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Alternative Funding

Funding 101 – Who Will Fund My Creative Documentary?

Photo by Horia Varlan CC BY 2.0

Are you a creative documentary-maker? Of course, you cry: creativity is my craft. But wait a minute; if you are what is defined by the industry as a maker of ‘Creative’ documentaries you could be in trouble when you try to find funding for your film.

Documentaries with a social conscience have, in recent years, become fashionable with NGOs, foundations and brands all keen to be seen to be supporting (with hard cash or ‘in kind’ assistance) documentaries will change the world. It’s still a little too early to tell whether documentaries really do make a big difference, although organizations such as the Good Pitch are beginning to track results (Read a summary of their research to date in The Good Pitch Review.) While positive social action is well and good, many traditional and emerging film funds now insist on some kind of social agenda for the films they fund, which means that documentaries that don’t have social justice at their heart have been squeezed out, meaning that some filmmakers find it really difficult to find funding, Andy Whittaker, chairman of UK distributor Dogwoof told Screen International.

But what if you regularly ‘do good’ in your daily life – donate to charity, recycle your bath water, volunteer at a homeless shelter over Christmas and cycle to your allotment – and you feel like you’ve earned enough karma not to have to spend the rest of your days doing documentary outreach for yet another cause, however worthy? What if you just want to make a Creative documentary i.e. one with a good story about a great character or (whisper it) an experimental approach?

You could try for a commission from a broadcaster, or more likely these days, a number of international broadcasters. The trouble with that plan is that there are few slots in the TV schedule for one off documentaries, and commissioners prefer their character-led programmes to play out over several programmes, preferably several series (think My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding or Pawn Stars). You’re also constrained by the fact that most TV documentary slots can only accommodate a 60-minute film (more like 47-minutes when you allow for ad breaks), which means you can’t make a theatrical documentary, or you end up making two versions.

Your best bet in these circumstances used to be to apply to one of the specialist film funds dedicated to helping filmmakers establish their careers while giving them the space to experiment with story-telling and form, such as the Tribeca Film Institute Documentary Fund or the San Francisco Film Society Documentary Fund. However, these funds are often limited to post-production or to filmmakers living and/or working in a certain geographical region. And competition is fierce: your application to a film fund has a 1-2% chance of being successful.

Luckily, theatrical documentaries have enjoyed something of a commercial renaissance recently, with critics and audiences agreeing on what makes a great documentary and none of them have a social issue at their heart: Senna, Pina, March of the Penguins. Others, which did have more of a conscience stuck to telling great stories based on compelling characters such as The Interrupters (about a gang intervention initiative in Chicago) and The Cove (an eco-doc shot as a thrilling heist movie).

This commercial success is attracting the attention of distributors who are increasingly putting money into development and production rather than just the acquisition of finished films. For example, following on from the success of Carol Morley’s Dreams of a Life, which grossed $490,000 in the UK, distributor Dogwoof is setting up their own production fund to support feature-length documentaries and plan to invest up to £250,000 in 3-5 documentaries a year.  (Previous projects supported by Dogwoof can be found here). Other distributors are also increasingly investing in documentaries (and TV programmes) that have global potential and having a distributor on board from an early stage not only guarantees distribution, but also helps to reassure other funders about the viability of the project thereby attracting more production money.


Chapter 2 in Give Me the Money and I’ll Shoot!: Finance Your Factual TV/Film Project explains more about the role of the distributor in raising development and production finance and how to pitch your project to them.


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