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Something's Gotta Give: Documentary Funds Adapt to a New Political Climate

By Lauren Kushner

At the IDA's first Getting Real Conference in fall 2014, a group of prominent grant organizations got together to discuss the state of grant funding for documentary films, and they decided to keep the conversation going. In the two years between then and Getting Real '16, the funders convened to discuss ways they could improve the rigorous process of applying for grants, support filmmakers beyond just funding, and incorporate feedback they received from the community. The themes of Getting Real '16—Art, Diversity and Sustainability—were a natural reflection of the conversations among the grantors themselves as they continue to support documentaries with fresh visions by an array of filmmakers from different backgrounds. The conversations at the conference around these topics, and ways to continually improve, were honest and invigorating, and many left with a renewed sense of clarity and commitment.

Six weeks later, the 2016 election cast a dark pall and presented the documentary community with new, but not unrelated, sets of questions and challenges to grapple with. These issues are already being tackled by filmmakers, festivals, distributors and grantors.

Four prominent women who manage film funds—Maxyne Franklin (BritDoc Foundation), Lisa Kleiner Chanoff (Catapult Film Fund), Jenni Wolfson (Chicken & Egg Pictures) and Emily Verellen Strom (Fledgling Fund)—shared their insights with Documentary about how their funds are adapting to issues such as diversity and sustainability, and how their organizations are adjusting to this increasingly divisive political climate.

When it comes to grant applications, there is good news for filmmakers. It's no secret to those applying or reviewing the applications what an arduous and lengthy process it can be, so the funders are implementing changes to make the process less burdensome. BritDoc, Catapult and Fledgling Fund have initiated rolling application deadlines so that filmmakers can apply for funding when the timing is right. Additionally, these four funders, along with other prominent grantors, are joining Sundance and IDA in using "The Documentary Core Application," which standardizes the proposal requirements and application questions so that a single proposal can more easily be used to submit to multiple funds. The process of switching over to the new application is underway, and some organizations have already started using it. On cutting down the time it takes to apply for grants, Wolfson states, "We want filmmakers to spend as much time creatively and as little time as possible doing the fundraising."

When it comes to sustainability, the grantors have taken somewhat different approaches, with common through-lines. One place they did not differ is when it came to filmmakers including themselves in the budget. "Anytime I'm speaking to filmmakers or people ask about that, I always say you should absolutely include yourself in the budget," Strom maintains. Wolfson—whose Chicken & Egg Pictures solely supports female and female-identifying filmmakers —points out, "I think that issue is even more prominent with women who will pay everyone else around them, and themselves less, if at all. In our guidelines, we clearly state that there has to be a line item in there. You have to pay yourself. That will affect the quality of your application, frankly, if you're not putting in a salary for yourself."

Chicken & Egg has also started a new initiative called the Breakthrough Filmmaker Award, which doesn't support a singular project of a filmmaker, but rather the filmmaker herself, through a $50,000 grant awarded to five women annually. This year's recipients are Geeta Gandbhir, Kirsten Johnson, Penny Lane, Grace Lee and Dawn Porter.

For those who are able to secure a grant, the funders have sought ways to expand their support beyond just traditional financing, and help navigate the business side of the industry. While BritDoc's Good Pitch runs separately from the film fund, it shows their commitment to not only funding projects directly, but bringing other potential partners to the table. The Catapult Fund's Chanoff likes identifying "moments where we can come in and then dislodge something that's stuck or give it the boost…We've always offered that we were there as a resource." This advisory support includes funding and festival strategy, and giving notes on footage. Wolfson explains, "Our programs have developed over time with the day-to-day experience of working with filmmakers, listening to their needs, seeing the gap in the industry and where Chicken & Egg can make a difference." One area they identified was branded content, a broad medium that can be both lucrative and misunderstood. The organization recently sent a survey to all 250 alumni filmmakers to see how many would be interested in creating branded content. While some declined, a majority responded they were interested, so Chicken & Egg worked to facilitate the necessary introductions to unlock those opportunities.

All of the funders seek to have a diverse slate of films made by a diverse set of filmmakers. For BritDoc, which has offices in London and New York, that means looking beyond just the UK and the US. BritDoc tries "to do outreach to communities that have been under-represented," Franklin points out. "We go out and seek projects through local groups, which means that we're working with film communities from those regions. They'll bring the filmmakers to us. It's actually coming from grassroots up." Chanoff believes that in order to have a diverse range of stories, you must have a diverse range of filmmakers. "We fund 20 projects a year and we really always like for it to be a pretty eclectic bunch of films. So, we're looking for variety in terms of subject matter, approach, geography, experience and age of the filmmakers." Chicken & Egg's programs are deeply committed to diversity. According to Wolfson, their main Accelerator Lab is 65 percent women of color, their Diversity Fellows program is 100 percent women of color, and a majority of the Breakthrough Filmmakers are women of color. Strom hopes that initiatives that are underway for more transparency can highlight the data breakdown of who is reviewing and receiving grants.

So how are these organizations responding to our current political climate? Fledgling Fund's response was clear and immediate when they launched a new Rapid Deployment Fund in December. The fund will provide grants ranging from $2,500 to $10,000 to support short films with pressing social issues that can be completed and distributed quickly. Strom says this "was a response to what's going on politically—not just the actual presidential election, but also the widening divide and the issues that we feel like are going to be under threat, not just on the federal level but on the local and state level as well." The first six grants were just announced, supporting films about undocumented immigrants, Standing Rock, sexual assault, homophobia, and empowering girls, as well as a series that looks at the stories of everyday Americans behind some of the country's most complicated issues.

The Rapid Deployment grant is open to funding projects in any stage, but will give priority to projects that are well positioned to make an impact quickly. An intriguing point for filmmakers to note is that Fledgling Fund envisions these grants being used to repurpose uncompleted films or unused footage. According to Strom, filmmakers have "perhaps hundreds of hours of footage on the cutting-room floor that are beautiful stories, vignettes about one or more people, that can be self-encapsulated." A grant from Fledgling could breathe new life into that material and allow it to reach audiences quickly.

For Catapult, their process of vetting films lends itself naturally to changing times. "One of the things we have always asked on our application and always looked for is, ‘Why tell this story and why tell it now?'" Chanoff explains. "The answer to that question will inevitably reflect the time."

Franklin and Wolfson also bring a unique perspective to their grants. Wolfson, who began working in documentary film three years ago, previously held positions protecting the rights of vulnerable populations around the world. "As a human rights activist by background, I continue to believe that film and storytelling are a crucial tool in the toolbox," she maintains. " I believe films make a huge difference and can often be a lightbulb moment, a turning point, a cultural conversation shift." Since BritDoc is based in the US and the UK and hosts the Global Good Pitch Events, their work is deeply rooted in telling international stories. Franklin notes, "That's actually both interesting and pertinent within the current political context because obviously the rise of nationalism and populism certainly isn't just something that the US is experiencing."

Strom, who is excited to see new funders welcomed into the social issue documentary space, applauds BritDoc's work: "I think Good Pitch has done a really good job of inviting people to the table." But as funding for organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting have uncertain futures, it will remain to be seen how funds like these four are impacted if donors start channeling their money elsewhere. Wolfson recounts that Chicken & Egg "had a couple of donors who used to support us, and at the end of last year said, ‘We're giving our money directly to organizations that are fighting issues and being threatened by the new administration.'" While Wolfson agrees organizations like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU must get funding, she cautions against seeing film simply as a luxury. "For me, it's like, what medium is more important to shift perceptions and advance a more nuanced cultural narrative, and create empathy and understanding to inspire people to action?"

These issues quickly tie back to the conversations at Getting Real and the core mission of these grantors. "The lens through which we do all of our work is just as relevant, if not more relevant, in the current political climate," she points out. "For us, the storytellers are as important as the story. How many men are telling stories of reproductive justice? I don't think there's that many Dawn Porters out there telling the Trapped stories. How many white women can tell the story of Black Lives Matter like Sabaah Folayan, whose film Whose Streets? premiered at Sundance."

It is clear that diversity of story and storyteller are priorities across the board. It is perhaps also becoming clearer that there needs to be a focus on creating diverse audiences as well. Franklin thinks "preaching to the choir" does have its place. "We all need to be reminded why we do the work that we do. And we need something that galvanizes us. But I think it can also transcend and reach beyond the choir." According to Wolfson, "We don't just want to preach to the converted, and we don't want our films just being screened at film festivals to the same group of people." By coming together as a community to foster conversations and transparency about these issues, the grantors, along with the documentary industry, can continue to expand the ways in which its films have an impact. "I think that's how we're going to fight the good fight," Franklin says.


Lauren Kushner is founder of Spare Change Content, and consults on documentary films in various stages of production, specializing in financing, distribution, marketing and impact campaigns. She previsouly spent five years in Participant Media's feature documentary division.