Sponsorship: Digging deep into the foundations, Jon Else finds water

'A complete goddamn nightmare.'...
January 1, 1998

‘A complete goddamn nightmare.’

That’s how writer/director/producer Jon Else describes the process of assembling the financing for Cadillac Desert, a coproduction from now-defunct TransPacific Television and San Jose’s KTEH aired on PBS in June of 1997. Based on Marc Reisner’s groundbreaking book, the four-part series unravels the web of money and politics that ultimately brought water and, in its wake, drastic environmental change to the American West.

The development of the project illustrates the equally intricate web of money and politics that permeates the world of documentary film financing. ‘All of these big projects are nightmares for financing,’ says Else, who, along with executive producers Sandra Itkoff and Jonathan Taplin (a Hollywood producer who has worked with Scorsese and Wenders), eventually tapped US$2.7 million from no less than 21 sources to finance the project.

The final funding came from a variety of foundations, corporations and private individuals. Itkoff also credits Reisner as instrumental in sourcing funds – being familiar with foundations through his environmental work.

The subject matter, according to Else, a MacArthur Fellow who teaches documentary film production at both Stanford University and the University of California at Berkley in his spare time, made the search even more of a challenge.

‘Since it was an environmental program, and since it looked with some scrutiny at who were the big winners and the big losers in the West, it was hard to fund,’ explains Else. ‘The initial funding was from the Ford Foundation, CPB/PBS and from a wonderful little foundation in San Francisco called [The Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation].’

‘Oddly enough, [Cadillac Desert] was launched without a producer/director attached to it. Once [Trans Pacific] had their first million dollars, I became involved as a producer/director of the first three programs,’ says Else.

Just how difficult was it to get the money? ‘In order to get the final funding for this project, it took 307 grant applications – full-up applications – that ranged anywhere from three to 100 pages,’ says Else. ‘We literally had to close the office twice because we had topped out.’

The result is that they actually spent more time hunting funds than shooting, a fact of filmmaking which Else calls nothing less than a travesty. ‘We spend probably half our time doing the fundraising. It goes with the territory. It’s awful; it’s exactly what we should not be doing,’ he says matter-of-factly. This from a man whose resume includes two Academy Award nominations and two Emmys; for aspiring filmmakers, the situation is even worse.

‘You can imagine what it’s like for someone who doesn’t have any credits,’ says Else. ‘The major problem coming down the pipe with this funding bottleneck is that the new voices are just not going to get heard. All the money is going to go to the Ken Burns of the world. And I’ll get some, and Sandy Itkoff is going to get some.’

According to Else, the reason this situation has developed is simple. ‘When I made my first major film in 1980, The Day After Trinity, I was a 28-year-old guy out of film school. And I, as an unknown, could get funding from various tax-supported institutions in the government. The 104th Congress went after that with a vengeance when they went after public television in 1984. The result is that you can get a little bit of money from government institutions now – CPB, PBS – but you can never get enough to do all the film.

‘What this means, and this is the lynch-pin, is that you have to get corporate funding, and corporate funding usually is, in fact, simply advertising money. It comes out of an advertising budget. Corporate funders are not going to fund ‘General Motors presents the Great Depression.’ And there’s the rub: as this triumphant commercialism devours America, it’s devouring documentary right along with it. ‘

And in its considerable wake, it’s devouring what public television is all about: a unique voice that doesn’t capitulate to corporate America and its agenda, contends Else. ‘Frankly, that’s why it took 307 grant applications. It’s very tough to fund idiosyncratic projects and it’s very tough to fund things that are challenging – socially, politically and culturally, morally and ethically challenging – to a television audience.’

This problem, according to Itkoff, is compounded by the fact that ‘corporations cannot truly value what they get with PBS’ when compared to a traditional television advertising buy on a program such as Seinfeld. PBS’ unique brand of programming attracts a quality of viewer which could potentially be more effective than an audience made up of a higher quantity.

Similarly, ‘Foundations, especially environmental foundations, also aren’t able to put a value on this type of project,’ she admits. ‘They see that they give their money to a group that’s going to clean up a river. So they don’t understand that, yes, US$2.7 million dollars is enough to clean up a hell of a lot of river but we’ve educated a lot of people. We’ve been in film festivals; we’ve gotten some of the largest audiences since Ken Burns’ baseball series in certain markets.’

Of the 21 sources Else and company tapped for Cadillac Desert, one corporate sponsor unafraid of the subject matter was retail giant The Gap. ‘The Gap came in because the guy who owns The Gap is a resolute environmentalist,’ explains Else. ‘He’s also a guy who’s very resolute about giving something back to the community.’

Like any self-respecting masochist, Else is currently in production on a new project. ‘The odd thing is, you just keep coming back for more,’ he admits a bit sheepishly.

This time out he’s putting together footage which he shot more than five years ago which investigates Wagner’s Ring Cycle from the stage hands’ point of view. And there’s an added bonus: ‘It only required 107 grant applications to fund,’ laughs Else.


In the end, there isn’t much money left over for producers such as

Sandra Itkoff. Instead, they must look at their work as a labour of love. But Itkoff, like Jon Else, is only too eager to get back in the game. Upcoming is 20th Century Project, ten segments on the past ten decades directed by Robert Redford, Norman Jewison, Barry Levinson and John Woo, among others. Another project in her portfolio is Decalogue, with Else behind the camera, as is Errol Morris, for one of ten shorts which attempt to frame the Ten Commandments in a modern context. In fact, after our interview, Itkoff was off to a meeting looking for funds for this very project. RealScreen will catch up with her and Else, and see how each is proceeding.

Finally, who did cough up dough for Cadillac Desert? File the following in your rolodex; ‘M’ – for money:

- The Ford Foundation
- The William & Flora Hewlett Foundation
- The John D Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
- Gap
- Brita
- National Fish and Wildlife Foundation
- Michael J. Connell Foundation
- The Bullitt Foundation
- The David and Lucile Packard Foundation
- California Council for the Humanities
- The Ambassador Bill and Jean Lane Fund
- Compton Foundation
- The Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation
- The Mary A. Crocker Trust
- Pacific Mountain Network
- Wyoming Council for the Humanities
- Andrew Norman Foundation
- The Jenifer Altman Foundation
- Bert Fingerhut/Caroline Hicks Family Fund

About The Author
Jillian Morgan is the Associate Editor at Realscreen with a background in journalism and digital marketing. She joined the publication in 2019 after serving as the assistant editor to trade publications HPAC and On-Site. With a bachelor of journalism from the University of King's College in Halifax, she also works as a freelance writer and fact-checker.