When most documentary filmmakers think of possible sponsorship avenues for their projects, they think of the big boys – the Fords and General Motors of the world, who often have more money than they have time or energy to disperse. In the case of New York-based, non-profit media arts organization Women Make Movies, however, the old adage about not seeing what’s right in front of you comes to mind. WMM takes a unique spin on funding alternatives; they don’t give out money, but instead provide a unique environment for women filmmakers to help fund themselves.
WMM was established in 1972, in the heyday of the women’s liberation movement in the U.S. Formed to address the under-representation and misrepresentation of women in the media, the organization provides resources for national and international women-driven documentary, dramatic and experimental films. According to the organization, it is the largest distributor of women’s media in North America, currently representing more than 400 films and videos by and about women.
The multicultural, multiracial organization also provides a unique structure under which women filmmakers can not only hone their craft, but receive production assistance, available through WMM’s 11-year-old fiscal sponsorship program.
Offering consultations on fundraising, proposal writing and production management, the sponsorship program is an opportunity for filmmakers to qualify under WMM’s non-profit umbrella. This allows producers to claim non-profit status, which in turn lets them receive foundation grants for which they would otherwise be ineligible. Rahdi Taylor, director of production assistance at WMM, explains: ‘We serve as the non-profit umbrella for people to receive tax-deductible contributions and we help them in their strategies to raise money, put together their budget, etcetera.’
According to Taylor, the fiscal sponsorship program is highly competitive. Of the 80-100 applications received each year, only about 50% are approved by wmm, which accepts applications quarterly. Budgets, bio sketches, sample tapes and a polished proposal must be part of the package – everything that a traditional funder would require. Explains Taylor: ‘Part of the rationale is that we want people who come into the fiscal sponsorship program to be ready. If they’re not ready to raise money, they don’t need fiscal sponsorship – what they need is training.’
One key requirement of the program, in keeping with WMM’s mandate, is that the director of each project must be female. The genre and subject matter are immaterial, although docs appear to be the genre of choice when looking at wmm’s catalog. All projects must be media related and have a non-profit, rather than commercial, angle. The reason for this, Taylor explains, is simple: ‘Our feeling is that a commercial project will be able to get a hold of [the many] sources that don’t require non-profit status and, therefore, they really don’t need fiscal sponsorship.’
An added boon for filmmakers is that many of the projects accepted into the fiscal sponsorship program are then acquired by WMM for distribution to its network of broadcast, educational, semi-theatrical and home video markets. This has paved the way for the success of many award-winning wmm projects, including the documentaries Divorce Iranian Style, a film by Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini examining the business of divorce in the lives of three Iranian women; Girls Like Us, a portrait of four ethnically diverse working-class girls in Philadelphia, by Jane C. Wagner and Tina DiFeliciantonio; and Treyf, a look at the dynamics of a Jewish lesbian relationship, by Alisa Lebow and Cynthia Madansky.
WMM’s 27-year-old mandate to ‘shed light on important issues, give expression to new ideas and create visibility for the women who are invisible in the mainstream media’ was recently honored with a special tribute and 25-program retrospective of WMM titles by New York’s Museum of Modern Art.