Morrie Warshawski on finding money for your documentary
Morrie Warshawski is a money man. He’s just published the third edition of his book on finding funds for independent film making, Shaking the Money Tree. The book has evolved as the art of making films has, and he was kind enough to chat for a few minutes about what he’s seeing, specifically as it goes toward documentary filmmaking.
Morrie has a long history working with both arts groups as well as funding agencies, and he can see both where these connect, and where they don’t. While he has specific advice for those making dramatic films, here are some thoughts he shared about the current climate for documentary filmmakers:
1) Quit saying “audience,” start saying “community.” The notion of traditional arts has been the one-way model. The artist creates a work that is viewed by an audience, a sort of active-to-passive equation. But really what’s happening is that the documentary filmmaker, with the work, enters a community of people who are already very active when it comes to the area of interest. They may be practitioners, advocates or supporters; they may engage in the area of interest socially, professionally, or both. So the trick to gaining support for one’s projects is often to join the community rather than perceiving oneself as at a distance from that community. That means, often, that support can come to a filmmaker the community sees as furthering the cause, topic or interest. That community may be individuals who may be worthy recipients of crowdfunding appeals, or they may be foundations and funding agencies who see themselves as opinion leaders. In his books, Morrie talks about the “fundraising house party,” which doesn’t always have to be in a house, but is a social and fun gathering of people being brought together through their mutual interests. (in his book on that subject, Morrie suggests that the invitations clearly state that the party is to raise funds – no ambushes – that the guests should be served refreshments and be given a short presentation on the project, and that it often helps for a respected member of that community to be willing to urge support of the project). Here’s a post by Sandra Sims on a fundraising house party that gives her account of how it went.
2) Think Narrow and Deep. One problem with some documentaries that fail to get funding support is that they operate on the notion that the more people the project appeals to, the more chance for donations or funding. Morrie says “narrow and deep” is a better way to go: When you focus down to a smaller slice of topic matter, you find fewer people directly connected, but many of those people are intense in their interest in getting their topic seen. “When you go narrow, you go deep, and when you’re deep, it’s a niche in which people are nearly rabid,” he says. They may be more willing to write checks for a project that celebrates, publicizes or showcases their topic interest. “It also helps when you can connect with organizations that can give you access to large mailing lists of people who have that interest,” he says. That ist will become a primary marketing tool when the film is ready to sell.
3) Be aware agencies and foundation still think “film” means “big bucks.” This may be a notion furthered by filmmakers themselves, who pitch giant budgets when they might consider going leaner. Foundations, for the most part, still perceive “film” as a prohibitively expensive medium for which their financial support can often yield little tangible result. Part of the task ahead may be to help educate the foundations that smaller grants can yield bigger results than ever before. “Foundations presume film projects are always going to be exorbitantly expensive,” Morrie says.
4) The problem is sometimes not finishing the film, but distributing the film. Morrie notes that granting agencies often believe the filmmaker when he/she pledges to finish the film in the proposed time and for the proposed funds, “but many have been burned.” He cites examples in which a $500,000 budget becomes $750,000, and the project goes onto a dusty shelf while the filmmaker seeks other funding, sometimes furtively. Or a project that takes five years instead of the proposed one year. But beyond that, he says, grants organizations can also feel burned if the completed film never really gets out into the world – the failed distribution deal. “Any grant application needs to have a solid distribution plan,” he says, and that can include public screenings, DVD sales, web availability or other self-controllable forms of distribution. If your “plan” depends on a third party distributor to get the work out, it will be harder to justify the grant. Looking at the “hybrid” self-distribution model advocated by people such as Peter Broderick can give donors a nice warm feeling about where they’re throwing their money
5) Pitch it as a topic, not as a film. Given the reticence of granting agencies to “waste” money on film projects, approach them as someone who will treat the topic well, and use film as the, or a, approach to doing it justice.
6) You can have both investors and donors. Morrie notes there’s no rule keeping a filmmaker from seeking out both investors who want a return on their money and donors who simply want the topic/subject covered well. He notes some filmmakers who have, at the film’s completion, sent DVDs to the donors as a token of appreciation (I’ll throw in my two cents here, but imagine if the donors get a special or limited-edition package that has something better or nicer than what one would get as a standard purchaser). But, he says, be aware of what each party wants out of the project, and honor those expectations. “Donors and investors are two different animals looking for different outcomes,” he says. “For donors, supporting your documentary has everything to do with values they believe deeply in. A donor hopes you’ll be successful in spreading those values.”
In the end, it will be up to documentary filmmakers, as a community, to build goodwill with both donors and grantmakers. People who pitch extravagant budgets, or who “go Hollywood” on their supporters, or who don’t follow through on promises make it tougher for everyone else. Add to that Morrie’s view that the effect of the economy on foundations and the amount of money they have to hand out “is really something we’re going to see this year.” But the good news is that the cost-effectiveness of technology will allow us to do more with the funds we raise, and compete more fairly for the funds that are available.