Money Isn’t Everything

An obvious route to financing an indie project is apply to every possible funding source - and then hope you win the lottery. But, producers can hedge those bets by pursuing another option: covering some of a production's cost by partnering with equipment vendors.
January 1, 2004

An obvious route to financing an indie project is apply to every possible funding source – and then hope you win the lottery. But, producers can hedge those bets by pursuing another option: covering some of a production’s cost by partnering with equipment vendors. The filmmaker wins by getting to use equipment for little or no charge. The vendor stands to win by boosting its status in the professional-equipment market. It’s the kind of deal that gets done all the time, observes Sandra Ruch, executive director of the L.A.-based International Documentary Association. ‘There are all sorts of ways to do it,’ she adds.

To be successful, a doc-maker needs a game plan and had better enjoy hearing the word no, since many equipment companies naturally discourage requests for support.

Despite the odds, Jon Else, a two-time Emmy Award winning doc-maker and professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for New Documentary, says he’s found success over the years approaching both major-brand companies and smaller, mom-and-pop rental shops, for everything from cameras and editing systems to lighting gear. The trick has been finding the right person.

In his experience, directly soliciting corporations such as Apple and Sony never works. ‘I couldn’t even get them to return my calls,’ he says. Good networking – as ever, the most important skill – was key to clearing that first hurdle. ‘Somebody knew somebody who knew somebody in the marketing department, and that’s how we got the call returned,’ he says, recalling a typical in-kind deal. ‘None of these deals happened through the front door,’ he adds (RealScreen can relate – requests for interviews to nearly a dozen vendors were refused).

New York-based prodco Cappy Productions, headed by doc-maker Bud Greenspan, was able to equip eight crews with Panasonic’s AJ-HDC27 VariCam hd cinema cameras for its sports doc Salt Lake 2002, due to Greenspan’s ‘prior relationship’ with the company. As Panasonic’s U.S. national manager of marketing services Jim Wickizer explains, ‘It was a way for Cappy to showcase this hd equipment [for Panasonic],’ he says. ‘It was a one-time thing.’

To have a shot at success, doc-makers must win over a potential partner by positioning their need – making a film – as a solution to a supplier’s problem, such as proving to a reluctant production community the benefits of upgrading to high def, or adopting a novel editing system. Washington, D.C.-based doc-maker Nina Seavey was able to bridge such an impasse to make The Ballad of Bering Strait, a 100-minute high-definition doc shot over three years.

‘We had looked for a pressure point in a developing part of the industry and decided to use that [hd] to our advantage,’ Seavey says. She courted Roland House, eventually getting the Arlington, U.S.-based production facility to cover the equipment needs for Bering Strait. It took care of roughly one third of the doc’s US$650,000 budget; she paid back the debt when the film was sold to a distributor in 2002. The production, first begun in 1999, helped market Roland House as an expert in HD. ‘[The film] demonstrated the viability of the technology,’ comments Seavey. (Roland House, which applied for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last August, ceased operations in November.)

Sometimes, a producer can simply be lucky. Dyfed, U.K.-based doc start-up Ravens Nest Productions cold-called the London H.Q. of camera-maker JVC and came away with the use of a consumer-grade mini-DV camera for its 30-minute 2002 one-off Spirit Horse. The marketing department just happened to have a spare GR-DVX44E unit available, explains spokesman Jeffrey Hyland. In return, Ravens Nest – which was also able to use a JVC BR-DV600 VTR editing recorder gratis – plugged JVC’s sponsorship at every opportunity, says producer/director Julia Cortwright.

Few doc-makers will be so lucky. However, as Else points out, ‘there is no harm in trying.’

Panasonic, based in Secaucus, U.S., is one vendor that seems willing to help independents. Last fall it launched a new initiative – the digital filmmakers grant – that will award the use of an AJ-SDX900 camera package and Apple’s Final Cut Pro4 to a lucky filmmaker once a quarter, beginning this month. For info on the grant, go to

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