IDFA ’19: Tracie Holder talks tips to secure U.S. funding for non-American filmmakers

AMSTERDAM — Filmmaker and funding strategist Tracie Holder presented a “crash course” on U.S. documentary funding for international filmmakers Sunday (Nov. 24) at the 2019 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam ...
November 25, 2019

AMSTERDAM — Filmmaker and funding strategist Tracie Holder presented a “crash course” on U.S. documentary funding for international filmmakers Sunday (Nov. 24) at the 2019 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA).

Holder (pictured), the principal of Tracie Holder Consulting, has raised more than US$2.5 million for her own projects, including the feature-length documentary Grit, which aired on the PBS strand ‘POV’ in September.

Holder told the audience at Flemish cultural center Brakke Grond that the odds are stacked against filmmakers. With limited time and resources, thinking strategically is key.

“To get a grant from the Sundance Documentary Fund, or from Chicken and Egg, a fund for women filmmakers, is between 2% and 4%,” she said. “It is easier to get into Harvard than it is to get a grant from these funding agencies.”


There are two basic rules of fundraising, Holder explained.

First, she said the process is all about building relationships. “It’s very important that when you are meeting with people you take a long-term approach.”

The second, she said, is that filmmakers must inspire confidence in their abilities. “When funders are looking at projects, they’re not only looking at the ideas, they’re investing in you. And what they want to know is, are you someone they can feel confident will deliver the project?”

Additionally, in the U.S., fiscal sponsorship is often required to receive grant funding. Securing a fiscal sponsor is a low bar to clear, Holder says, and allows a filmmaker’s non-commercial project to apply for funding from organizations that require non-profit status.


1. Find similar projects

And see who funded those projects, Holder recommends.

“Then I know two things. I know, this is a funder who funds film and they’re interested in this subject,” she said, adding that the same strategy applies for filmmakers building out a distribution plan.

“You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

2. The Foundation Center (Candid)

This New York-based public-private partnership functions like a library, Holder said, gathering documentation that non-profits in the U.S. need to make publicly available.

“If you don’t live in New York, you can go to their website. It is a repository of every piece of information about every foundation that exists in the United States,” she said.

The center, which recently rebranded to become Candid,  “provides a window into what [the organizations] fund and how much money they have,” Holder added.

3. Doc Society

Holder recommended filmmakers visit to find an extensive list of funders, both U.S. and international. “They also have great resources when it comes to distribution, impact campaigns,” she said.


“We’re all inside the fish bowl,” Holder said. “But funders, they’re outside the fish bowl looking in. And they don’t particularly care about all of the things that are going on for you. What they need to know is whether you have a project that is going to further their mission, that is going to serve them. Our responsibility is to step outside the fish bowl, and see the world from their perspective.”

Most grant applications include seven components, she said: the project description, personnel and credentials, timeline, audience/distribution, fundraising plan, budget and work samples.

For Holder, there’s a few essentials when it comes to grant proposal writing.

  1. Ask why should someone else care about this project. “You can’t assume just because it’s important to you it’s obvious to funders.”
  2. Always emphasize the timeliness and urgency of the story. “I’m always strategically thinking: I’m in the final pool. How do I make sure, when they’re weighing my project with another really competitive project, that mine is the project their going to fund?”
  3. Bring funders into “a world” with the pitch. “Describe it in vivid, visual terms… so that when I read it, I can imagine if I saw your character on the street, I would recognize them.”

Holder adds there are three questions every filmmaker should answer: “Why this project? Why are you the person telling this story? And, why do we need this story now?”

When writing a proposal, Holder said she strikes a balance between “macro” and “micro” context — providing the larger overview of the project and then building to the particulars.

“My job is to take somebody by the hand and to build a bridge so they can see why it is relevant to them,” she said. “Your proposal is a continuous opportunity to pull back the curtain and to explain your thinking and how you’re approaching your project.”

Securing letters of support or interest from a potential distributor, funding or broadcaster, or a community-based cultural or educational group, can also demonstrate the audience for the film. Additionally, filmmakers should present a comprehensive and credible plan to how the work will reach an audience.

Also emphasized was the fact that filmmakers should maintain their credibility by avoiding a budget that’s too high or too low, and by only listing other funders that are likely to provide a grant to the project.

Lastly, Holder told the IDFA audience to prepare for the “elephant in the room” questions by addressing issues that may present obstacles for the project, acknowledging similar projects out there, and being clear about the cost of projects that require international travel.

(Photo Courtesy IDFA)

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