TIFF ’17: Lessons in privately financing your documentary

Acquiring private financing from angel investors for a feature-length documentary can be one of the biggest challenges for filmmakers. But if successful, it can reap major rewards. On the sixth day ...
September 13, 2017

Acquiring private financing from angel investors for a feature-length documentary can be one of the biggest challenges for filmmakers. But if successful, it can reap major rewards.

On the sixth day of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Geralyn Dreyfous (pictured), co–founder of Impact Partners, an organization dedicated to funding independent documentary storytelling, graced the TIFF Doc Conference stage in a conversation moderated by Thom Powers, TIFF documentary programmer.

In a session titled “Private Investment In Documentary: How And Why”, Dreyfous and Powers discussed the opportunities and challenges associated with the private financing of documentaries, and gave advice to filmmakers looking to work with private investors.

Dreyfous, who also serves as a founding member of Gamechanger, a for-profit film fund dedicated to financing narrative features directed by women, has been a producer and investor on such acclaimed films as The Invisible War, The Square, The Judge, One of Us, Hell and Back Again and Academy Award winners Born into Brothels and The Cove.

What follows are several of the lessons learned from the Sept. 12 session:

The conversation

Some filmmakers are skilled at navigating through the process of working with private investors to win financial support. But what steps can filmmakers inept at having those same conversations take to ensure their own slice of the pie?

“Anybody that has money and is taking a meeting with you knows you’re going to ask them for money, so take the boogeyman out of the room. If they’re agreeing to give you 20 minutes of their time, it’s because they’re already interested in what you have to say,” Dreyfous says. “The idea that they don’t know that you’re coming to them to ask them for money is not the case – everybody knows it’s going to happen.

When raising money, filmmakers should prioritize the format of the invitation. It’s the filmmaker’s job to provide private investors with an invitation that is exciting and authentic enough that will grab their attention and make them want to be part of something special. Pitching filmmakers should be thoughtful and respectful enough to think about why their story would be of interest to financiers.

“For someone who has resources, it’s a real privilege and pleasure to a) discover talent, b) to be part of something that can make a difference and c) see if there are contributions you can make besides the financial resources you can bring. Our investors at Impact bring so much more than their money. They bring their expertise in technology, their businesses, their non-profit experience, their passion and their networks. Don’t be afraid to ask, because they’re expecting to be asked.”

Managing a relationship with financiers

Investors who have supported a film with an equity investment – where investors recoup their money – will tend to want to weigh in on the editorial process. Some investors will provide their opinion on elements of the project, while others will want to see rough cuts of the doc. How do filmmakers preserve editorial independence while balancing a respectful relationship with a financier?

“At Impact, all of our investors understand they will look at an executive summary and a trailer. If they want more involvement in the film because the subject matter is on point with their philanthropic portfolio, we have a conversation with the filmmaker. We often encourage that investor to step up and be an executive producer to earn that right as opposed to a smaller investor, because I think it’s impossible for filmmakers to be showing rough cuts to everyone who gives them $10,000.

“Most people that are writing a check for a quarter of a million dollars are too busy to be looking at rough cuts. It’s your job as a producer to give people updates. It’s not your job to educate investors on how to make a film. If the investor is interested in expanding his portfolio into film, that’s very different.”

Plans change

Because of the nature of documentary filmmaking, projects that begin with a detailed plan can often become derailed by changes out of the filmmaker’s control. The story’s narrative sets off in a different direction. Access to a subject is closed off. Budgets skyrocket. What’s the best method to deliver bad news to your investor?

“It’s about communication and keeping your donors informed. Often, especially if you’re a first time documentary filmmaker, you don’t have the budget to have a producer but this really falls on the shoulders of a good producer. You’re in the field explaining that something’s happened, and it may have consequences for the budget or the timeline.

“Keeping people informed is such a good strategy on all sorts of fronts. It can be very helpful for people to understand the process and to help you pivot. Most of my investors who are philanthropic and wealthy people are great problem solvers. Investors can help you solve your problems without bailing you out with more money.”

Photo courtesy of TIFF 

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.