If you’re a healthy, normal filmmaker, your plans surely include applying to foundations. After all, that’s what we’ve been taught. Filmmakers get grants, then they make films. Sucker. The unfortunate truth is that the number of foundations explicitly funding films is shrinking while the number of filmmakers applying for grants is expanding. Think giant mosh pit. If you’re going to rely on these same, “usual suspects” for grants, expect a long, hard film row to hoe.
If you want to make a noncommercial film — narrative, documentary, experimental, or some exotic hybrid — then you must seek money from new sources. That money should include individual contributions, a subject we’ll delve into in posts. But, it should also include grants from foundations that “do not fund films.” That’s right. You need to walk right up and knock on the doors of these film-phobic funders. The fact is, they “don’t fund film” — until they do.
Who Fouled My Watering-Hole?
Fewer and fewer funders are supporting film. What happened? Why is this so damned hard? Sadly, somebody was there before you, and they fouled the watering hole. Many funders have become gun-shy of funding films because filmmakers failed to deliver on their past promises. Sure, grants were made, but not the mother-scratchin’ film. Or, the film was made, but not well. The program officer got her head bitten off by an irate board. She won’t be funding film again. Even if the foundation has no prejudices against film, they’re not primed to be receptive. They don’t understand film. They don’t understand how media impacts the world. Or, they’re just not imaginative. If they can’t see it, they can’t imagine it. If they can’t measure it, they can’t fund it.
Who Are These People?
There are approximately 70,000 private foundations in the United States, and untold legions of family foundations. Foundations exist as a mechanism to shelter money from taxes while at the same time encouraging charitable giving. By law, foundations must give away 5% of their assets each year in order to keep their tax-free status. That’s right. They must give away money. It’s the law! And you’re here to help.
In the foundation realm, program officers are gatekeepers, and board members are decision makers. Program officers employ a solid CYA strategy. They’ve learned what their boards like, and they plan to keep serving it up. If you fit what they’re looking for, you’re golden. If not, you’ve got your work cut out. This is why, with foundations that fund film, as well as other sources of funding, veteran filmmakers have an easier time getting grants. The vets are a known quantity. They’re low risk, unlike those greenhorns trying to crash the gate. As in other areas of life, so in grants: “The rich get richer.”
Tips for Success
All right, now that I’ve taken all the wind out of your sails, let me puff them back up. You don’t need no stinking film-funding foundations. That’s right. Because, while there are a couple hundred foundations that fund film with any regularity and which don’t bar the door and grab a rifle when they see a filmmaker approaching, there are just under 70,000 other private foundations out there. You can get grants from them if you know how to improve your odds.
Here are tips for increasing your chances of success. First, take the long view — look to develop a personal relationship with program officers. This is labor intensive but pays off. Go to “meet the funder” events hosted by local nonprofits such as the Foundation Center (which has offices in New York, San Francisco, and around the country). Second, read the foundation’s guidelines, and figure out how your film serves the foundation’s mission and objectives. Call the program officer and talk about your film. Describe its “mission,” how you expect it will impact the world, who it will impact, and how. If possible, talk to another filmmaker who has gotten a grant. Ask for insights into the process. Although it should go without saying, write a clear, concise, compelling proposal. Put a strong team around you that includes people who have skills you don’t, or more experience than you do. Write a clear plan for distribution and fundraising as well as a reasonable budget you translate to the foundation’s terms. I urge you to create partnerships with nonprofit organizations who can join your advisory board, help recruit interview subjects, help distribute or screen your film, and help give foundations that warm, fuzzy feeling of familiarity. Finally, note that they’re more likely to fund distribution and outreach than any other part of the process.
It works. I recently secured a $60,000 grant from an art-loving foundation that “does not fund film.” Until they funded mine.