Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: Fundraising Woes

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Oh, the woe of the documentary filmmaker. Nothing strikes a filmmaker to the core more than that singularly sad, stress-inducing word: funding. My POV minders recently directed me to filmmaker Patrick O’Brien, who has sought out a creative way to get financing. O’Brien has joined forces with Skinny Corp, a progressive, community-based company that backs a line of tee shirts called The Storytellers Collection. And now the tee shirts are backing his film: 100% of the proceeds garnered from the sales of these shirts goes to his film, Everything Will Be Okay which is very much about a worthy cause. O’Brien is documenting his battle with ALS, the terminal disease which results in the gradual degeneration of the body.

Patrick O'Brien and tee shirts from the Storyteller collection
Patrick O’Brien (l) and some of the tee shirts from the Storytellers Collection.

I got in touch with a couple of other filmmakers who are in the throes of pre-production on their respective films, and they’re all encountering the bleak doc-financing climate, too. Ultimately, I think, they are all coming to the same conclusion as O’Brien: The best hope for getting financing is from private donors.

Bengt Anderson
is a guy with plenty of filmmaking cred. He’s been working in television for years (his directing credits include Wife Swap and he has produced a slew of Top Chef episodes), but he’s about to make his first feature documentary: a road trip doc called Alice’s Drive that follows the descendants of Alice Ramsey, the first woman who drove across the U.S. It’s the 100th anniversary of Ramsey’s ride, and the film follows her descendants as they trace her route in the same sort of car she drove. So the film has a pretty easy hook, and you’d think some auto-related company would jump at the chance to put a little bit of money into a branding opportunity like this. Alas. “It’s a big no-go,” says Anderson, who thinks he may have been naive about his prospects to win over companies like Goodyear and AAA. He couldn’t even get Exxon to pay for gas. “The climate right now is extremely difficult,” he says.

Anderson is just weeks away from principal photography, which begins June 9th. And he’s had little choice but to strip the budget from $500,000 down to $220,000. He says he’s been working his butt off so he’ll be able to post the starting funds himself; he’ll also have to shoot the film himself, as well as lean on the support of a good friend who will be his co-cameraman and editor.

In hindsight, Anderson feels that he could have had better luck going to private investors, which is how director Henriette Mantel got her Ralph Nader doc, An Unreasonable Man, made. That financing came from her co-director Steven Skrovan. “I was lucky,” Mantel concedes. “Steve paid for the whole thing.” Mantel is currently financing her next project, which she doesn’t want to discuss, but she hopes she’ll be able to get the bulk of the money she needs from private sources.

Both Mantel and Anderson approach the grant-writing process with wariness, but one would think that grants are a tried and true resource. Or are they? If you’re a filmmaker, drop us a comment about the best ways to get financing these days. You can also tell us your tales of woe. Or are things so bad out there, that sharing your tips might mean giving up meager resources?

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • Bengt Anderson

    FOREIGNID: 18277
    Thanks for helping get the word out to filmmakers about fundraising, Tom. There is no tried and true way to go about getting the cash flowing in, obviously. I’m sure there are seasoned filmmakers out there that tell you not to use your own finances or credit cards, etc. While that sounds like the smartest way…I am actually headed that direction. I hate making corrections, but in the story above (I’m one of the filmmakers – Bengt Anderson). I’ve been forced to cut my budget from $220,000 to $50,000. I’ve been forced to make the film on my own. It’s oddly liberating and not very smart at the same time. In the end I hope to have a great film and a great story, but I will not be able to do it without the support from my friends and colleagues. Plus I cannot afford to slip up anywhere or all the money and sweat goes ::poof::: I’m curious to ask if we will ever see our government mirror others around the world and actually support the arts in a more significant capacity like government grants to make art whether film, theatre, dance, paintings, photography etc?
    I guess when it comes down to it…to make art is as time-consuming and process oriented as building a house. Too bad my “house” won’t put an actual roof over my head…or will it? That’s the risk I guess we take today.

  • Nick

    FOREIGNID: 18278
    Go, Bengt, go! I’ve seen the trailer for this film, and while I share the general frustration so many filmmakers have in the financing of their passoin projects, the end result, to judge by the trailer, looks like it’s going to be really amazing. Don’t lose faith! Keep hope alive… In the end, the things we simply can’t NOT make are really the ones that last the longest, and bring in the greatest rewards, whether that’s financial, emotional, or spiritual. (Here’s hoping you hit the trifecta…)
    Good luck!

  • Theresa

    FOREIGNID: 18279
    This reminds me of a new site that a singer songwriter friend of mine sent me the link to last week. Kickstarter is this new site where people can post projects — such as making a film, recording an album, shooting a photo essay, reuniting the Kinks… whatever, really — and then people can donate money towards seeing the project realized. Most people offer cool stuff to donators, like a print from a photo essay or signed copies of albums. The catch is that if the project doesn’t raise all the money that the producers said they needed in their budget before the deadline, nobody has to pay.
    Right now the site is limiting new projects by invitation only. It would be cool to hear their goals for the site. Maybe you could contact them?