Ford Motor Company

When searching for funding or underwriting for a documentary, there are obvious places a filmmaker can look. A large, century-old, multi-billion-dollar automobile maker seems to be an obvious choice, if only for its potentially deep pockets. The Ford Motor Company out...
March 1, 1999

When searching for funding or underwriting for a documentary, there are obvious places a filmmaker can look. A large, century-old, multi-billion-dollar automobile maker seems to be an obvious choice, if only for its potentially deep pockets. The Ford Motor Company out of Michigan receives between 40 and 50 financing proposals annually, many of them from the Public Broadcasting System.

Mark Kaline, the manager of media services at Ford Central Media, looks for an exceptional piece of filmmaking before he will allow Ford to attach its name (or its bucks) to it. Ford underwrites PBS’ Nature and Washington Week in Review. The relationship between Ford and PBS has lasted for over a decade and will continue indefinitely in to the new millennium. According to Kaline, PBS programs, such as Nature (produced by WNET in New York) and Washington Week in Review (produced by WETA), get the underwriting greenlight because of their reputations and objectives, which are, in the case of Nature, in line with Ford’s commitment to the environment.

‘Ford is a supporter of public television because we feel it is quality,’ said Kaline. He says that Ford’s commitment to PBS also stems from the pubcaster’s lack of commercial clutter. Although he admits that networks like CNN, Discovery, Lifetime, and others also broadcast quality programming, PBS is, in most cases, the originator of many of the doc genres that can be seen there. ‘You’ve got programming that is, in many ways, being replicated by networks in the cable business. Whether it’s wildlife programming, science programming, business programming or news, there are entire networks now providing that sort of stuff out in the cable industry, who basically got the ideas from the success of some of the PBS shows.’

In the past few years, Kaline estimates that Ford has contributed between US$20 and $30 million to the underwriting of projects, with the lion’s share going to PBS. Ford entertains other doc proposals, but very few of them get made.

‘As a global company we’re a little more interested in those products that have the best chance of gaining the widest audience, in terms of looking at the full lineup of PBS stations. Perhaps even extending beyond the boundaries of the U.S.,’ says Kaline, noting that most of the rejected projects are more regional in scope. ‘I can’t tell you how many bird watching programs I’ve seen in the last year-and-a-half since I’ve been at Ford.’

Like most major corporations with a sponsorship program, Ford fields funding and underwriting requests through an advertising agency that weeds out applicants who do not meet the Ford criteria. Kaline says that applications requesting Ford’s assistance are handled with the strictest of confidentiality. The ideas contained are not lost, borrowed or stolen, thanks to the discretion of the agency.

When the evaluation of the candidates begins, a little bit of experience never hurts. ‘We like to look for [a filmmaker] with a track record that they can fall back on. Then at least we know the quality of the project is going to be there,’ Kaline says.

In terms of the application requirements, he admits, ‘certainly there is a process for us. I would encourage filmmakers with a concept or idea to reach out to those people, whether they’re media managers or ad managers. Find out whether these ideas are in synch with strategies or key objectives that our company is trying to achieve or an audience that [the project] might draw that would be appealing to that marketer.’

Lest the company shareholders find Ford’s doc spending frivolous, Ford cannot and will not finance all of the documentaries proposed to them. However, there have been projects requesting assistance that Kaline feels have just been the tiniest bit off-the-mark for a corporate thumbs up and, in light of this, he feels that it’s a good idea to undertake a program in which Ford’s separate divisions may get involved in underwriting. If some projects do not completely fit in with Ford Motor Company’s corporate budget or stances, they may comply with the initiatives of one of Ford’s many individual divisions. For example, Austin City Limits on PBS (produced by KLRU in Texas) is partnered specifically with the Ford division of Ford Motor Company, and Kaline hopes to see more of that in the future.

Ford sponsors and underwrites projects primarily that comply with their company’s beliefs and agenda. The company’s stance on environmental issues is very outward, with Ford’s underwriting of Nature as one example. On the fiction side, to exemplify Ford’s commitment to breast cancer awareness and research, the company sponsored an episode of the sitcom Murphy Brown where Murphy was learning to cope with breast cancer. Ford also struck a partnership with NBC to bring the Oscar-winning holocaust drama, Schindler’s List to television commercial free.

Ford Motor Company’s primary contributions to documentary filmmaking, however, can be seen on the PBS networks. The company feels that the positive image it helps to create for itself with the programs it chooses to support can also serve as a way of advertising what they’re interested in to other doc-makers who need fiduciary assistance.

‘I think what sometimes happens is film producers, documentary producers and even series producers see Ford Motor Company as already in the game of PBS underwriting,’ said Kaline. ‘They come to us thinking we already understand or we’re friends of public broadcasting, which we are, but it’s not an endless well unfortunately.’

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 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.