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Nouveau Niche Demographics: Unique Funding Models Supercede Mainstream Methods

By Miri Hess

The onus of raising money for one's documentary is daunting and often discouraging. Rejections test the will, grants and donations support a project just long enough until the money runs out and the fundraising process never really ends. But some emerging models for documentary film funding go beyond grant-giving. Funders such as Chicken & Egg Pictures and Cinereach focus increasingly on niche demographics, and provide ongoing support in the form of consultations and in-kind services once the funds are distributed.

Chicken & Egg Pictures (, based in New York and San Francisco and geared primarily towards women filmmakers, helps teams that "are working to address the social justice, equity and human rights issues of our time, locally, nationally and globally," according to the company's website. Chicken & Egg Pictures has supported such documentaries as Lioness, about female support soldiers ending up on the front lines of the Iraq war, and Freeheld, which earned an Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject, about a police detective's battle with cancer and her struggle with the local authorities over transferring her retirement pension to her female domestic partner.

Through partnerships with The Fledgling Fund ( and Working Films (, Chicken & Egg Pictures provides funds, as well as hands-on mentorships, for filmmakers. Co-founders Julie Parker Benello, Wendy Ettinger and Judith Helfand--all filmmakers themselves--provided the initial seed monies and creative capital to launch the company in 2005. Three years later, individuals with donor-advised funds and family foundations committed $1 million through 2010 to the film fund, production and mentorship services.

As a result of grants such as the I Believe in You Grant, which provides first-in development/seed money; the Liberty Grant, which provides last-in completion funds; and the Celebration Grant, which "celebrates the bold veteran women filmmakers who continue to push their genre, their craft and the field," seven projects were selected out of 112 applicants to the company's latest grant cycle. One of the projects include Birdgirl Productions' Burning in the Sun (Dirs./Prods.: Cambria Matlow and Morgan Robinson;  Co-Prod.: Claire Weingarten), which follows 26-year old Daniel Dembele's return to his native Mali to build solar panels in rural communities.

The filmmakers admit that the hardest grant to secure is the first one, but once it's in, it builds confidence in other funders. Their $10,000 I Believe in You grant will support the post-production process. "With 15 hours of industry mentorship, Chicken & Egg wants to be with us in the editing room and really seems to care about the long term," Matlow maintains.   

The filmmakers have received three additional grants from other sources, which will help them complete what they deem "the first film about alternative energy in Africa." What helped secure the Chicken & Egg grant was "a universal issue and hot topic, especially ripe right now with Obama in office, yet the appeal of one particular man in one particular village," according to Matlow.

Regarding the type of projects that Chicken & Egg supports, Benello explains, "We are interested in supporting filmmakers who are as passionate about the craft--and are willing to stretch themselves creatively--as they are about the social justice, environmental and human rights issues they're embracing and exploring on film. If a film gets rejected, it could be the simple reasons that a project does not follow suit with the aforementioned or it is too early in the project to determine the filmmaker's vision."

Last December, Matlow, Robinson and Weingarten had a collaborative screening with additional environmentally conscious films as a direct outcome of the Chicken & Egg Pictures/Working Films relationship. The focus of the event was on "how story leads to action," a notable emphasis on Chicken & Egg's requirements. "We do not have a film that scares people into changing," Weingarten explains. "The film proposes solutions."

A second filmmaking team under Chicken & Egg's support, via an I Believe in You grant, is Jen Gilomen and Sally Rubin's Mine, about two lifelong friends torn over a coal mining company's expansion in eastern Kentucky. The relationship with the Chicken & Egg team all started at New York City's Independent Film Week (formerly IFP Market), in the Spotlight on Documentaries section.

The filmmakers were swayed by the guidance that Benello, Ettinger and Helfand could provide, helping them to inspire dialogue and social change. "We immediately got attached to the idea of being taken under their wing," says Gilomen. The unique partnership of all female filmmakers, according to Rubin, "gives a woman a fish and teaches a woman to fish, giving us the chance to find our voice as filmmakers, to have the strength and confidence to do what it takes to launch a documentary film campaign towards change."

Chicken & Egg does grant awards to first time filmmakers, but mentorship must play a key role. Even if the film is in the early stages, but meets the funding teams' instincts and parameters, "Our goal is to help them get to the trailer stage, so that they can apply for support from other foundations and sources." Benello explains. They funded additional films as Yance Ford's Strong Island, Kaylnee Mann's first film Between Earth and Sky, as well as first-time filmmaker Gabby Mullem's film See What I am Saying. Mullem went on to receive a Links Grant with ITVS. These I Believe in You Grants all helped with the trailer and strategic development stages.

The hands-on mentoring approach is an evolving trend in the funding world. Cinereach (, a New York City-based company, also focuses on social issue films that can make a difference in the world. Cinereach awarded the Reach Film Fellowship to Annie Waldman, for her documentary short So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away, which profiles three New Orleans high school students' return to the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. "It's a chapter in our American history that needed to be recorded," explains the filmmaker. The film, in competition at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, received a $5,000 grant in cash and rentals.

The most valuable aspect of the fellowship is the validation of the documentary community. "The non-financial support, in the form of a web of documentary-loving individuals who believe in the project getting done to the best of its potential, is irreplaceable," Waldman maintains. A significant feature of the award is connecting the grantee with an established industry professional. Documentary filmmaker Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp; The Boys of Baraka) coached Waldman throughout the storytelling process.

Like Chicken & Egg Pictures, the Cinereach team also brainstorms with the filmmaker about ways to accomplish the finished product. "Cinereach also helped with a lot of the promotion of my film, which at the time I would have had no idea how to do on my own," Waldman notes.

Another filmmaking team whom Cinereach recently helped was also awarded a Sundance Documentary Film Grant. The directing and producing duo Lynn True and Nelson Walker and co-producers Tsering Perlo and Keefe Murren have been working in the desolate Kham region in Tibet on their documentary, A Nomad's Life. The story details a family's struggle to maintain its nomadic traditions amid modernization.

The unique collaboration between US and Tibetan filmmakers, in a partnership with Rabsal, a Tibetan NGO, brought Tsering Perlo, Rabsal's founder and a rising documentary filmmaker, to the project. He helped provide access to a nomadic family, and Cinereach recognized an opportunity to support an innovative project, awarding the Nomad's Life team a $30,000 challenge grant towards post-production.

Cinereach was also impressed by the fact that True and Walker had budgeted outreach into their production model, training Perlo in the basics of documentary-making. "On the flip side," True admits, "this unique collaboration also made us wonder if an organization like Cinereach would feel confident supporting a project that didn't follow a traditional production model." But the fact that Tibetans were incorporated in the production process ensured that the cinematic treatment of the life of a nomadic Tibetan family would be handled both sensitively and realistically.  

One of the most daunting challenges that True and Walker now face is translating a regional Tibetan dialect into English. The funding from Cinereach helped secure the services of translators originally from the Kham region--and helped pay for a 27-minute rough cut, which, in turn, helped secure support from the Sundance Documentary Fund, as well as from the Peter S. Reed Foundation, New York State Council on the Arts, The Shelly & Donald Rubin Foundation and The Center for Asian American Media, the last of which owns the US television broadcast rights.

Facing eight more months of post-production, True is nonetheless optimistic: "The interest the project has generated--even from organizations who have declined our grant applications--keeps us hopeful that we will definitely be able to meet our budget and produce the film we always believed in, though one that has certainly taken longer than we ever planned for!"

From inception to completion, both Chicken & Egg and Cinereach remain with filmmaking teams throughout the process. These funding models allow grantors and grantees alike to benefit, ensuring that the project sees its way to completion in the best way possible, and working with filmmakers to reach their full potential.