Independent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.
I continue here my exploration into foundations funding documentaries with a discussion with The Principal Story‘s Tod Lending, a director who pretty much won the doc filmmakers’ sweepstakes with a giant grant from Chicago’s Wallace Foundation.
Doc Soup: You received a grant from the Wallace Foundation to make The Principal Story. Did you go to them with the idea?
Tod Lending: It came about in an interesting way. It was the first time I was approached by a foundation for an RFP (a request for proposal). They sent it out to 16 filmmakers across the country and we were to submit a preliminary proposal that clearly stated our interests and intentions. The Wallace Foundation wanted us to look at the issue of principal leadership. Each filmmaker sent in 5-page proposals, and then they gave 3 out of the 16 filmmakers $10,000 grants to further the proposal.
Doc Soup: Had you ever heard of this sort of process before?
Lending: Never. It was a really nice thing to happen. My co-producer David Mrazeck and I both felt we had to shoot a demo to further the proposal. I am very glad we did because that’s what apparently pushed us over the top. I don’t know why the other two competitors didn’t, but when you are given $10,000, you have no excuse. And, lo and behold, we were given the $1.5 million dollar grant. It’s unheard of to get all of your money from one place. I should add that the $1.5 million was not just for the film. It was also for the outreach project, and we also made a number of other films for the foundation.
Doc Soup: You received the money in one lump sum?
Lending: Yeah, in one lump some. Again, I have not heard of that before. I was amazed. They trusted me based on my track record and my financials. It’s rare. That’s what they wanted to do. I never had cash flow problems because of that. It made it simpler for them and simpler for me. And so we shot through the school year. Editing was 8 months. We finished when we promised to be finished, in January 2009.
Doc Soup: How was it working for the Wallace Foundation?
Lending: They were wonderful to work with. They were a great resource in terms of research and development. They had good contacts.
Doc Soup: What sort of editorial input did they give you?
Lending: What’s interesting is that the final film was different from the demo and the initial proposal. In our initial proposal, we thought we would need an on-camera correspondent-type person. There was a woman who had been a principal, a very dynamic African-American woman, who we thought was excellent for narrating and taking us through this territory. She was in the demo. But once we started shooting, about a month in, I realized that there was so much going on, and that the principals were so dynamic, that we wouldn’t need this other person.
Doc Soup: Uh-oh.
Lending: Well, I don’t believe in surprises. So I called up Wallace, and I said, this is what I am doing; we want to try go with the cinéma vérité style. And they agreed.
Doc Soup: They just rolled with it.
Lending: They rolled and they trusted me. And that was huge. They could have said, “This is what you proposed and you can’t change it.”
Doc Soup: When you were editing the film, did you show them various versions of it?
Lending: Again, I don’t believe in surprises. We showed them cuts. They knew we were walking a tightrope in terms of telling a story that would captivate a general audience, and at the same time, covering some of the information that they felt was important. Their notes were about the Wallace perspective: These are the things we find interesting, and if there is a way to keep them in, then that would be great.
Doc Soup: What was it like having someone like that to answer to?
Lending: It was a dream experience to work with people who respect you and respect the filmmaking process. And they sunk a chunk of money into this. You can’t ask for a better situation. I don’t have one complaint.
Doc Soup: How have they responded to the finished film and its roll out?
Lending: The foundation is thrilled. They keep calling it a homerun. It went way beyond their expectations.
Doc Soup: Was it important to get it on POV?
Lending: That was the plan from the beginning. They were very happy. That was their goal.
Doc Soup: Are you fishing for more RFPs now?
Lending: Unfortunately, there’s no way to do that. It either comes to you or it doesn’t. It’s either sent to you or it’s not.
Doc Soup: Are you aware of any RFPs out there at all?
Lending: I am not. I get focused on my own work. The person who would know is Alice Myatt from Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media (GFEM). One of their main purposes is getting foundations interested in media. Go to the GFEM site and check them out.
Doc Soup: What are you working on now?
Lending: I’m actually doing another education piece, from a different perspective. I’m looking at what sort of education works for African-American males. There’s a school called Urban Prep. It’s the first all-male charter school in the country, and it’s in a very rough community.
Doc Soup: Where are you getting your financing this time around?
Lending: Right now, I’m in the incipient stages, and so I am funding it through my own not-for-profit.
Doc Soup: Will it be harder to get money with the recession rolling on?
Lending: You know, you never know. Last year, the economy was crashing and I had one of my best years ever.
How do you feel about foundations are funding documentaries? Does it blur the boundaries between commerce and art? Or do you think more foundations should get involved? We’re interested in hearing your thoughts, so please share your comments with us below!