Hot Docs ’17: The ins and outs of funding applications

Inevitably, most documentary filmmakers have to raise money to bring their vision to the screen. The funding process can be cumbersome and time consuming for directors and producers, as different fund ...
May 8, 2017

Inevitably, most documentary filmmakers have to raise money to bring their vision to the screen.

The funding process can be cumbersome and time consuming for directors and producers, as different fund applications have different guidelines.

Engagement specialist for social issue documentaries, Tracie Holder said those seeking funding need to have a strategy when it comes to writing proposals.

“Every fund has a mission. It’s not as if a funder can say, ‘I love this project. I think I’ll fund it.’ They have a mission statement affiliated with an organization that says, ‘We need projects that will further whatever the mission is,’” Holder said during a Hot Docs industry session on Friday (May 6).

For example, she said the Ford Foundation focuses on features that tap into social issues and movement building. They recently funded docs like David France’s How to Survive a Plague which looks at ACT UP and Treatment Action Group in the late 1980s, which brought attention to the AIDS crisis.

Holder (pictured, right) also recommended that applicants ask for the maximum amount one can ask for.

“My experience on funding panels is that no project is never not funded because the filmmaker asked for the highest amount.”

Filmmakers might not get the full amount, but won’t be turned down for the asking.

Holder is the development and funding strategist at New York-based film production company Fork Films. The prodco has a film fund that people can apply for. It’s a two-part system with finalists submitting an in-depth application.

Holder says as a filmmaker herself, she wanted to give directors a proper review, but became agitated when she would have to review lengthy applications and samples. She called these types of applications “self-indulgent” as those submitting them were not being thoughtful of her time or capacity.

“I think one of the key things I’ve learnt whose been on both sides is that we are often in the fish bowl trying to stop from drowning…But we often don’t step outside the fish bowl to see what we are trying to achieve from the funders’ perspective.”

Ultimately, applicants should try to align their project with the funder’s mission.

Holder recommended that applicants anticipate any questions that funders could have and address it themselves, so the readers don’t fill in the blank.

Amy Halpin, director of filmmaker services at the International Documentary Association, said clarity is the biggest issue she sees in applications. People get caught up the language and can come across sounding too academic.

“If I can’t sum up your project in a couple of sentences that I’ve just read, that’s problematic,” she said.

Applicants don’t always properly contextualize their work sample. Halpin (pictured, left) said people think the sample speaks for itself , but it needs to be contextualized: who are these characters? What are we not seeing in this sample and how does it relate to the finished film?

“I’ve seen proposals fall off a cliff in a final review because questions get raised by that sample that isn’t answered anywhere.”

For newbie applicants, Holder recommends to try and get a seasoned producer or editor on board for their project. For her first feature film, Joe Papp in Five Acts she worked with Sam Pollard, a producer and editor who she said often worked with director Spike Lee.

“The fact that Sam had faith in me or willing to lend his talents legitimated me.”

Letters from supporters, organizations interested in the distribution of the film or broadcasters can also be helpful in helping to access funding.


About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news editor at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joined the RS team in 2015 with experience in journalism following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and with communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.