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Money for Change: Three Funders Take Active Role in Supporting Film

By Michael Galinsky

From Eric Daniel Metzgar's <em>Reporter</em>, which received funding from The Fledging Fund. Photo: Will Okun

Anyone who makes documentary films is aware of the idea that the social issue documentary is "the new black." Nearly every call for grant proposals now includes a section asking filmmakers how their film will be used to move people to action, and further asks them to propose metrics for measuring this action. Before this mad dash for social justice took off, there were a few smaller funders that came together specifically to coalesce around the idea of using documentary to highlight important social issues and then use the films in a robust way to bring attention to topics that mainstream media wasn't addressing.

Chicken & Egg Pictures, for one, has been pushing these goals forward for many years. According to its website, Chicken & Egg Pictures is a hybrid film fund and nonprofit production company for women filmmakers who combine great storytelling with social justice issues. One of the founders of Chicken & Egg, Judith Helfand, took what she learned in both making and distributing her 2002 film Blue Vinyl and helped set up both Chicken & Egg and Working Films to maximize the impact that films can have on moving issues forward. To execute this mission, Chicken & Egg reinforces its funding initiatives with "rigorous, respectful and dynamic mentorship, creative collaboration and community-building."   

The Ford Foundation's JustFilms initiative, officially launched last January at the Sundance Film Festival, has very similar goals and strategies to those of Chicken & Egg. According to director Orlando Bagwell, "The JustFilms initiative seeks to advance social justice throughout the world by supporting talented filmmakers who create documentaries that can change how we think and act. Good storytelling is essential to every project we fund. These films make complex issues accessible and entertaining, enabling audiences to engage with topics that may otherwise feel overwhelming or inaccessible."

Like Chicken & Egg, JustFilms seeks to be involved beyond simply providing funds. "Our funds help filmmakers to develop strategies for multi-platform audience-building and timely release," Bagwell explains. "We also support the creative process by offering mentorship throughout the production process and through finishing funds."

Filmmakers hoping to work with the Ford Foundation can do so in one of three ways, "Roughly one-third of JustFilms' resources support projects that advance public understanding and engagement on issues aligned with the efforts of our grantees worldwide," Bagwell says. "Another portion of our grantmaking is devoted to projects discovered through an ongoing, open application process, ensuring that we remain aware of emerging artists around the world and stay connected to creative and innovative trends. We also invest in creative partnerships that enable our filmmakers to broaden the reach of their work. These organizations include the Sundance Institute, the Independent Television Service and the Tribeca Film Institute."

Another fund with a strong social justice bent (and a partner of Chicken & Egg), The Fledgling Fund is a private foundation driven by the passionate belief that film can inspire a better world. According to Emily Verellen, director of programs and communications, "The fund hopes to have their films lead to more awareness about complex social problems and solutions, increased engagement of individuals and communities in positive social action, stronger social movements and ultimately positive social change." Verellen continues, "How does this happen? With thoughtful plans designed to move audiences from passive viewers to motivated citizens who are ready to act."

While all three funders have similar goals, they each have specific areas of interest. Filmmakers seeking funding need to spend some time looking into the organizations' past areas of support in order to get a sense of whether or not they are a good fit for their projects. "The films we fund typically reflect key aspects of the foundation's work," Bagwell explains. "For example, The House I Live In by Eugene Jarecki highlights issues of rights and access, reinforcing our work around reforming the criminal justice system, while How to Survive a Plague by David France aligns with our initiative on HIV/AIDS. Jarecki and France represent our effort to fund filmmakers with a range of experience. While we were familiar with Jarecki's strong body of work, France was a first-time director, well respected by journalists."

From Eugene Jarecki's <em>The House I Live In</em>, which received funding from Ford Foundation's JustFilms initiative. Photo: Etienne Sauret

The Fledgling Fund's Verellen explains their process of finding work to support: "We look for film projects that will move people to action around timely social issues. Our application process is highly competitive, and we consider a range of factors in our decision-making, including strength of the film; stage of the project-ideally, we like to see at least a rough cut of the film; needs of the movement--we believe that a critical factor in using film to advance social change is connecting that film to the movement and/or to the activists and nonprofit organizations working on these issues; strength of the proposal-while applicants don't need to have every part of their plan in place when applying, we look for a genuine commitment to using the film for social change; and issue area."

Both The Fledgling Fund and Chicken & Egg Pictures have spring and fall funding cycles. Check their respective websites for more information. According to the JustFilms website, submissions are on a rolling basis, so check out their guidelines for more binformation.


Michael Galinsky is partners with Suki Hawley and David Beilinson in the award-winning production studio Rumur. They are currently working on a film about the connection between stress and pain.