“It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.”
This post is a part of our in-depth series about how to finance your independent film.
It is best read after (1) a beginner’s guide to independent film financing, and (2) 3 first steps you can take to start funding your independent film.
Should You Pursue Donations and Grants?
If your independent film’s primary purpose is to educate, raise awareness, and/or help others in some way, then you likely will be competing for financing in the noncommercial arena of donations and grants.
Documentary films in particular compete in the noncommercial arena.
Commonly, a documentary’s agenda will resonate with an individual’s beliefs, foundation’s raison d’être, and/or corporation’s ethos. “The vast majority of funders,” Warshawski writes in Shaking the Money Tree, “[F]und a film primarily because it is an excellent way to get a message across about their particular area of interest… These funders are primarily interested in how a film can benefit the public.”
Of course, narratives also can seek donations and grants from funders who connect with their stories.
Understanding Individual Donations
Traditionally, individuals represent 80% of all donations given to all noncommercial enterprises in the United States. The vast majority of these donations come from individuals with annual incomes below $50,000, so don’t rule anyone out!
Begin looking for individual donors in both your personal and project communities. Consider approaching family, friends, acquaintances, coworkers, and patrons as well as fans of your film’s website and social network pages.
To harness the support of the latter, you can conduct a crowdfunding campaign, use the online infrastructure of a fiscal sponsor like Fractured Atlas, or work to develop your own infrastructure.
Where possible, do your research. Identify individual donors’ passions and favored causes, and if applicable, their giving patterns, which can be determined from studying organizations’ annual reports. As strange as it may seem, some donors like to give specific amounts; if you ask them for their magic number, they may be more inclined to write a check.
Ultimately, “With individuals it is best to concentrate on involvement at an emotional level,” Warshawski advises. Pitch your film concisely and enthusiastically, aiming to engage individuals personally. If someone seems interested, invite conversation; don’t launch into an impassioned monologue.
You can pitch over lunch. At a party. To strangers in an elevator or at the DMV. You never know who may be interested, so always be prepared with your pitch!
If you know a potential donor directly but are not close with him/her – or if someone you know connects you with a potential donor – then you may opt to begin the pitching process more formally on the phone. In this scenario, request a meeting and offer to send additional information. Depending on how the call goes, you might follow up with a simple email or a full project proposal – which you’ll have created if you’re applying for grants – so that the potential donor can peruse your project before meeting. When you meet, aim to engage at an emotional level, and be open to any and all questions. Listen to what is being said, and respond accordingly.
In our digital age, some people prefer an email to a phone call. Approach them accordingly.
If in the course of your research you identify a stranger as a potential donor, you may have no choice but to initiate via email. Do it! What do you have to lose? In the words of a Washington Post profile: “You have an idea. You have an affinity group. You have email addresses. You ask for money.”
Follow up every concerted interaction with a potential donor – individual, organization, or otherwise – even if that interaction resulted in a rejection. Thank them for their time and consideration. Do what you can to cement a positive impression and so heed Benjamin Franklin’s adage: “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.”
Moreover, who knows? An individual may not be interested or able to give to this film, but there’s always the next one. When you pitch to individuals, you’re playing a long-term, community-building game as well as a short-term, project-specific one.
How to Get a Grant from a Foundation
The Foundation Center reports that in 2011, foundations – defined as nonprofit organizations, known to the IRS as 501(c)(3)s, that make grants to selected applicants “for scientific, educational, cultural, religious, or other charitable purposes” – divvied up their funds in the following manner:
11% of “Arts and Culture”’s 9% was donated to “Media and Communications”, totaling $240,783,253. A relatively small piece of the pie, suggesting that, as Warshawski puts it, “Many foundations are funding the film not because it is a film, but in spite of the fact that it is a film!”
This is where you don your entrepreneurial hat and accept that a typical foundation will view your film as a vehicle for its message. Pitch accordingly, stressing the elements of your film that will resonate with your target foundation – which, of course, assumes that you’ve done your research.
The good news is that grants tend to come in good-sized chunks, usually thousands of dollars, considerable capital for building credibility and winning further support.
But expect that money to be hard-fought. Competition is fierce, and the grant writing process can be grueling. Whereas pitching to individuals is all about emotional engagement, pitching to foundations demands a more refined approach that balances head and heart.
In most cases, you will submit a formal written proposal to be evaluated by a panel of trustees. This means a mountain of paperwork tweaked to the foundation’s guidelines, cleanly and logically presented.
Different foundations will ask for different materials, but generally, a complete project proposal consists of the following, as identified in Shaking the Money Tree:
- Cover Letter – A one page introduction on letterhead.
- Title Page – A simple summary of details like title, contact information, intended running time and format, and intended audience.
- Table of Contents – Necessary if the proposal is lengthy.
- Formal Request – An introductory paragraph describing the project, the reason you need support, and how much money you’re requesting.
- Description of the Project – A more in-depth description of the film’s subject, style, themes, and intended outcome.
- Statement Proving Need – Here, you must prove why the world needs your film. How is your film different from others that tackle the same topic?
- Description of Intended Audience – Identify your niche, as discussed earlier.
- Why I Became Involved with This Project – Briefly explain why you decided to undertake this specific project.
- Treatment – For many foundations, the treatment is the lynchpin of the proposal. Essentially, it is a prose version of what we’ll see onscreen when watching your film. The writing should be visual, with no intangible details like theme and intent. Unless otherwise instructed, try to keep the treatment to two pages single-spaced.
- Production Plans and Timeline – Where and when are you shooting? What difficulties might you encounter? Sketch a generic timeline through distribution.
- Personnel – Brief descriptions of your team: director, editor, cinematographer, project advisor, etc. Create credibility by highlighting people’s accomplishments and awards.
- Distribution Plans – Explain how you intend to reach your intended audience. Be as specific as possible.
- Community Outreach – How do you plan to engage your audience? Do you have a website and social network presence that can help you get the word out about your film? How can you extend your film so that it reaches and impacts many people?
- Evaluation Plan – Foundations like to quantify the success of the projects they support. Cite the tools you will use to help them measure success: film festival acceptance and awards, critical response, audience response, sales reports, etc.
- Funding Strategy for Completion of Project – Assuming you’re awarded the grant, explain how you plan to raise the rest of the money in your budget.
- Budgets – Include a budget summary, a complete budget, and a budget for each of the various phases of your project, ie., script development, production, post-production, etc.
- Fiscal Sponsor Letter – A copy of your fiscal sponsor’s official 501(c)(3) letter proving its nonprofit status. Also include a cover letter written by your fiscal sponsor explaining why they’re sponsoring your project and why the potential funder should consider providing support.
- Letters of Support – Letters of Support are essentially letters of recommendation written by experts in the field your film concerns, by reputable filmmakers, by target audience members, by distributors, etc. They should be typed, printed on letterhead stationary, and signed.
- Letters of Commitment – Everyone attached to the project should confirm his or her involvement in writing. These brief, official notes prove that you’re not name-dropping in your proposal. On the contrary, your team is committed and ready for action.
- Press Clippings – Coverage builds credibility by raising awareness. Keep hard and digital copies of any and all press mentions of your film.
- Full Resumes of Personnel – Another credibility-builder, resumes showcase your team’s talents and accomplishments to date. These are in-depth supplements to your “Personnel” section.
- Demo Reel/Trailer – Keep it short and sweet, ideally representative of the style and content of your proposed project. Ensure that the reel/trailer is as polished as possible. Leave the viewer wanting more – cliffhangers are great, here. Documentary Doctor Fernanda Rossi calls this piece “an audiovisual pitch for fundraising” that is “like a short without an ending”, including complete scenes that convey the gist of your story.
It’s worth noting that “70% of all grants awarded in… [the United States] have involved some form of personal contact”, Warshawski reveals.
Where possible, make contact with the foundation to which you submit your proposal. For instance, you might call the foundation’s program officer to confirm that your proposal has arrived safely and is correct. At worst you’ll enjoy peace of mind; at best you’ll find a friend and champion.
If you choose not to make contact, you must accept that you’re bucking the odds.
How to Get Corporate Support
Nonprofits seek to use your film as a promotional platform, but corporations take Enlightened Self-Interest to the next level. You must convince a corporation that your film will benefit it directly, which usually translates to ensuring that a corporation will receive exposure with its target audience. Pitch your film as a marketing opportunity.
Product placement is an increasingly popular alternative to traditional advertising, on account of its lower cost and potential reach. In Skyfall (2012), James Bond turns down his signature cocktail for a bottle of Heineken, part of a deal for which the beer company paid a reported $45 million – some 20% of the film’s total budget!
However, according to priceonomics, “Movies account for a relatively small slice of the product placement market”, with television attracting more than 70% of all paid placements. Not every film enjoys the following that 007 has – if product placement is unrealistic for your indie feature, you can try to negotiate a credits mention and/or other forms of audience exposure.
Not surprisingly, it helps to have an “in” at the corporation you approach; someone who can make an introduction and open the door. If your film’s topic resonates with the corporation’s CEO, that’s even better, since corporate giving is often personality-driven. Connecting with a CEO affords you a shot at bypassing the red tape and improves your chances of finding funding.
Discover the Commercial Alternative
Perhaps your film is a shameless slasher that in no way shape or form accommodates the interests of a philanthropic individual, foundation, or corporation.
But, you think, it sure could turn a profit.
Don your armor and grab your lance, fair knight, for you are destined to joust in the commercial arena of investments. Feel free to consult our comprehensive guide now!
Michael Koehler, with
For more details, explore the rest of our in-depth series about how to finance your indie film:
Part I – Beginner’s Guide to Independent Film Financing
Part II – 3 First Steps to Finance Your Indie Film
Part III – How to Get Donations and Grants for Your Indie Film
Part IV – How to Find Investors for Your Indie Film
Part V – How to Use Crowdfunding to Finance Your Indie Film
If you’re looking first to learn how to make a film, we invite you to check out our affordable online filmmaking course – more curated than a blog, more interactive than a textbook, more flexible than traditional film school.
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