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Alternative Funding

Hidden Treasure: Secret Sources of Documentary Funding

Andi Hector-Watkins

Andi Hector-Watkins

At Sheffield Doc/Fest 2013 there were filmmakers of all stripes hoping to find funding for their projects, and they weren’t short of opportunities: there were public pitches for novice filmmakers and fledgling projects (Mini-MeetMarket); a pitch for feature documentaries (The BFI Film Fund Pitch); a pitch for first time directors (Channel 4 First Cut Pitch); a pitch for films focusing on biomedical science (Wellcome Trust Pitch); a pitch for aspiring onscreen talent (Specialist Factual New Talent Factual Pitch) and a pitch for short documentaries (The New York Times OpDocs Pitch); and a pitch for projects that are focussed on developing countries (Your WorldView), among others.

For those who prefer to pitch behind closed doors there was the MeetMarket, where a total of 1500 one-to-one match-made meetings took place between 63 project teams (including six cross platform) and 286 decision makers from international broadcasters and film funds. In the first ever Crossover Market  27 project teams pitched to 85 cross-platform decision makers.
First of all, she mentioned the idea to her head of department at the university and was able to access a pot of money designed to fund academic research, along with some discretionary funding from her department. Andi’s colleague Laura won a National Teaching Fellowship award of £10,000, and put some money into the project.

Hans, the film’s main subject, won a prize for excellence; he used the money to hire a film crew to record a special closed performance of Mahler’s 5th symphony by a specially gathered orchestra of fifty-eight cellists, featuring many of his former students, a high percentage of whom are now principal cellists in orchestras around the world. Hans agreed to make this footage available to Andi for her documentary, saving her some filming costs.

Andi also approached PRS (Performing Right Society) for Music Foundation who will fund music that has been newly composed for a performance or a specific platform, and she is waiting to see if she has been successful at securing funding from them too.

None of these sources are ones that filmmakers would think to turn to first, but these non-traditional documentary funders were remarkably easy to deal with – no complicated application forms or administration, and no tortuous commissioning process: the money was accessed following a verbal pitch and based on Andi’s enthusiasm for the subject and her professional experience and academic credentials.

Building a funding strategy

So could you replicate this for your film (and avoid those painfully public festival pitches)? Possibly, with some careful research and forethought. Andi was remarkably strategic. in that she:

  • Chose a subject to which she had a close connection – she’s a music expert and has a personal link to the main character in her film via her colleague, which gives her exclusive access
  • Holds a Senior Lecturer post of the sort that qualifies her to apply for research grants
  • Broke her project down into its different elements e.g academic research and newly composed music, and identified all the possible incarnations of her project that would give her access to different types of funding. Once each separate element of the film has been funded by a specialist funder they can be reassembled and used as building blocks towards the larger film project
  • Worked out what each potential partner wanted out of funding a project and emphasized that in the pitch e.g. How will this project help academic research into classical music reach a wider audience?

This kind of strategic thinking is something all filmmakers could learn and benefit from.

Andi’s top tips for securing secret sources of documentary funding:

  1. Make sure you know your subject matter. Get to the core of what the story is – this is  what forms the narrative. Your story is not the same as the subject matter – know the difference.
  2. Work out exactly what your project might look like to someone else (you see a documentary film; they see a tool for raising public awareness) and why that might make it attractive to them. Use these insights to identify potential funders (who might never have previously funded a documentary) for whom your project ticks a box.
  3. Know what you can offer a non-traditional funder in exchange for their money e.g. your creative vision can help them reach a wider audience, and emphasize this in your pitch.
  4. If you stay true to the integrity of the story and communicate your passion and expertise someone will commission or fund you.


Need more help with your funding strategy?

Give Me the Money and I’ll Shoot! Finance Your Factual TV/Film Project

Building on the success of Greenlit, this book is the most accessible guide to the traditional, emerging and creative funding models being exploited by factual TV producers and documentary filmmakers in an ever-changing international market. It introduces you to ten different kinds of funder – from international broadcasters to ordinary individuals – and reveals their very different motivations for funding non-fiction films and TV series.

Advice from industry insiders – producers, buyers, media agencies and film funding bodies – is combined with a range of case studies that illustrate the benefits and drawbacks of each source of funding. Packed with practical, actionable tips and examples of successful written proposals and grant applications (along with tales of caution), this book explains exactly what TV commissioners, grantors, brands and investors are looking for in a pitch.

“For someone like me, who feels ‘too busy’ to commit to reading a whole book on funding before I start the process, this is GREAT, because you can dip into sections where and when you need guidance.”

“Direct but reader-friendly style – keeping what could become dry information interesting, by using relevant case studies and insightful quotes from industry experts but without any `fluff’.”


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