XTR is Trying to Solve the Crisis in Documentary Film, but Some Filmmakers Feel Betrayed
On November 15, at a DOC NYC panel called “Balancing Storytelling and Financial Stability,” South African filmmaker Milisuthando Bongela, director of the acclaimed 2023 Sundance film Milisuthando, recounted her unfortunate story of funding gone wrong—and how powerhouse nonfiction studio XTR offered her production hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money last November to help her deliver her documentary for its Sundance premiere, and then, five weeks later and after repeated attempts to follow up, the company responded that they were withdrawing the offer.
“When she told this story, I was shocked,” says prominent Oscar-winning documentary producer and Story Syndicate CEO Dan Cogan, who was moderating the panel. “I’ve seen behavior like this before from equity investors, but never from philanthropists. The whole culture of non-profit grantmaking runs against any kind of false promises,” he continues. “It was heartbreaking to hear.”
And Bongela is not alone. Over the last couple years, more than a half-dozen filmmakers have confirmed similar incidents of XTR pledging—and then reneging—on large grants, reducing the size of suggested funding amounts, or backtracking on other promises of support.
Since its founding in 2019, XTR has aggressively supported dozens of nonfiction projects, including celebrated Sundance docs such as The Fight, Bring Your Own Brigade, and The Territory, auteur-driven films such as the Ross brothers’ Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, Jessica Beshir’s Spirit Award winner Faya Dayi and Jessica Kingdon’s Oscar-nominated Ascension, as well as more recently, the Apple+ docu-series They Call Me Magic. In addition to providing equity financing, XTR also provides non-recoupable investment or works with different foundations and non-profit partners to find filmmakers grants, which Bongela and others found themselves chasing.
“I want people to know who they’re dealing with,” says Bongela, who had been reluctant to speak publicly out of a sense of shame and fear of reprisals. “Ultimately, they may be more powerful and have more money, but this is not okay, and they can’t continue to do this to other filmmakers. It’s just cruel.”
In August 2022, Bongela had an initial positive meeting with XTR’s then head of film Kathryn Everett. On November 16, after the film was selected for Sundance’s World Cinema Documentary Competition, Bongela, her producer Marion Isaacs, and one of her executive producers, Multitude Films VP Anya Rous, participated in a Zoom meeting with Everett. “They offered us a full grant, not equity, because she said films like this should not have to pay equity back,” says Bongela. With a financing gap of $360,000, due to costs associated with music licensing, archival footage, graphic design and deferred fees for the editor, producer, and director, Bongela recalls that Everett suggested rounding up the grant to $400,000. “I remember bursting into tears,” says Bongela. “On one hand, I felt a little ashamed that I was breaking professional boundaries and crying in front of this white American executive, and on the other, I was completely relieved.”
While waiting for the final proposal, Bongela and her team moved forward with certain financial commitments such as paying for archival licensing necessary to screen the film at Sundance. But weeks went by, and they didn’t receive further communication from XTR. On Dec. 20, Bongela wrote an email to Everett: “Are you still planning to send us the proposal?” she wrote. “We were under the impression that the grant was a done deal from our last call. Did I misunderstand?”
Later that same day, Everett wrote back in an email, “No, you didn’t misunderstand.” She explained that a donor who “had expressed soft interest in supporting your film decided not to give any grant support this year due to their own financial issues,” she continued. “Sadly, this situation is not specific to your film — the donors are passing on ALL the Sundance grants, so even though I know it feels deeply personal, it is not a reflection on you all, your beautiful film, or its worth or value.”
In a phone call with Everett about the situation this month, she contended that nothing was ever promised in writing. “It was unfortunate that I could not find donors for those projects, but I did the best that I could,” she said. “And even if I did promise an exact amount, is it then my fault that they spent the money before I sent them an email confirming it? To me, it is a failure on the part of the producers on those teams, not an issue for the potential financiers.”
Multitude Films president Jess Devaney, an executive producer on Milisuthando, argues that XTR’s “verbal funding commitment was sufficiently worded that—as someone who has managed many millions of dollars in philanthropic funding over the years—I was shocked when they went back on their word,” she says.
“It is irresponsible to name a specific, significant amount if you aren’t sure you can follow through, especially when working with early career filmmakers,” continues Devaney. “While it’s a producer’s responsibility not to spend money they don’t have, it’s a funder’s responsibility to recognize their positional power and the vulnerability of filmmakers when they fail to keep commitments.”
XTR executives suggest these cases are not the rule, but the exception, and point to their overall generosity to documentary filmmakers since the company’s founding, having doled out well over 20 grants with average sizes of $225,000 totaling approximately $7.5 million over the last few years.
Indeed, some producers stand by the company, saying they had good dealings with XTR. Producer Riel Roch Decter, co-president of MEMORY, says he had “a great experience” and feels “fortunate that they got behind” their project, a documentary this year called Carpet Cowboys. Jay Van Hoy, producer on Liza Mandelup’s Caterpillar, says the company’s initial financing was pivotal for raising additional funding for the project, with “good follow-through … helping with management on post and promotions.” Similarly, producer Ines Hofmann Kanna speaks positively about their ongoing work together on Sonia Kennebeck’s 2021 doc Reality Winner, from fundraising for post-production to a L.A. theatrical premiere this October hosted by XTR Founder and CEO Bryn Mooser and actor Rosie O’Donnell.
During a recent phone call, Bryn Mooser acknowledged that the documentary marketplace has dramatically shifted over the last 18 months, which had affected their ability to find grant money.
“We were hit with two things,” he said. “Streamers pulled back on buying, so there were fewer sales, and then former granters who did not need returns were now seeing their films not even get distribution or audiences, so they were really disappointed.” Additionally, people in the philanthropic community took their own financial hits, according to Mooser, so that impacted their donor base.
Both Mooser and Everett also suggest the kinds of Sundance-bound personal-essay docs that they had been pursuing—and that XTR’s late investor Tony Hsieh wanted to support before his death in late 2020—became “harder to thread the needle for donors,” said Everett, who has since left her fulltime position at the company, but continues to support XTR projects as a producer.
“But if we love a film, we’re going to try to help the filmmakers,” said Mooser. “You can call us overly enthusiastic—I think that’s fair. But I think we’re more careful and thoughtful now about the fact that it’s much harder to find grants right now, and that’s a bummer.”
However, filmmakers have complained of fickle commitments from XTR dating back further. In the first years of the company, two other filmmakers said the company made good on financing their documentaries—”which really helped save the film at a time when no one else was giving us money,” says one director—but that Mooser also “made a lot of other promises that he didn’t follow through on,” such as offers to provide marketing support and awards campaigns that never materialized.
One producer, who received an equity investment from XTR during its first year, was surprised by the company’s level of capital and the number of films it was funding, likening it to a start-up tech company. “In the tech world, there’s this ‘move fast, break things’ culture, but it just doesn’t translate to documentary—it’s not like you make a thing, copy it, and deliver it,” they say. With their documentary, which didn’t get into Sundance, “it felt like that we had developed a prototype that didn’t show promise, and then it was like ‘next!’ onto the next film,” they continue. “But when you’re dealing with stories and people’s lives, that’s not an appropriate way to handle it.”
A different documentary director recounts a period in 2022 of engaging with XTR for over six months about a potential grant for their project. In March, XTR executives wrote an email saying, “We are very interested in the project…. We should be able to follow up soon about next steps for a grant.” The filmmakers continued to follow up and received another encouraging email in April (“We remain very interested in the project…We look forward to continuing the conversation and happy to get on a call slightly closer to talk more”), and then in August (“So nice to hear from you as always. I’m out of the office for the next couple weeks so would love to connect about this in September”). And then they were ghosted.
“It’s been difficult enough trying to make a film as a first-time, brown, female filmmaker,” says the director, “and to have things dangled in front of my face and never followed through on is depleting my energy, and it’s beyond inconsiderate.”
Mooser argues that the length of time that they took trying to fund the project showed their dedication to it. “We see it differently,” he said. “Maybe there was a miscommunication, but we actually tried for six months.”
Some filmmakers call this kind of behavior common in the entertainment industry. One producer-director who in initial conversations thought he might receive a larger equity investment, which later turned into a smaller grant, says, “I hear all the time financiers saying things like, ‘This sounds great’ or ‘This should be possible,’ but I don’t consider anything a done deal until the money is in my account.”
But others in the nonfiction industry remain critical. One documentary executive familiar with the cases here responds, “promising grants to filmmakers and then retracting them is not standard business practice. And these were often very big grants, which were game changing to those films, so filmmakers found themselves in huge financial deficits that they were unable to come back from. And by doing that, you’re also preventing filmmakers from pursuing other funding at crucial moments.”
Indeed, some filmmakers complained that XTR’s waffling cost them. When another Sundance-bound film was verbally promised an XTR grant of $200,000, another potential funder backed out, says the producer, “because there was a presumption that XTR were EPs, so we lost opportunities.”
Yet another director says that with their Sundance acceptance, “it would not have been difficult to apply for further grants to IDFA or Hot Docs, but when [XTR] came in, I stopped pursuing other grants, because I already had the money. It’s also stressful and anxiety inducing,” adds the filmmaker, about the time it took to confirm the funds, “and robs us of our own focus time to invest in our work.”
For those filmmakers racing to complete their films after a coveted Sundance acceptance, it’s always stressful. Frequently, it’s also when last-money-in investors jump on a project that has the stamp of approval of a Sundance berth, so filmmakers are often negotiating quickly with many funders in the short window between Sundance notification and DCP delivery to the festival.
“It’s a shitty thing to do anytime, but it’s a particularly intense and vulnerable time for anybody that gets into Sundance,” says one of the aforementioned producers. Regarding their dealings with XTR, they say, “It feels like hitting people when they’re at their most vulnerable, enticing them with money and discarding them. It really makes me appreciate the funders who come in early and develop a project from the beginning.”
A third producer with a project at Sundance 2023, who was also in talks with XTR last year, said the company’s abrupt backtracking on a funding promise “felt like a violation of our values and a fuck-you to independent filmmakers who thought they would get their films at Sundance without scrambling.”
Some of those affected also point to the fact that XTR’s practices were particularly difficult for them as first-time and documentary filmmakers of color. As Firelight Media president and co-founder Marcia Smith recently said during a virtual panel more generally about the industry called “Beyond Resilience: The Documentary System is Broken. Now What?”, “filmmakers of color pay the most for the lack of transparency in the industry… and routinely face a level of precarity that the most resourced parts of our field experience only in times of crisis—like now.”
Mooser, however, who counts among his mentors such tech investors as Elon Musk and Jason Calacanis, strongly believes that he can “be part of the solution” for documentary filmmakers. Recently, XTR closed a new round of investment to build out its Documentary+ ad-supported platform, which Mooser sees as an important new outlet to answer the challenges in nonfiction distribution. Unlike independent SVOD streaming sites such as Mubi or Criterion, Documentary+ is seeing initial success, according to Mooser, through free ad-supported AVOD and FAST TV streaming services.
“I really want Documentary+ to succeed,” says a producer who didn’t realize their documentary was on the platform, “because the state of independent documentary film is in dire straits right now and it would be a shame if the company was not successful through mismanagement, or some other reason, and it’s seen as evidence of independent documentary industry not working.”
But if Documentary+ is going to help solve the crisis, or other new funding and distribution strategies emerge to salvage the fragile independent documentary marketplace, it may have to come with more transparency and open communication, particularly during this high-stakes period when the entire nonfiction ecosystem—companies and filmmakers alike—is struggling to survive.
As Milisuthando wrote to XTR’s Everett in May of this year, “Relationships matter in both of our jobs. As does trust…. In this regard, please can I ask you — knowing how much we as filmmakers need funders and how you as funders need filmmakers — to please be more careful with people’s stories, people’s work, and people’s lives in your position of power.”