In a moviemaker’s perfect world, the creative landscape would be peopled with investors who understand your vision and are eager to fund your projects in order for you to bring these ideas to life. Such places do exist. Really! Look no further than the magical world of grants.
Of course, the fiercely competitive process is not as simple as asking for a grant and then receiving it—and the process has gotten even tougher in the face of the economic pounding recently endured by many grant-making foundations. So, as an independent moviemaker, what can you do to improve your chances of successfully securing a grant?
We posed that very question to three experts in the field: Morrie Warshawski, a Napa-based fundraising expert and author of Shaking the Money Tree; moviemaker Michele Turnure-Salleo, who is overseeing $3 million in grants from the San Francisco Film Society and the Kenneth Raining Foundation; and Dr. Maren Grainger-Monsen, a producer, director and experienced grant writer who is currently director of the Stanford School of Medicine’s program in Bioethics and Film.
Follow directions: It seems obvious, but worthy grant applications can end up binned because of an applicant’s inability to follow directions. Put simply: Read the application guidelines carefully. If you are unsure about anything, ask. Applying for grants is hard work. Don’t sabotage yourself by blowing a deadline or not providing all of the required materials.
Think beyond “film” grants: “A major mistake is to look only for film grants,” says Warshawski. “The truth is that there are relatively few film-specific grants. Look for appropriate subject categories related to your film and go from there.” In other words, figure out what your film is really about—the environment, human rights, etc.—and broaden you search.
Consider taking a risk when appropriate: The San Francisco Film Society’s grants are for narrative features that “significantly explore human and civil rights.” At first blush, you may not think that your film fits. However, after careful consideration you might discover that your film may make sense within the Society’s grant guidelines. As Turnure-Salleo points out, the best course of action when in doubt is to call and ask.
Get to know the foundation: The foundation is not your enemy; it wants to fund films. It wants the films it selects to succeed because it believes those films will help further its mission. Your job is to understand that mission.
“When I first applied for grants I just sent the material cold and then waited,” says Grainger-Monsen. “But I’ve learned that it doesn’t work that way. You need to connect with the program officer. It may seem awkward at first, but it really helps to see if your project is a good fit and to help them understand your project.” (Note: In some cases, discussions with applicants are discouraged. Respect this.)
Successful grant efforts are about establishing relationships. Your application may fail this go-around, but may succeed next time, in part because of your personal contact.
Know your movie: The heart and soul of a grant application is the discussion of your film. It’s imperative that you be able to explain what your movie is about effectively and, in a cogent and compelling way, why it should be made.
Warshawski, who helps moviemakers articulate their visions, says many moviemakers are unable to make their cases clearly. “I often hear, ‘This is a story that must be told,’” says Warshawski. “What I counter with is, ‘But is it a movie that must be seen?’”
Honing the perfect statement takes time. Seek input from others and fully investigate what your film “means.”
Demonstrate your credibility: One of the biggest fears that foundations have is that a film will not be finished or won’t be seen. Convince the foundation that you are a credible moviemaker who will deliver a film and that you have a distribution or delivery plan in place. (Experienced moviemakers have a huge advantage here.)
Warshawski recommends that new moviemakers surround themselves with an experienced crew. Many grant applications require bios of a film’s participants; having experienced people on board will help your cause. Additionally, Warshawski recommends finding a mentor. A letter from a respected individual acting as an adviser never hurts.
When appropriate, Turnure-Salleo suggests putting together a well-crafted trailer or scene to highlight your competence and commitment.
If making a documentary, Grainger-Monsen notes that it is crucial for you to demonstrate your access to the story. Filming a documentary about CIA involvement in Cambodia in 1970? You must show evidence that you have access to the locales, sources and resources necessary to tell the story.
Be realistic with your budget projections: Many foundations are familiar with the intricacies of film budgets. Make sure the numbers add up and have a seasoned pro review your projections. “You need a transparent budget,” says Warshawski, who is quick to add that everything in moviemaking is going to take longer than you think—including the fundraising.
It’s about relationships: Getting a grant isn’t about taking the money and running, it’s about partnering with a group that wants your film to thrive. It’s that partnership that can offer help that goes beyond funding. “The funder doesn’t want the project to end up sitting on a shelf,” says Grainger-Monsen. “They want to help you.”
Turn failure into success: The competition for grants is fierce and you will get rejection letters. After receiving a rejection letter, consider calling the foundation to talk about why you didn’t make the cut. (Not all foundations will provide this service.) Understand that this call is not to inform the foundation about the error of its ways, it’s to find out how you can improve.
“We really encourage the process of feedback,” says Turnure-Salleo. “It can seem harsh and humbling to get feedback. But if you listen, it can really help the next time.”
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