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Ten Tips for Securing “Out of the Box” Funding from DOC NYC

(Photo: DOC NYC)

At a DOC NYC panel titled “Out of the Box Funding,” moderator Julia Labassiere (Chief Executive of BAFTA NY) defined the prhase as “anything besides getting a commission (for example, from HBO or National Geographic, etc.).” Marilyn Ness, producer of Cameraperson and Trapped, started the panel off by noting that there are no shortcuts to obtaining so-called “out of the box” money: “It’s a lot of work.” Here are ten tips for how to successfully bring in this type of funding.

First Money: Friends, Family and Affinity Groups

When you begin a new film, you have to figure out your niche — who are its audience and funders? — because early stage funding is the hardest. Most funders want to see footage, and how do you get footage if you don’t have money? Producers usually start with friends and family. If it’s not your first film, you can return to people you’ve worked with in the past. Hopefully they’ll come on board for the first $5,000 or $10,000, the seed money that gets you started.

From there, David Bellinson, producer of All the Rage, says to look toward affinity audiences: the people, groups and organizations who are already interested in the subject matter of your film. He identifies this as a competitive advantage that doc-makers have over narrative films.

Labassiere pushes the point further: “When you make a doc, the first thing you do is research. But sometimes people forget to do that when it comes to funding.” For example, Ness has been making a film in Baltimore, so her team has been researching the local power players in order to bring in some local money.

Iyabo Boyd, producer of Feedback Loop (and until recently, the Program Manager for Chicken and Egg Pictures), cautioned that it can take a lot of massaging and follow up when working with affinity groups because they don’t know what it looks like to fund a film. Ness countered: “But you can help them to figure that out, and they’re probably passionate about it.”

Since Ness has a track record, she also presents potential non-traditional funders with a case study of a previous successful film, to show them what the process can look like.


Bellinson says that if your budget is under a million, it’s unrealistic not to have a crowdfunding campaign. Again, it starts with friends and family. He said, “We’ve raised over $150,000 over a few campaigns. You must figure out how you’re going to get that goal before you hit start. You must have a surefire way and know where it’s coming from before you go. Who are the 100 people who will support the film? The 500? If you can get to a list of the 1,000 people who will support your film, you can probably make it. The first 100 are friends.”

Ness notes that you also have to know what you’re willing to give up and provide for the money you’re going to get. And you can shoot yourself in the foot if you’re giving your film away for free to the people who back the campaign.

Bellinson brings his funders into the process. He invites funders at a certain level to see rough cuts if they’re not on location, to be involved. They’re more interested for having been able to have some dialogue in the process, especially for those who work in totally different fields. He said, “I call it smart money, people who care about the project and want to see how it goes.”

House Parties

Throwing a house party is a way to bring in people who are likely to be interested in giving money to your film, but with whom you don’t have a personal connection. First you find a host, someone with good strong connections in the community, and who ideally has friends with money. When the invitations go out, it’s made clear that this is a fundraising event. Guests sit through a brief presentation after which, the host asks everyone to make a contribution.

Labassiere recommends that you make it easy for them to give you money. She said, “Buy a Square [mobile credit card processor]. I’ve been to so many events where I’ve said, ‘Yes, I’ll give you money.’ But I don’t carry checks. And if I have to go home, and remember to do it, I probably won’t.”

According to Boyd, the key is in knowing your audience. Some guests actually will go home and write a check. It’s important to follow up the next day.

Ness likes house parties because she can access people who might not have a connection the subject matter, and therefor be hard to find, but they might just be excited about getting to meet a Sundance director. She advises that you spend time with the host in advance, going over their guest list and figuring out your dollar amounts. Her pledge asks, “Are you giving $500, $1,500,” etc., so no one thinks they’re asking for $10. And she noted that once you do one house party, you have all your stuff: “You can walk out of an event with $25,000. Then you find other hosts.” She also recommends that you pick up a copy of Morrie Warshawski’s 58-page book, The Fundraising Houseparty, read it, and give a copy to the host.

Building Relationships

The panelists agreed that you should never treat people like it’s “one and done.” Follow up and be friendly. Supporters of one film may want to be part of your creative vision on other films as well. Send them updates. Some people really love to be part of the process. Ness keeps a master list and updates her backers on all of the films she’s working on, “so they can see that we’re good for our word, even if that particular film isn’t done, they can see that we’re working and getting things done.”

Labassiere agreed: “They’re investing in you, not just the film. It’s so important that it’s not just a ‘one and done.’ It’s important to keep that funding cycle going, and it’s important to create those relationships.”

Ness relates that her favorite email was one that just said: “I don’t need anything, and here’s where you can see the film.” She adds, “It felt so good.”

The Ask

According to Ness, you need to break your funding into stages. She’ll go back to the same group or person a maximum of three times, so she has distinct asks for each step. She said, “Everyone will be intimidated if you tell them you’re raising $500,000. Everything you’re asking for is a near-term ask. So in a recent cycle, I said we need $200,000 for these very pivotal reasons. Give specifics and dates. And we’ve already raised $40,000. And I wouldn’t go back to them on that ask, or even the next one. But then maybe we’re at the rough cut, and we have something to show, I’ll go back to them.”

Boyd added that it’s important not to treat people like they’re just funders. “That’s why the updates are so key,” she said. “It’s the development of the relationship over time that allows you to come back. Especially the third time.”

Bellinson’s rule is that “no” means maybe, and “maybe” means yes. He also offers a strategic tip: “If you want money, ask for advice. And if you want advice, ask for money. It’s a good way to pique their interest.”

Grants and Foundations

With the huge number of grants and foundations out there, it’s important to do the research and figure out which ones are right for your film. Bellinson recommended reaching out to the smaller, more specialized foundations first because everyone goes out for the big grants — the Ford Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, etc. He also stressed how important it is to reach out in person, and make a real connection. He said, “We’ve never gotten a grant from someone that we didn’t figure out how to know. Everyone’s project fits within the scopes of the foundations. You have to get to know them.” He added, “Your subject, him or herself, might be able to open up doors that you personally would not be able to.”

Corporate Money

There’s also corporate money, but this is hard to get and is only an option for certain types of films. La’Bassiere notes that there has to be something about a company’s ethos that fits into your film. But there is corporate money out there, and if your film is sports-themed or fits their mandate, it’s likely worth pursuing it. One option is to find out which companies are sponsoring any conferences set up around the topic of your film, reach out to them, and let them know that your film is an opportunity to get this subject out to even more people.

Ness pointed out that if you’re doing a feature doc that’s controversial, brands don’t like to get on board. It’s possible that if they see it once the film is complete, they might come on with marketing money, but it’s a late-stage long-shot. Some companies do have corporate philanthropy, but that’s the same as any foundation money: you need to figure out who you know.

Pre-sales, Sales and Carving out Niches

Ness had one film that involved people with bleeding disorders, and the 10,000 people affected by the issue in the film had clubs around the country. She asked each branch to pre-buy an educational copy at $300 each (the standard rate), and with that $18,000, she paid off her archival rights. When Ness later brought on an educational distributor, she structured her deal in such a way that carved out the bleeding disorders community.

In-kind Donations

In-kind donations count as a budget line item. It’s real money. So if someone lends your production an apartment to house crew, or lets you use equipment, that’s all real money you’re saving that can go toward something else.

Ness relates a story from the production of Cameraperson, which she said almost wasn’t made. The director, DP Kirsten Johnson, had a great relationship with her past directors. Their budget for clip rights was $100,000, but they didn’t have it in hand, so they convinced every director to let them use the footage for free. Ness added, “And we never color-corrected that film. It’s scrappy, scrappy scrappy.”

Boyd noted that Ness is an experienced producer, and, “She’s still scrappy. She’s still saving money at every turn. This is a lifestyle.” In documentary (or independent) film, “scrappy” does not mean “unprofessional”: it means “resourceful.”

Donation vs. Investment

Ness often brings on a fiscal sponsor, which allows her donors to write off their contributions as tax-deductible donations. She said, “The benefit of affiliating yourself with a 501(c)(3) is that people who donate can write it off. Wealthy people who are not in film don’t know that they can invest in a film and get an EP credit.” The problem, according to her, is that nine times out of 10, an investor is not getting their money back on a documentary film. By accepting their contribution as a donation, it allows the funder to take the write-off up front, instead of waiting to not recoup on their investment or take the loss on their taxes. Boyd noted, “And it saves them getting angry at you about that.”

Having investors also requires accountants and lawyers and years of fiduciary responsibility. So if the contributor really just wants to be part of the process or to see their name in the credits, getting a fiscal sponsor and accepting donations might be the quickest and cleanest option.

This also preserves your EP credit, which should be seen as another tool in the fundraising kit.

Get Personal

Bellinson said that when raising money, phone calls matter. Going in person matters. Sending an email is the quickest way to get ignored.

He advised that you treat yourself as an entrepreneur, not a filmmaker.

Boyd agreed, but added, “But one who’s never going to make a million dollars, like in a start-up. You’re constantly in that first year, forever.”

And Ness recommended pitch fests, though several panelists took issue with admission fees. Nonetheless, if you go to pitch fests, you will have the benefit of meeting people from production companies, foundations, and distributors. Then, when you go into the funding cycle, you can include a note saying that you met at the DOC NYC Pitch Fest, or Pitch Perfect, etc.

Lastly, Labassiere notes that people love to talk about themselves, “so ask them what they do.”

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