Soros is a name non-fiction filmmakers will want to remember. Since 1996, the New York-based Soros Documentary Fund of the Open Society Institute has provided US$1.5 million annually to aid in the production and promotion of non-fiction films worldwide.
Among the projects Soros has helped finance are: Photographer (Dariusz Jablonski), People of the Kodor Valley (Petr Zrno), Licensed to Kill (Arthur Dong), Punitive Damage (Annie Goldson) and Morning in the Pine Forest (Mara Ravins and Janis Kalejs), as well as recent Sundance Film Festival docs Sound and Fury (Josh Aronson), Well-Founded Fear (Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini) and Os Carvoeiros/The Charcoal People (Nigel Noble).
Human rights is a common theme in all films that receive Soros grants. Diane Weyermann, director of the Soros Fund, explains that in keeping with the broader mandate of the institute, this criteria is central to grant eligibility. ‘We fund projects dealing with contemporary, significant human rights issues – social justice, civil liberties and freedom of expression. If a documentary isn’t dealing with those subject areas, it wouldn’t be a project we could support.’ But a film on an appropriate topic won’t automatically get money. ‘We look to see what this project is going to bring that’s new to the issue, that’s new to the debate, that will take us to another level, something that we don’t already know.’
Although the Fund is based in the U.S., applications are accepted from around the globe and are assessed on equal footing with domestic entries. In all instances, one of the deciding elements is a film’s potential for widespread distribution. ‘It has to be high quality and accessible to international audiences, not just a local issue that would not travel,’ says Weyermann. ‘If it’s a very local issue, then we think local funders, or governments, or broadcasters should be taking care of it.’
The spectrum of eligible candidates is narrowed further by excluding series, biographies and historical docs. Explains Weyermann, ‘One of the reasons we don’t fund series is they tend to be very expensive, and the funding is limited. We really go to support one-off documentaries where our contribution can make a difference.’
The Soros Fund offers three categories of production grants. The first is seed or development funding, meaning financing for a film in which an idea is in place but shooting has not yet begun. ‘It is the smaller grant that we give,’ Weyermann says. ‘The maximum is $15,000 to help the filmmaker start out. They can already have some funding in place – they can even have some broadcasters already onboard. Development doesn’t mean that they just have an idea and they haven’t done anything with it yet. If they’ve developed the project and have other parties interested, that certainly helps – that’s not a debit. But it does have to be in the early stages of the project.’
The second tier of grants goes towards works in progress, and can be used to offset either production or post-production costs. To be eligible, filmmakers must provide some form of rough-cut for assessment. The upper limit in this category is generally $50,000, though Weyermann concedes it is possible to receive more. ‘The board does have the discretion to award up to $100,000 two times a year. And there was a project last year that was awarded $100,000, but it’s quite rare that that’s done. That was a project by Patricio Guzman about Pinochet. It’s called The Pinochet Case.’
In the final category, doc-makers receive support on the back end, after the project is finished. Weyermann says these grants tend to range between $5,000 and $10,000, and the money is intended to help with such activities as subtitling, press materials, outreach materials, creating websites and developing educational components. ‘Obviously we’re not taking the place of a distributor or taking on the cost of getting films into festivals or travel, we don’t really cover those types of costs. But we’re looking to take the completed work and to broaden the access as much as possible.’
Doc-makers are invited to apply for grants in more than one category as their film progresses, though there is a cap on the overall quantity one project can receive. Weyermann explains, ‘If a filmmaker gets a seed grant, they can come back to us for a supplemental grant once they have a work in progress. It means that once they have a rough-cut – and we really require a pretty solid rough-cut at that point – they can come back and request a supplemental grant up to $35,000. So, the maximum is $50,000. It might be that it’s split in two components. Many people don’t get the maximum, but conceivably, one could get a seed grant for $15,000 and then a production or a post grant for $35,000.’
Because the number of applications per category changes from year to year, all awards are drawn from a common pool of funds. ‘There’s no division of the funding, that X amount goes into seed and X amount goes into works in progress. It’s an open amount,’ Weyermann says.
Grant requests are assessed throughout the year, so there is no application deadline. Weyermann and her staff of two review all of the submissions and come up with a shortlist, but the final decision rests in the hands of the Soros Documentary Fund Advisory Board, a panel composed of six prominent film and human rights experts. The board meets four to five times a year, and reviews 25 to 30 projects at each meeting. The most recent meeting was held on February 28.
Last year, around 1,000 filmmakers applied for Soros funding; the total number of grants awarded was 49 – 25 works in progress, 20 seed and four supplementary, totalling $1,054,000. While production grants are the Fund’s primary focus, the balance of the $1.5 million annual budget goes into developing better exposure for docs. Weyermann adds, ‘We’re participating in various initiatives and partnerships, ranging from the European Documentary Network to the Sundance Institute, the Amsterdam Doc Forum, the Hot Docs Forum, Human Rights Watch, Sithengi in South Africa, DocAviv in Tel Aviv – all sorts of different activities of that nature.’
A filmmaker herself, Weyermann originally proposed the idea for the Fund because she noted a huge vacuum of support for documentary films. ‘There are very few international funds that support documentary. I don’t even know if there are any others, to be quite honest. It’s a tremendous vacuum, which is why I wish that we could do more.’
Submissions to the Soros Documentary Fund should include a synopsis, budget (in U.S. dollars), a fundraising strategy, a distribution strategy, director’s filmography, a prior work of the director and a work in progress (when applicable). A list of guidelines and past grant recipients can be found at www.soros.org/sdf.