Alysa Nahmias is a director and producer whose films include the documentaries The New Bauhaus and Unfinished Spaces. She is also the founder of Ajna Films and co-author of the Sundance Creative Distribution Case Study on Unrest, an Emmy-nominated documentary she produced that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017 and is now on Netflix. She wants readers to know that while she has won several documentary grants in her career, she has been rejected by many more, because that’s how these odds work. Alysa spoke with MovieMaker about all that she’s learned about the grant application process. What follows is an excerpt of that conversation.
Someone told me something a long time ago that I’ve adopted as a fundraising motto: “People don’t give money to projects. They give money to people with projects.” So, even if your documentary idea is amazing, you need to present yourself in your grant application as somebody who is trustworthy, confident, and capable of doing the project. If you think about the projects that you’ve supported on Kickstarter or Indiegogo — which are forms of micro granting — they tend to be projects where you believe in the people in addition to their idea — you trust them, and you care about what they’ll make.
A grant application is a deliverable — treat it as such. Grant makers reviewing your application are not necessarily going to be forgiving of grammar and spelling errors. I’m not saying that they throw out your application if that happens, and they should take into account whether English is your first language, but you need to show that you care, because you’re not just being assessed on what you’re doing, but how you do it. You never want to come across as somebody who does things in a way that feels dashed off, unrevised, or un-proofread. If your application is like that, are you leaving room for grant reviewers to question whether your work is like that in general? You’re being entrusted with money that an organization — typically a nonprofit — had to raise, and that they’re liable to their supporters for. That’s a big responsibility for them, and they have to trust the moviemakers they’re granting.
Do your homework on any organization from which you are seeking a grant. If you’re applying to Creative Capital, and you’ve done your homework, you know that they want to support artists and their long-term growth, and they focus on projects that are at pivotal moments in an artist’s career. So if your project and you are at a pivotal moment in your career, but that doesn’t get expressed in your application, Creative Capital might think you didn’t do your homework.
When to Apply
Each grant-making organization has its own specific criteria, so you want to know when your project is a fit for each one. For example, Catapult Film Fund is a grantmaker in the doc space that specifically funds development and the production of funding reels for documentaries — so they want to see your project early in the process. Other grant makers, like the Women In Film Finishing Fund, want to help you with that last push on your film, so you wouldn’t apply to them until your film is in post and you have a rough cut. Some have geographic or career-based mandates: The Jerome Foundation grant, which is one of the first grants I won as a director many years ago, is specific to Minnesota and New York City, and requires that the director reside in one of those locations and be early in her/his career.
You should start researching grants as soon as you know you’re making a documentary, and try to figure out which ones match with the kind of film you’re making and how this fits the timeline for your project.
Doc moviemakers used to understandably get frustrated by the fact that each grant application was comprised of different questions, and the answers and work samples all had to be different lengths — which required a lot of work on each individual application. So a few years ago, the major players came together and developed something that’s akin to the common app for colleges. These organizations, including the Sundance Documentary Fund, Chicken & Egg, SFFILM, and the International Documentary Association, now all share a common app.
It’s called the Documentary Core Application, and you can find the different required sections at documentary.org/core-application. Sometimes an organization will have its own unique question or two that it adds.
A great exercise to do once you have clarity about your project is to begin generating a Core app document, which can be updated as your project evolves. That will be your key to several grants in the doc world.
How to Write Proposals
Ask yourself honestly: How good of a writer are you? Not everyone is a great writer, and that’s fine. Try to find someone who has written a grant proposal before. Or get a sample of one. You can ask for advice at sources like The D-Word. You might even get someone to review something for you as a favor. Don’t think that you can write your proposal in a vacuum, because there is a style for grant writing.
You’re telling a story; you’re not only getting across what your film is about. You want to demonstrate on the page that you’re a great storyteller, and the more your vision can come alive on the page, the better. It’s not enough that people reading your proposal say, “This is a cool idea.” They need to say, “This is a cool idea, and this person and their team have an ability to convey this idea in an interesting way — in a way that’s clear, in a way that’s emotional, in a way that’s unpretentious, in a way that is unique or special or surprising.”
Continue for more of Alysa Nahmias’ tips on how to write your documentary grant application