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Fundraising and Knowing Your Audience

Posted on November 30, 2016

Kimberly Bassford, Hawaiʻi filmmaker (Winning Girl) shares with us the importance of knowing your audience when applying for funding.

Photo courtesy of The Honolulu Star-Advertiser


Fundraising for documentaries is exhausting. It often feels like the worst part of the job. It takes me away from the creative aspects of filmmaking (which is what attracted me to field in the first place) and can be downright demoralizing.

However, unless you are independently wealthy or have an angel donor in your pocket (lucky you!), it’s a necessity. And while I still get far more rejections than award letters, I think I’ve improved at it over the years.

I spend a lot of time writing applications, and the axiom “know your audience” applies not just to your film’s target audience but also to the funders you’re approaching to get the film made. In the end, it’s about framing the film to best match a funder’s mission or interests. Of course, that makes perfect sense, but it’s not always easy to do. Sometimes I wish I could just write a single application and copy and paste for all, but that one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t usually yield success.

So instead, these are the main types of funders I’ve approached in my career and what I’ve observed works best. Keep in mind this is just my opinion.

Public Television: This category includes ITVS (Independent Television Service) and PIC and other members of the minority consortium like the Center for Asian American Media. While each entity has its own mission, they all receive monies from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is funded with federal tax dollars. Most of these organizations are staffed by filmmakers, and their funding panels are comprised of filmmakers as well as public television personnel. So, story is key. But there are lots of great stories in the world. To me, the stories that seem to get funded are those that:  1) explore contemporary social issues through intriguing characters, 2) are articulated through a visually-oriented treatment and promising work-in-progress cut, and 3) depict underrepresented communities or points of view. So, with these applications, I spend most of my time on the treatment and work-in-progress cut. And I understand that some types of stories are just more fundable than others.

Film Funders: These are your typical film funders. You know, the ones every filmmaker applies to:  Sundance, Tribeca, BRITDOC, Ford Foundation, etc. Most of these initiatives award fewer than 5 percent of applicants, so the odds are heavily stacked against you. And to be honest, I haven’t had much success here. My observation is that like public television, story is central. But these funders really seem to favor films about contemporary social or human rights issues. If your film doesn’t fit squarely into this category, it’s much harder to break through the noise.

Humanities Funders: These are your NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities), state humanities councils and other academic funders. They’re different than the other funders in the list as story and characters seem to matter less than the scholarship and subject of your film. Is your film about a significant historical figure, event, period or trend? Does it incorporate and synthesize new scholarship? If the answers are yes, then you’ve got a chance. Just make sure to write your narrative so that the scholarship is front and center. Think more along the lines of an academic paper than a film treatment. You might want to get the scholars attached to your project, a requirement with these kinds of applications, to help you write it.

Foundations and Non-Profits: These are the smaller foundations and non-profit organizations that you might target because your film has something to do with what they do. Write your application in a way that your film exactly aligns with their mission. In addition, unlike the other funders in this list, impact is paramount. More than what your film is about, these funders want to know what your film can do. How will the film actually impact the community? What kind of quantitative and qualitative changes will it make in the world? Well-conceived distribution and outreach plans and strategies on how you’ll measure outcomes are important.

Companies:  For-profit companies are about the bottom line, but they often want to do good in the community too. Thus, my strategy here is to write a succinct proposal that spells out for them how sponsoring your film will improve their public image (make them look like they care) while also expanding their customer base (make them more money). Emphasizing the social impact of your film as well as its reach matters most.

Individuals:  It’s hard to come up with a single strategy here since individuals have diverse motives and interests. Overall, I try to stress the social need and impact of the film and pair that with a kick-ass trailer that hits an emotional chord whether it’s anger, excitement or hope. If people are moved emotionally, they’re more likely to sit up and pay attention. And if you can make them feel like supporting your film connects to something even bigger that they care deeply about (like improving the environment or ending racism or sexism), then you’ve got a winner. If you go the crowdfunding route, cool perks help too.


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