WHAT FUNDERS TOLD US THEY WANT FILMMAKERS TO KNOW : Our goal [with grant guidelines and requirements] is to assess a project’s viability, not to make life difficult for the applicant,” notes one program officer. Another says that many funders “are held more and more accountable by their foundations and their trustees for every dollar spent, [and therefore] filmmakers must be prepared for more scrutiny than ever before.” Still another grantmaker says, “we want filmmakers to keep us informed, so that to the extent possible we can be a source of knowledge.” Another concludes, “This relationship can be a beautiful thing for both the funder and the filmmaker.

WHAT YOU TOLD US ABOUT…WHO GIVES INPUT : An equity investor in documentary film says, “What we [as investors] ask for is meaningful consultation, which means we get to see cuts of the film. Consultations start from the point of view of what we are trying to communicate in this film, and is it being communicated as well as it can be.” Some filmmakers might not want funders’ input, but at least one suggests soliciting it anyway: “It’s important to receive feedback on cuts from a wide range of sources—especially your funder! Do you ever want to receive a grant from them again? If yes, then you better have them weigh in.

WHAT YOU TOLD US ABOUT…NEGOTIATING BUDGETS : We are always open to negotiation and think of our funding much more in venture capital terms than as grants,” says one funder. Another takes a harder line, saying, “I keep my promises and you keep yours. If I go over, I should eat it, and vice versa.” Filmmakers, too, have diverse perspectives on budget negotiations. “Some filmmakers might be tempted to lowball their budget, especially if a funder has pushed back on an original bottom line. But that can lead to compromised quality and even stalled production,” warns one director. Another says, “Filmmakers take a lot of risks, often don’t have health insurance and spend time in development working speculatively and without pay. When funding comes in, the filmmaker needs to make up for lost income and receive a decent wage that reflects their previous investment in the project.

WHAT FILMMAKERS TOLD US THEY WANT FUNDERS TO KNOW : Most independent filmmakers lead what one calls “highrisk, lowfinancialreturn” lives, and that “when funders only see the final product, they tend to think it’s easy.” Another filmmaker says, “There is value to letting a story unfold in a more nuanced, complex fashion—that is almost always a more effective way of drawing your audience in and making your point than is hitting the audience over the head with it.” Funders may have a lot to learn from filmmakers, because “the films are great adventures. And [since] we work on our films so hard after they are made, the adventure goes on and on.

WHAT YOU TOLD US ABOUT…POLYGAMY (MULTIPLE FUNDERS) : Most documentary filmmakers are polygamous—they “marry” more than one funder. They have to in order to get the film made. Different funders may have separate goals, guidelines, reporting requirements, disbursement schedules, interests, desired audiences or versions of the film. Experienced people on both sides urge funders to recognize that the filmmaker is likely dealing with several different funders, as well as advocacy organizations, advisors and other people who are making demands on her film, time and resources.

WHAT YOU TOLD US ABOUT…CHOOSING A FILMMAKER : One equity investor in documentary film says the investor’s role is not to make the film but to choose the right filmmaker. “It’s a cliché that 80 of directing is casting—you’ve got to get the right [actor] for the job and they will do it. It’s the same thing with equity investments. It’s all about choosing the right filmmaker who you think has the right vision and giving them the money and the freedom to [make the film]. If you don’t trust a filmmaker to make a great film, you probably shouldn’t be working with that person anyway.

WHAT YOU TOLD US ABOUT…RESPECTING EACH OTHER : A film investor says, “Each side of the equation has to understand and respect the value that the other brings to the table. The filmmaker has to understand that the money the funder brings means a lot it could be spent elsewhere, and it’s being spent on this film because the funder cares about this issue and wants to see something good done. And the funder has to understand that the filmmaker is a creative person and that documentary film is not scripted there’s a fluidity to the process… If either side is breached—if the funder tries to get involved in the creative side of the film, or the filmmaker keeps going back to the investor for more money or doesn’t hit the benchmarks—it will result in a problem for the film. What a filmmaker and funder want are different. The key to this is having someone involved who can speak the language of both parties.”

WHAT YOU TOLD US ABOUT…BEING TRUE TO YOUR GOALS : All grants must be made with a goal in mind, one nonprofit funder says. “The idea of making a film is glamorous and seductive. You imagine going to a screening, and it would be sold out, and there’d be a standing ovation, and it would win prizes. But it’s important for organizations like ours to think about how a film would contribute to our mission.” Funders may get seduced by the examples of An Inconvenient Truth or a lowbudget blockbuster. One documentarian admits that “filmmakers may perpetuate these exceptional examples because it builds their case.” It’s equally important for filmmakers to be honest, he adds, and not get seduced by the charms (or money) of the funder. “Filmmakers,” he concludes, “need to be absolutely honest about whether they are a match.”

CASE IN POINT: A FUNDER AND A FILMMAKER BOTH MEET THEIR NEEDS : One nonprofit wanted a piece on solitary confinement but didn’t have a lot of money to produce it. The organization paid a filmmaker a small fee to go to a conference on prison issues, conduct interviews and produce a short video on the topic. The organization retained copyright to the video. The filmmaker received a fee, developed contacts for a longer documentary she wanted to produce on solitary confinement, and retained ownership of the raw footage. “The idea was to give her something beyond just the modest pay—so we gave her the material,” says the program director.

CASE IN POINT: STRATEGIZING ABOUT DISTRIBUTION : When Byron Hurt’s Beyond Beats & Rhymes came to the attention of the Ford Foundation, grantmakers saw it as a powerful way to jumpstart a public conversation about how hiphop culture deals with masculinity, sexism and violence. But because of the film’s profanity, provocative lyrics and images, they felt the need to strategize with Hurt about ways to ensure a successful broadcast—including negotiating with PBS about the content and building public momentum for the project. One of the lead grantmakers, himself an experienced filmmaker, thus helped the film get the exposure it deserved and created the impact that everyone wanted—without compromising the filmmaker’s vision.

TAKE TIME IN THE RELATIONSHIP : For more engaged funder-filmmaker relationships, it’s not just money that gets invested, but time. One filmmaker says, “For busy funders, this might seem labor-intensive, but consider the significant financial investment you’re contemplating, and the relative value of deeper knowledge.

TALK ABOUT GOALS : Each filmmaker and funder has her own expectations upon entering into a relationship. One funder who commissions films remarks, “We hire filmmakers to achieve our goals. We just want their ‘look.’” A filmmaker tries to make his approach clear to funders from the start, “If it’s a verite film, I’m not a message filmmaker. That’s not to say that my films don’t have messages. I just don’t go in saying what the message is. I go in saying, ‘here’s what the story is about.’” Another funder negotiates the process throughout, “We manage expectations by moving one step at a time and making it clear that we consider each step really important” in understanding the film, outreach, budget, impact, and roles.

BE CLEAR ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE : One filmmaker cautions, “If a funder has experience producing films, make sure you’re speaking the same language. Sometimes a funder who has some filmmaking experience can actually create more problems because they think that they know what is being talked about.” The same may be true of filmmakers who may assume they know more about funding, or a particular funder, than they really do. An attitude of humility and inquiry serves both parties.

ALIGN YOUR EXPECTATIONS : One filmmaker recalls being rebuked by a funder: “What do you mean you’re doing other things this month? I just gave you $400,000!” While the filmmaker realized that the grantmaker was under the gun to show impact, he questioned whether the grantmaker understood his need to take on additional projects just to pay the bills.

COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE : Says one filmmaker, “The worst experience of mismanaged expectations occurred as a result of working on a project without having direct conversation with the funder, but only communicating with her through second party partners in the project. The outcome was disastrous.” Another filmmaker advises, “People always overlook the importance of strong interpersonal communications. Spend a lot of face time together at the beginning. Don’t get into bed with strangers.


CASE IN POINT: STRATEGIZING ABOUT STORY : A director received funding for her film that would follow a man as he started participating in a residential support program. The filmmaker’s vision was to capture a positive personal transformation, but the story took a turn when the subject suffered a relapse. The filmmaker quickly informed the funder at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, who summoned her trusted outreach team. “One thing the story must have,” observed the outreach specialists, “is hope.” The filmmaker agreed. Screening footage together, the filmmaker and the outreach team identified a second client from the same program whose experience was far more positive. As a result, the film—now with two main characters—remained authentic and true to the program, the funder had an honest and ultimately more hopeful story to tell about her grantmaking, and the filmmaker’s work is making a difference. The process worked because the funder took a lighthanded approach, the filmmaker retained editorial control and they both communicated during the process to achieve shared goals.

DECIDE ON WHO DECIDES : Figuring out who decides what is a key part of an agreement between a filmmaker and a funder. One equity investor in documentary film remarks, “If we put a lot of money into a film, we will often have control over commercial decisions—who the film gets sold to and for how much—and the filmmaker will have meaningful consultation. The filmmaker controls the creative side, and we control the business side. We know more about the business side and can do better for the film.

TALK ABOUT WHO GETS WHAT KIND OF INPUT : One foundation formed a partnership to create a documentary film on a housing issue. The foundation provided full funding, the local public television station produced the film, and a local nonprofit advocacy group provided relationships with prospective subjects and input on content. At least that was the funder’s view. Problem was, she recalls, “There was no clear understanding about who was the executive producer, which is why we had a conflict with the nonprofit about some things that went into the film. At one stage of production, the film showed a lot from the [housing project’s] residents’ point of view. We wanted some balance and brought in some dissenting views. But the nonprofit wasn’t happy with that,” since it favored the residents’ perspectives. Without editorial leadership, it wasn’t clear whose input held more sway. “We learned a lot from that,” she says, “and talked about that issue explicitly with the nonprofit partner on the next film we funded.”

BE FLEXIBLE ENOUGH TO ADAPT TO CHANGE : As one seasoned funder advises, “Stories change all the time. All we can do as a funder is try to be a responsible partner whose goal is to help them complete their project. Like any other relationship, we should be to support them, but also nudge them as necessary.”

RECOGNIZE WHAT FUNDERS CAN GIVE BESIDES MONEY : Filmmakers are becoming increasingly aware of the many resources that a funder can provide aside from just money. One filmmaker attests, “Our program officer was not in the media area, and film was a relatively new idea for her. She acted as an inside expert, answered questions, and was a huge help in shaping the outreach program. At one point, she even helped rescue the project. She also helped identify likeminded funders, which was fantastic.”


BUILD IN BENCHMARKS : One film investor remarks, “One way to avoid disaster is to have clear contracts, and to have signposts that money is triggered to—for example, you give a certain amount of money for a rough cut, a fine cut, etc. At each stage, both parties have to communicate, and if they don’t, then money doesn’t flow. Setting up success-based signposts for when money moves can be very helpful.”

NEGOTIATE COPYRIGHT AND LICENSING : One filmmaker offers this cautionary tale. “We [the filmmakers] thought we had a pretty ironclad final cut clause in our contract. When we came to loggerheads with a funder who wanted changes that were literally impossible to make, they simply withheld the money. If we had owned the rights to this project, then as filmmakers we would have had equal power with the funder we could have withdrawn from the contract on the grounds that they had breeched it, and looked for finishing funds elsewhere. But since they contractually owned the rights to the film they ultimately had all they power. End result: the film was never finished. A tragic waste.”

CONSIDER ALTERNATIVE GRANT ARRANGEMENTS : One small foundation has given critical support to some documentary film and theater projects that went on to earn substantial money for their creators. “Good for [them],” the grantmaker says. “But it raises the question of [whether] we ought to either get our money back, or have an equity stake in the film.” One successful tactic has been to make what the foundation calls “returnable grants,” which the funder says is a term of art. The grant agreement looks like an average grant letter, with the added clause that if a film turns a profit, then someall of the grant money will be returned so the foundation can support other projects. Even then, the funder says, “We’re not going to go audit some film company. Most of this runs on trust.” Only some of the grants the foundation makes are stipulated as “returnable” it’s just one more option for funding film. However, one documentarian says that loose language in contracts can lead to legal quagmires for the filmmaker. She suggests that terms be spelled out in writing, and that the funder cover the extra expenses of accounting and reporting that the filmmaker may incur for this type of grant.

TAKE STOCK OF PUBLIC TELEVISION RULES : If a filmmaker or funder wants a film to be considered for broadcast on PBS, it must fulfill certain requirements, such as technical standards and a prohbition on any funder owning the copyright. From the PBS guidelines, “Generally, the producer, coproducers andor presenters hold copyright. If the copyright holder is a station, the legal licensee name is appropriate for copyright notice. Underwriters cannot hold or share copyright to the program. If any other entity holds or shares copyright, Program Underwriting Policy must approve the arrangement.”

Photo credit: Members of the Namati team, the Skoll Foundation, and the Sundance Institute at the Stories of Change Lab.  © 2016 Sundance Institute | Photo by Brandon Cruz.