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In the Darwinian jungle of independent-production financing, the conservation-themed doc is an endangered species. While many environmental organizations offer occasional support to conservation programming, as Justine Schmidt, the co-president of doc-group Filmmakers for Conservation (FFC) points out, nearly none have grants dedicated exclusively to doc-makers.
February 1, 2004

In the Darwinian jungle of independent-production financing, the conservation-themed doc is an endangered species. While many environmental organizations offer occasional support to conservation programming, as Justine Schmidt, the co-president of doc-group Filmmakers for Conservation (FFC) points out, nearly none have grants dedicated exclusively to doc-makers.

Another major factor working against conservation-themed projects is that most broadcasters are reluctant to back eco-message films, since they tend to draw smaller audiences. Finally, broadcasters are fearful of being associated with groups that may pursue anti-consumer agendas. However, a few organizations are helping such programs get made.

The FFC, an international not-for-profit program- maker’s group, is in the process of building the framework for the FFC Fund – a pot of money that will annually offer finishing grants of between US$10,000 and $15,000 to a doc-maker from each continent. The organizers of the finishing fund program, first bandied about in September at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, plan to begin handing out checks at October’s 2004 Wild Screen Festival in Bristol, U.K.

According to Schmidt (the other co-president is Madelaine Westwood, a producer at Marlow, U.K.-based Nutshell Productions) the fund is designed to help address the arduous task producers face when raising money for programs that carry a help-the-environment message. ‘There are a lot of opportunities for filmmakers to be granted free lodging or free access [to missions sponsored by environmental groups] but not funds to complete their shows,’ explains Schmidt, who is based in Washington, D.C. The financing is being raised from a combination of corporate, non-profit and individual sponsors.

As Chris Palmer, the president and CEO of National Wildlife Productions notes, the ultra-competitive broadcasting environment in the U.S. means producers of conservation programs must be flexible. ‘We don’t have any cookie cutter way of raising financing,’ he says. NWP, which is able to offer some budget funding due to the backing of the not-for-profit National Wildlife Federation (which has 4 million members), has helped produce TV specials and series for many partners, including the Disney Channel, Animal Planet, and PBS. Palmer’s advice to doc-makers is to organize a marketing agenda and approach as many potential sources of funding as possible.

It’s a path Palmer has walked many times, including for Coral Reef Adventure, the 2002 Imax film made by Laguna Beach, U.S.-based MacGillivray Freeman Films. Palmer helped string together the support of 16 organizations to back the $10 million budget.

West Hollywood-based Sierra Club Productions, a unit of the 112-year-old Sierra Club, also pursues a variety of avenues to fund doc projects, explains director of development Adrienne Bramhall. Whereas the Sierra Club proper is able to provide few dollars to support a budget, Bramhall says the non-profit can call on its network of benefactors to find money. For example, Seattle-based outdoor retailer REI is a benefactor. It is via that network that SCP helped fund The Appalachians, a 2 x 120-minute doc scheduled to air on PBS this spring. The Appalachians is produced by Akron, U.S.-based Evening Star Productions and WETA, the PBS affiliate in Washington, D.C.

Palmer emphasizes that when it comes to raising money for environmental-message docs, perseverance is precisely what will loosen the purse strings. ‘There is no magic bullet. It’s a matter of conveying your deep passion for the project, and why it’s absolutely vital the film gets made.’

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for HMV.com. As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.

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