When the 90-minute special The Forgetting: A Portrait of Alzheimer’s premiered on PBS in January, it found a responsive 9 P.M. audience. The doc on the disease that afflicts about 5 million Americans drew an audience that was 60% higher than the PBS prime-time average for the season (2.73 versus 1.7). The program, along with an accompanying Q&A show and web site, also triggered a flood of 4,200 calls to the Alzheimer’s Association’s hotline that evening, an increase from the usual nightly trickle of 75.
Two factors contributed to making The Forgetting a ratings and outreach hit: demographics and savvy packaging. Baby boomers and their parents are getting older, and want to learn more about ailments such as Alzheimer’s, observes Sibyl Jacobson, the president of the MetLife Foundation, the New York-based charity arm of the well-known insurance company and sole funder of the US$2 million production. By packaging the program as an instrument of community change (for instance, by plugging the many non-profit groups and state-funded agencies that provide services to the aging), St. Paul, U.S.-based prodco Twin Cities Public Television tapped into the $3 billion handed out annually by U.S. health foundations for everything from treatment centers to media campaigns.
Twin Cities exec VP for national production Gerry Richman, who spearheaded fundraising for The Forgetting, says MetLife Foundation was an ideal target as it sponsored an awards program dedicated to researching Alzheimer’s.
Jacobson notes the pitch meeting went very well because the producers positioned the doc as a vehicle for raising awareness of Alzheimer’s social impact (by 2030, one in five Americans will be over 65, the age at which the disease hits one in 10 people). Their pitch also didn’t focus exclusively on the production. ‘To us, TV, video, or film is simply a means; it is not an end. If a producer were to ask ‘Do you have a program for funding documentaries?’ the answer is no…The vocabulary that doc-makers use is very important when they approach a foundation,’ says Jacobson.
Enhancing the credibility of a proposal helps, too. Minneapolis-based Larkin McPhee, whose credits include Dying To Be Thin, an acclaimed program on eating disorders first carried by PBS’ ‘Nova’ strand several years ago, says a good way to sell a foundation on the worthiness of a doc is to win the backing of a recognized authority in the field. For her next project, an exposé of the hidden crisis of depression, in development with ‘Nova’, McPhee is appealing to the Washington, D.C.-based National Institute of Health for ‘their stamp of approval.’ She notes, ‘It is symbolic support…but it is a way of endorsing the project and helping my [fundraising] efforts.’ To gain the written backing of the NIH, she’s sent them her pitch proposal and a copy of Dying To Be Thin.
Pharmaceutical companies are another likely funder, and can often respond to requests sooner than foundations. Art Holliday, the St. Louis-based journalist behind a one-hour one-off doc on schizophrenia, Before They Fall Off The Cliff, was surprised when Eli Lilly marketing reps, having heard of his project, encouraged him to apply for funding from the makers of Zyprexa, an anti-psychotic medication. After successfully pitching the company, they gave him a $10,000 grant and the services of a PR agency to drum up interest in his film at last September’s IFP Market in New York.
While it may take longer to win foundation backing, their buy-in generates long-term awareness for a doc, since not-for-profits often want material they can recommend and distribute for years to come, notes McPhee. ‘The mission of these films is to help people long after the broadcast, so presenting it in that way to a potential funder is the right direction to go,’ she says.