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

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Doc Soup: A Conversation with Alyce Myatt, Grantmakers in Film + Electronic Media

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Alyce MyattA few weeks ago, I spoke with Tod Lending, director of The Principal Story, about how he hit the jackpot by getting money from the Wallace Foundation to make a series of nonfiction films. I asked him if there were other goldmines for filmmakersout there, and he directed me to Alyce Myatt, the head of Grantmakers in Film + Electronic Media (GFEM). I just caught up with Myatt — and while she may not actually be sitting on a mountain of gold coins, she did impress me with GFEM’s incredible resource: a database of films that allows foundations to find a project that they may be interested in. It’s fascinating to peruse through the various projects and see what sort of financing has been achieved, and what’s still needed. Read our conversation below, and make sure to check out the database at media.gfem.org.

Doc Soup: So, is there foundation money out there for documentary filmmakers?
Alice Myatt: The short answer is yes . . . and no.

Doc Soup: That sounds like the beginning of a very long answer.
Myatt: What’s been happening is that just as there has been an evolution in technology and media, there’s also been an evolution in philanthropy. There’s been a generation of wealth in the last couple of decades, so you have a greater number of relatively new family foundations with living donors and some of whom are entering the media sector and are funding films. But they’re not doing it at the same degree as grants that were made by the Ford Foundation or MacArthur. So, 20 years ago, you could get $250,000 from Ford, but now that $250,000 is coming from various grants pieced together.

Doc Soup: Can you tell me some of the names of the family foundations you’re talking about?
Myatt: Chicken and Egg, Cinereach, the Fledgling Fund.

Doc Soup: Is the recession inhibiting this sort of funding?
Myatt: It has had an impact across the board. If you are a large foundation, if you go from $7 billion to $4 billion, you still have $4 billion. However, the same anxiety that permeates society as a whole, extends to everyone. And what happens is that philanthropies want [to keep] their long-term grantees going. In some instances, they have raised their payout sometimes as high as 9 percent, so that they can honor the commitments because they don’t want these organizations to fail. So a new film project has a harder time because of these ongoing commitments.

Doc Soup: To take a step back: what is GFEM?
Grantmakers in Film and Electronic MediaMyatt: Our organization is a membership organization of funders — that includes the big guys, Rockefeller, Ford and MacArthur, but also smaller ones like Fledgling and government funders like ITVS. They are members of ours. We serve as a resource for the philanthropic community to support media. We take them on funder delegations. We’ll take them to South by Southwest Interactive. Have you seen our media database? It’s at media.gfem.org. We created this database so funders can find quality films to support.

Doc Soup: So, anyone can look at them?
Myatt: Anyone can check it out.

Doc Soup: Tell me about how interested the new foundations are in finding projects.
Myatt: There’s a greater interest, but because of the evolution of media, there’s confusion. What does it take to make a media grant? With YouTube, there’s this myth that anyone can buy a camera at Best Buy and make a film. But, no, one of the things that we do is educate funders that if they want something that is of a certain quality and well crafted, it takes hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Doc Soup: And the right person making the film.
Myatt: . . . and an artist. That was part of our work with the Wallace Foundation in helping them find someone who understands the art of storytelling on film.

Doc Soup: So, there’s confusion, but it’s not as if all the foundations have scurried under a rock. They’re out there. It’s just that filmmakers have to figure out how to connect with them?
Myatt: Yes, and the key to that connection is not that they have made a film, or that they want to make a film, but the issue that they are covering. In the case of Wallace, they were interested in the issue of education. Period. In our database, there’s a section called “the outreach and engagement plan” — that is the point of focus for any funder: “How can I use this film as a communications tool?”

Doc Soup: So would it be smart for a filmmaker to pick a topic, and then try to reach out to a foundation through you?
Myatt: They can’t reach out to us. We don’t do that. But they can post to our database.

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