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Alternative Funding

Ten Reasons Not to Pitch Your Independent Documentary to Funders

Photo by dryhead CC BY 2.0

All filmmakers have ideas. All filmmakers want to see those ideas realized. But not all filmmakers will do what it takes. Why not? Fear. A quite rational fear, as it happens, but fear nonetheless. Here are some of the objections you might be using to comfort yourself as to why no-one will help you make your idea and so what’s the point in trying? I’ve added some suggestions of how to overcome these stumbling blocks whether they are practical or psychological. Add your own tips in the comments or via @tvmole on Twitter.

  1. Why should I? I can work on other people’s TV programmes and get paid for it.

    • True. But that isn’t taking charge of your own destiny. Do you want to get to the end of your life regretting that you didn’t make that film you always wanted to make? If you go down the indie route you can more easily retain editorial control and do it the way you want to do it, not as some commissioning editor wants you to do it. By all means keep doing the jobbing directing gigs on TV shows/commercials/music videos – that’s a great way for you to keep paying the rent while you work on your slow-burn documentary.
  2. I’m comfortable working within the structure of a production company. It’s too risky to go it alone. 
    • You’d be mad to go it alone. You’ll want to work with an experienced indie documentary producer and/or executive producer who can guide you and make sure you are doing everything you need to. They can also make introductions and help pitch your idea to their existing funding contacts. The advantage is that you can choose who you work with on your own film, which isn’t always the case on a TV production. There are many producers who are willing to work with emerging directors: Sheffield Doc/Fest is a good place to get recommendations in the UK; try organizations like Women Make Movies in the USA.
  3. I’ll never raise the budget I need.
    • Not with that attitude you won’t. Take a long hard look at your budget and see if it’s realistic: are there any unnecessary costs that could be shaved off? For example, is it more cost effective to fly all your interviewees to one place rather than have your crew fly all around the world? Then break your budget down into smaller, more manageable chunks: development, production, post production, distribution. There are specific funds set up to fund each stage of the process. Once you’ve got enough development money you can make a trailer, which will then help you pitch your idea to funders who have production grants. Just take it one step at a time, like a marathon (nobody would ever run a marathon if they thought about it too hard in the first instance).
  4. I’ll do it next year.

    • Fundraising for, never mind making,  an independent documentary can take years. Funders often like to track projects through their early stages before they commit any money. The sooner you get out there and start building relationships, the sooner your film will be funded and made. And if  you wait too long your film’s subject might become irrelevant or other filmmakers might steal a march on you. Leo Maguire spent two years filming with the gypsy community for Gypsy Blood (2012), and  Ian Palmer took 12 years to film Knuckle (2011); both were chronicling a closed society that hadn’t been seen before on TV. And then along came Big Fat Gypsy Wedding (2010)  beating them both to air by a couple of years. Suddenly it felt like gypsy documentaries where everywhere, with everyone jumping on the bandwagon. Gutting if you were actually the first to get access. If you have something to say, say it now, before someone else does.
  5. I’m passionate about my subject and I think my film could change the world. But will it?

    • If you don’t make your film it definitely won’t change the world.  And even if you do it might not. If you are going to have to raise £200,ooo to make your feature documentary mightn’t you be better to raise that money and give it straight to your favourite charity? Or get a job at that charity, roll your sleeves up and get stuck in? On the other hand, the genre of social justice documentaries is still young, and growing. A number of documentaries are deemed have been successful in changing attitudes if not the world exactly: End of the Line and and An Inconvenient Truth, for example. BRITDOC is tracking the impact of social justice documentaries and collating and evaluating all their findings, which you can read about on their website.
  6. I won’t make any money. I have to pay the mortgage.

    • Most films, let alone most documentaries don’t make any money. But some do. Dreams of a Life grossed $490,000 in the U.K according to Variety. Senna has made $11,856,854 worldwide; Touching the Void made almost $14,000,000 worldwide. It’s worth noting that none of these films are ‘issue’ films. But they do all tell amazing human stories that are full of drama,  universal questions that are intriguing and unsettling in equal measure. How could anyone lie dead, undiscovered, for three years? To what lengths will someone go to win? How could someone cut the only lifeline of a friend? Make sure that your film as as wide appeal as possible by including universal themes, and having a dramatic story arc and the investors are likely to come. If not, you can take on lucrative commercial contracts on the side to sustain you while you make your piece of art.
  7. People might not like my film.

    • That’s a possibility. But if you live your life entirely to avoid criticism you would never go out of the house (what if someone doesn’t like your shirt or your new haircut?). However, if you find a great story, with compelling characters or an interesting argument then chances are people will like your film. And although it’s impossible to please everyone having people who don’t like the film is likely to spark debate and perhaps drive more people to see it. No publicity is bad publicity, remember?
  8. I’ve never done this before. I don’t know what I’m doing.

    • Everybody must start somewhere, and you start by learning about whatever it is you don’t know about, be it cameras, storytelling or editing. And you can always hire in people to do the jobs you can’t. It’s often advisable to get other people on-board even if you can shoot/direct/edit yourself so that they can bring some objectivity and complementary skills to the project.
  9. TV commissioners won’t like it.

    • Do you need TV commissioners to get started? Many independent filmmakers have successfully raised their budget from sources other than TV and then sold the finished documentary to broadcasters. In fact, some funds, like the BRITDOC Foundation will only fund projects that have been turned down by broadcasters. Other funds: film funds and specialist ‘knowledge-driven’ funds, such as the Wellcome Trust Broadcast Development Fund are more willing to take a risk on projects that might find it hard to find a home on TV.
  10. I’ve never pitched before.

    • Again, everyone has to start somewhere. Make sure that you have developed your idea as fully as you can, can describe it in one sentence, and can write an outline treatment and you can start pitching. There are many pitching initiatives that allow you to dip your toe into the world of pitching, especially at documentary and TV festivals/markets, which often run public pitches where you can watch other people pitch their projects to see what works, and what doesn’t. If you are pitching your own project in a public forum, you are normally given some pitch training before you have to get on stage. Sheffield Doc/Fest runs the Mini Meet Market in conjunction with DFG, which is a great place to pitch your film in a friendly round-table environment to a couple of executives. You won’t come away with money, but you might have secured the interest of an executive producer who can help you progress your film.

 

Find out more about how to pitch to different kinds of funders in Give Me the Money and I’ll Shoot!: Finance Your Factual TV/Film Project .

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