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Alternative Funding

Funding 101 – How to Speed Date a Funder

Today, if you aren’t going after international money you aren’t doing your job properly as a documentary filmmaker. There are dozens of TV and documentary markets and forums around the world, and many filmmakers find they have to go to several in order to meet with the right people. For example, Sheffield Doc/Fest has almost 250 commissioners, funders and buyers attending the various sessions dedicated to pitching such as the MeetMarket, Round Table Session, Power Hour Sessions (formerly the Speed Dates), commissioning panels, and public pitches. Most meetings that you will have in an environment like this are high-octane – you’ll have between 10-15 minutes to pitch and get feedback on your project before their next appointment. So what can you do to make the most of this opportunity?


The first time you meet a potential funder is a nerve-wracking experience and your entire future rests on this one conversation. RELAX. It’s not really like that. The person sitting on the other side of the table isn’t your adversary (even though it might seem that way when they say no); they are taking this meeting in the HOPE that you have something that they WANT to buy, a project that EXCITES or MOVES them emotionally.

And the way to give them what they want is to do your homework before you apply to a formal market or forum (if you don’t it’s unlikely you’ll be selected anyway).  If you manage to get a meeting lined up in advance make sure you know everything you can about the funder’s remit, what they’ve previously funded and/or what’s currently showing on their channel. It’s not difficult these days to watch clips online of foreign shows of even the most obscure channels. The buyer won’t expect you to know the internal politics of their channel (although that does help), and you can be forgiven for now knowing that they commissioned a similar project yesterday, but you should at least be showing them something that they can instantly see where it would fit on their channel. And it helps if you have done some basic background research on the specific person you are meeting with – what kind of shows have they made in the past and what kind of things do they regularly commission? It helps even more if you’ve seen some of the aforementioned films, so that you have a common point of reference during the meeting.

Photo by lemuelinchrist CC BY 2.0

I’ve Only Got 10 Minutes 

Having such a short amount of time can put you on edge and make you blurt things out in an effort to get everything across in one go (otherwise known as the “show up and throw up“). Relax. The purpose of the first, and the following meetings with a potential funder, isn’t to walk away with the money, but to get another meeting. It takes several meetings before a buyer will feel comfortable enough with your offering before they will commit. And even if this project isn’t right for them, you may have another that you might want to bring to them at a later date.

Therefore the trick to having a short meeting is to know what you need to get across in that meeting:

  1. In a first meeting you want to intrigue them with the story – so you need to be able to tell them the story in just a sentence or two: Who, What, Where, Why? This should take about 2-3 minutes at most. If you can’t do it in that amount of time you haven’t developed your idea well enough.
  2. You should always have something that is visual and accessible to show them. A 2-3 minute trailer that is ready to play on an iPad is good. A 20-minute trailer on a laptop that needs firing up (or on an iPad in a room with no wifi) is not so good.
  3. In follow-up meetings you need to show them that you have been progressing your film without them, which indicates commitment and dedication rather than neediness and desperation for their money. So if you have secured interest from a prestigious film foundation or a distributor or several pre-sales, tell them because that lends credibility to your film. If you have shot new material that changes the story (adds a new character or increases the level of drama) show that too if you have time, or offer to send it to them by email.
  4. If they start asking questions half-way through your pitch stop. And listen. A good pitch is a two-way conversation, so as soon as they start responding and asking questions you can relax a little and find out exactly what they do and don’t like about your project (and then respond appropriately).

Photo by MikeCrane83 CC BY 2.0

 Be Human, Buy Them a Drink

In a festival or forum situation the funders are likely to be around for several days, so it’s possible that you will bump into them in the elevator, breakfast queue or at the bar. When they are ‘off-duty’ they just want to go about their business, without being constantly harassed in corridors and bathrooms by producers desperate for a dime. If you do happen to find yourself next to someone who might be able to help you with your project DON’T launch into a pitch: all they will be thinking about is how to escape. Instead, just smile and make casual conversation about something other than your own film. If they aren’t receptive, don’t take it personally, just leave them be.

However, sometimes they might welcome a friendly face. I was at Sheffield Doc/Fest one year when I noticed a woman standing alone in the busy festival bar looking a bit lost. I recognized her from one of the panels as a foreign commissioning editor so I asked her if she was OK. It turned out that it was her first time at the festival and that she didn’t know anyone so I offered her a drink and invited her over to the group I was with and I’ve never seen anyone look so relieved. We passed a pleasant hour or so swapping tips about festivals around the world and things to do in and around Sheffield, which would pave the way for further conversations if/when I had something suitable to pitch to her.

If a potential buyer is happy chatting with you, the trick is to keep it light; the ideal scenario is for them to ASK you what you are working on at the moment. They are always going to respond better to a pitch they’ve invited than one that’s forced upon them. Don’t give them the hard-sell in the bar, just give them the top-line information and then offer to send them more details by email.


Want to know what questions you are likely to get? Read:

Pitching Tips Straight From the Commissioner’s Mouth

What The Commissioning Editors Said at IDFA


Read Chapter 10 in Greenlit: Developing Factual/Reality TV Ideas from Concept to Pitch to find out more about pitching.



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