Check out AIVF, IDA, IFP, FIND and FAF--or your local or regional media center--for resources, articles, panels and workshops. There are also courses on fundraising at many colleges and universities; check out the continuing education divisions.

And by all means go, with works-in-progress, to some doc festivals or markets like IFP, Full Frame or Hot Docs. Networking with peers and with filmmakers who have done this successfully will not only generate some good tips, it will also give you a big psychological boost to ride out the dog days.


Wanda Bershen has been fundraising and organizing marketing for media projects with arts organizations for over 20 years through her company, Red Diaper Productions. She also writes for American History Review, American Quarterly, The Independent and Film Quarterly and has taught at Rutgers, Temple, Yale and NYU.