The power of "don't wait": Funding lessons from independent filmmakers

By on February 23, 2012

I’ve recently started looking into the world of independent documentary filmmaking in an effort to understand how so many filmmakers figured out a way to make a living with long-form storytelling. One thing is for sure: Most successful filmmakers I spoke to also are savvy business/sales people.

It was very interesting to get a glimpse into this world, mostly through the FilmShop and the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective, two collectives I am part of. As a journalist, the divide between the ad sales department and the editorial side was as holy as anything could be. Here, filmmakers were writing proposals for grants, setting rates for their film screenings and speaker appearances, and working out ways to get funding from advocacy groups and corporations.

Here are a few things I think we could learn from our filmmaking colleagues.

Get your reporting funded

I have been speaking to a number of documentary filmmakers and video journalists, picking their brains about doing long-form journalism at a time when funding is scarce. A recurring theme is that some journalists and independent filmmakers (those worlds seem somewhat separate) produce shorter grant-funded pieces for journalistic publications and repurpose the footage later for 60- to 90-minute films.

This works for two reasons:

First, this approach allows filmmakers to explore subjects and cast characters for their documentaries while making shorter pieces for the faster-moving news cycle. It takes a long time and a lot of resources to find the right characters for a good documentary — people who are comfortable in front of the camera and have an interesting story you can follow, especially abroad. Doing this in stages and through shorter stories can be a cost-effective way to go scouting for your next long-form project and to gather enough material to cut together a trailer that, in turn, can help you apply for some of the more traditional grants that documentary filmmakers have relied on for decades.

Photo by Hilke Schellmann/Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

Wall Street Journal videographer and filmmaker Hilke Schellmann has been working with her journalist partner Habiba Nosheen on an impressive documentary about honor killings in Pakistan. They have made four trips through the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, ITVS and the Center for Asian American Media, posting shorter stories such as this one on the Pulitzer Center’s home page, which were then picked up by The Atlantic and a large newspaper in the United Kingdom. They will release a documentary about the subject in the future (distributing it on television), but in the process of working on these stories, they already have created considerable awareness.

This brings me to my second point: This staggered approach to releasing stories during the actual production process is an opportunity to build awareness about a subject and to garner a small audience that then can grow into a larger one — a nice “side effect.”

With that said, here are a few funds that might be of interest (and you can find a long list of fellowships here):

Build your audience

In the past, many filmmakers might have spent years shooting in silence and editing their films behind closed doors, only releasing them during festivals, in theaters or on television for a few weeks. But the lead-up to the release/premiere of a film has become much more important — particularly when it comes to raising funds.

The biggest game-changer for documentary fundraising has been sites such as IndieGogo and Kickstarter, both of which allow filmmakers and managers of other creative projects to tap into their audience as investors. Filmmakers set a fundraising goal, which they need to meet in a certain number of days. They then try to raise that money through supporters of the film, friends, family and others who might stumble upon their project.

My friend, filmmaker Theresa Loong, has successfully raised more than $11,000 — $3,000 above her goal — for her film “Everyday is a Holiday” and has lectured on the subject multiple times. The key to these campaigns is building an audience before you even start your campaign, she said. That means reaching out through newsletters, hosted events where audiences are first exposed to a rough cut of your film or the subject matter, and making sure your site becomes a portal for the issues you’re reporting on.

Her film is about her father’s journey from being a prisoner of war during World War II to becoming an immigrant to the United States. It touches on a number of issues, such as the life of veterans, immigration and Asian Americans. To raise awareness within her target audience, before the film will even be shown on television, Loong held events at the Museum of Chinese Americans and festivals sponsored by Asian-American organizations.

Her presentation on Kickstarter can be found here.

This approach could be compared to building a niche audience for a blog and then connecting to it in a physical — not just virtual — space. News organizations such as ProPublica or WNYC (Radiolab) have organized live events to bring their content to selected audiences. I think it’s an effort that’s worth pursuing. In a recent conversation, Loong called her film and the site she will create a “movement” — looking at stories (blog posts, events, screenings) that way might be an interesting approach to defining long-term projects.

Don’t give up

The numbers of inspiring examples abound. I look around me and see people like my friend and fellow Columbia graduate Anup Kaphle of The Washington Post. He has received funding from a number of organizations to tell some amazing stories from Afghanistan even though his full-time job is more of an office job. Throughout the years, he has carved out a beat for himself in Afghanistan — not to mention the respect from his colleagues, as shown in this cartoon by Pulitzer Prize-winning animated cartoonist Ann Telnaes:

Cartoon by: Ann Telnaes. Courtesy: Anup Kaphle

Everyone has to find his or her own way to tell their stories. Sometimes that means reporting after office hours, when you’ve finished the assignments your editor gave you. Sometimes you make a deal with your editor to allow you to take a leave of absence for a reporting trip if you can find funding for it. Others might have to do work they don’t particularly enjoy in order to finance reporting trips they really care about. Whatever your arrangement will be, I firmly believe that there is a way for younger journalists like us to do the kinds of stories we’ve always wanted to do at a time when newspapers are hiring fewer people and closing foreign bureaus and regional newspapers, which used to serve as training grounds for aspiring reporters.

To quote Robert Krulwich’s commencement speech at Berkeley: These are dire times for journalism, “but there are some people who don’t wait.”