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The How-Tos of Grant Writing: A Manifesto of Sorts

The Invisible War

The instructions are easy enough: Communicate your project idea in three pages. I think, “Great, I can bang this out in a day or two.” I sit at my desk and wait for the words to pour forth. And this is when my brain likes to take vacation.

As 2014 rolls in and I am applying for grants for my new documentary project, I wish I could tell you that it gets easier to pen grant proposals each time I do it. Let me be honest: grant writing is tedious. It’s as much fun as writing a manual on video codecs. It also takes days, even weeks to polish up. But I’m also being honest when I say that it is well worth the effort.

Several years ago when I applied for funding for my debut feature, Tie a Yellow Ribbon, a social-issue drama about Asian-American young women, I thought the process a bit of a hustle and tons of paperwork, but at the end, it paid off when I received enough funds to film it.

Grant writing is essential in independent filmmaking. It’s a game that we — from the Oscar-winner to the emerging filmmaker — all engage in at one time or another to raise money for those challenging, social-issue, human rights-oriented, character-driven personal projects that would probably be given little consideration by risk-averse traditional networks and private investors.

Besides the obvious tangible benefit of winning funds for your dream film, should your project get chosen, and no financial obligations to repay the money, the great intangible reward is that grant writing helps you to articulate your story idea for future use, including your vision for how the story will be translated in film, from the style to its structure. Later when it comes time to edit, you will have a kind of manifesto. Making a film is a test of endurance, sometimes lasting a decade. If at any point you lose your way, clarity and purpose is found in that grant proposal.

I spoke with the managers of some of the most important funding institutions in the U.S. for film. These are the Sundance Institute, Tribeca Institute, Creative Capital, Cinereach, MacArthur Foundation and Independent Television Service. ITVS does not give out “grants,” per se, but dispenses production funds in exchange for domestic television rights. I’ve included this PBS-funded organization because the process for its Open Call and Diversity Development Fund, as well as its overall mission, are very much like that of grant-making institutions, and it can fund in amounts that can make the others look like small fry. Though some of these institutions fund fiction films, I’ve narrowed my research to documentaries.

The following is a how-to guide for writing grant proposals that I’ve culled from these interviews, as well as conversations with recipients and panelists.

Before you apply, you first must ask yourself: Is my project a good match for the grant? 

There are literally hundreds of grants out there, from local, state and regional to international, from special interest to diversity grants, from governmental to private foundations. An exhaustive list is available on the International Documentary Association website. Funders’ websites are also invaluable sources of information.

It is vital to do thorough research on the mission of the organization and find the one that best matches your project. For example, while MacArthur tends to fund underreported social-issue projects in a journalistic style, it does not necessarily support the sort of personal journey documentaries favored by ITVS.

“Frequently, we receive proposals for films that don’t fit — films that primarily focus on historical topics or biographies of individuals,” said Kathy Im, director of media, culture and special initiatives at the MacArthur Foundation. “But because we only fund films on contemporary issues, we’re not able to consider them.”

Creative Capital, on the other hand, has a fine arts bent. It rewards innovation and artistic rigor (up to $50,000 cash per project), according to Ruby Lerner, its executive director. The staff then advises the artist on their continued professional development, which makes it a unique funder, like Sundance with its Filmmaker Labs can be. “Because our award is also a career award, we also care about the long-term sustainability of the artist,” Lerner said.

If you think the decisions of granting organizations are heavily weighted to Oscar and Emmy winners or industry insiders, then the following may come as a surprise. The application process is “wildly competitive, but it’s also wildly democratic,” said Rahdi Taylor, the film fund director of Sundance Institute’s documentary film program. “We award people from all over the world. We award first-time filmmakers. We award projects with no money. We award projects whether or not they have a five-star producer attached.”

Sundance awards typically range from $10,000 to $50,000 per project, though if you hit the jackpot in all categories (from development, production, postproduction and audience engagement), the amount can go up to $90,000, Taylor said.

Similarly, Tribeca Institute prides itself on being “a platform of discovery for the industry,” said Tamir Muhammad, director of feature programming at Tribeca. Fifty percent of its grant monies go to first-time filmmakers.

Tribeca is a bit of a strange animal in the sense that the range in award amounts is huge. They are mostly between $10,000 and $100,000, though just this past October, Tribeca announced a grant partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation that pushed the upper limit to $500,000. This grant will fully fund a documentary project from its development stage to outreach programs.

Cinereach is currently undergoing some restructuring, though they will maintain the award amount of $5,000 to up to $50,000 per feature fiction and nonfiction films at any stage of production.

When hundreds of thousands of dollars are at play, funders such as MacArthur (which can give up to $200,000 per project) and ITVS (up to $350,000 per project), are much more cautious. “Because the Open Call is so competitive, the likelihood of a panel recommending a project helmed by a filmmaker who has yet to demonstrate the ability to tell a story in the long form is not strong,” admitted Karim Ahmad, a senior programming manager at ITVS.

To improve the chances of funding, Ahmad recommends that the first-time filmmaker ally herself or himself with a seasoned producer or a strong support team of editors, advisors and consultants. This is what I did several years ago when I received funds from ITVS for Tie a Yellow Ribbon. I met the folks at Gigantic Pictures and convinced a producer there to come on board as a consulting producer. If this isn’t possible, then applying for ITVS funds or a MacArthur grant, as Im put it bluntly, “might not be the best use of your time.”

Most organizations use a mix of internal and external panels to review proposals to safeguard against any favoritism. However, even though an external panel made up of people from different backgrounds can recommend a project, it can still land on the cutting room floor, such as what happened to one of my past projects. An external panelist for a state-run grant told me that she was part of the group that met to recommend projects. She said that my project made it through and that the announcement would be made soon. But then the date came, and I heard nothing, which gave me key insight. Decisions are ultimately finalized from within the organization, despite external panel reviews.

You might also ask yourself: “Is my project even right for grants?” Though Allison Berg’s documentary Witches in Exile received several grants, including the Soros Documentary Fund, which later became part of Sundance, she decided against applying for grants on her next film The Dog, which screened at the New York Film Festival last fall. “Try getting a grant for a film about an unapologetic, sex-crazed bank robber — it’s just not going to happen.”

Writing the Treatment

Grant writing is like any other literary exercise, an art. There really isn’t a systemic approach like the logic model templates that academics use for their research proposals. But generally, this is how it goes.

In the first paragraph, give a short synopsis, between one to four sentences, or a logline of the entire film. It should indicate the following: What is the topic? Who is the main character or characters that the film will be following? What activity will that character be doing and during what time period? What question are you, the filmmaker, exploring and in what style?

I know it sounds like a lot to cover, but sometimes one word can address a point, for example, its filmmaking style. Is it “observational?” Is it an “intimate portrait” or “personal journey?” Is the film in the form of an “essay” or “investigative” or “vérité?”

Director Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War received Sundance funding in 2011 and 2012, and its description in the Sundance press releases indicates its “investigative” method.

The Invisible War is an investigative and powerfully emotional documentary about the under-reported epidemic of sexual assault in our U.S. military, and its startling and profound personal and social consequences.

Funders also love the idea that they are supporting an original voice; therefore the paragraph should indicate a point of view or perspective. “The filmmaker’s ‘contagious passion,’ are what makes a project stand out,” said Adella Ladjevardir, grants manager at Cinereach.

This “contagious passion” from directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, who received a Cinereach grant in 2011, can be felt in the dramatic description for Leviathan found on the funder’s site:

Leviathan is a feature-length film about men at sea and fish on boats. It offers an appreciation for the sensory experience, labor, and political and ecological stakes of one of the oldest endeavors that has been an important part of human history since the Paleolithic. Shot off the coast of the mythic city of Moby Dick, with eleven cameras swapping hands between the filmmakers and fishermen, in an effort to create a form of collective experimentation that gives free reign to the perspectives of both fishermen and their catch, the film seeks to capture the many ways in which human, animal, and machine; beauty and horror; and life and death all merge in uncanny ways in the world of contemporary commercial fishing.

The other important detail to describe is access. The grant process is incredibly competitive. Typically, only 1 to 4 percent of applicants receive anything (Tribeca is at an unusual 10 percent). What distinguishes each project from the other, especially if it’s on the same topic, is access. Are you the person with exclusive permission to the subject, story or footage?

“There’s going to be multiple people with passion about that same topic who are sending in proposals,” said Sundance’s Taylor. “It’s going to boil down to: What’s the story that you want to tell, why now, and why are you the person to tell it?

Director Penny Lane of Our Nixon obtained remarkable access to home movies by Nixon’s aides, access highlighted by its synopsis on the Cinereach site:

Newly uncovered Super 8 home movies filmed by Richard Nixon’s closest aides — and fellow Watergate conspirators — offer an intimate and surprising new glimpse into his presidency.

The last point is to consider connecting the micro versus the macro. You might be telling a story of one individual’s struggle but how does this focused story relate to a larger contemporary issue?

“I want to see that you’ve got access to the smallest detail,” said Chi-hui Yang, a curator for MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight and a frequent grant panelist. “You know the nuances of the story but at the other end of the spectrum, 100 miles out, that you understand the big picture.”

This description for Lee Hirsch’s 2011 documentary Bully shows this connection between the small (five kids and their families) to the big (society and its overall handling of bullying). From the Sundance Documentary Fund site:

Over 13 million American kids are bullied each year, making it the most common form of violence experienced by young people. Bully brings human scale to this startling statistic, offering an intimate, unflinching look at how bullying has touched five kids and their families. The film documents the responses of teachers and administrators to aggressive behaviors that defy “kids will be kids” cliché, and captures a growing movement among parents and youths to change how bullying is handled in schools, in communities and in society as a whole.

The body of the treatment should expand on the brief synopsis in the opening paragraph, giving more details about the main characters, the topic, the historical or contemporary context and the actual storyline itself.

Also important to mention is the story structure and why you chose that kind of structure. Is it the traditional three-part structure of a beginning, middle and end? Is the film split into five chapters to represent five decades of following a person’s life? Is the story told in a stream of consciousness with a first-person voice-over narration, such as in The Kid Stays in the Picture and Tyson?

It is also in the detailed section of the treatment that you explain how you plan to translate the story visually. Will you use current-day and/or rare archival footage? Will you tell your story using all b-roll? Will you use reenactments, stills, graphics, music and animation and what will your interview set-up be? You can mention other artistic elements, such as the choice of camera.

A word of caution: A common mistake cited by the funders is that a filmmaker can write so much about the topic or style and method, that he neglects to lay out the actual storyline.

“Sometimes emerging filmmakers conflate style with story,” Taylor said. “Tell me about the story and they say, I’m going to shoot handheld or I’m going to shoot on the RED or the Canon 5D or I’m going to give you animation and this and that. This is good in the detailed treatment but it doesn’t completely tell the sense of a story of a person, a community, an idea that is at a pivotal moment, a sense of conflict or journey.”

You might ask: How do I describe the story arc when I haven’t finished shooting? Grant readers don’t expect you to know everything, especially if you’re at the beginning of production. What they do expect you to do is to ask the right questions regarding the possible outcomes and their impact on the story.

Freedom Fighters, directed by Jamie Meltzer, was only midway through production when they came to us, which is a tricky time to apply for funding because you may not be sure where your story ends up,” ITVS’s Ahmad said. “We look for evidence that the filmmaker knows the possibilities of the journey, even if it’s not completed yet — its narrative arc, its themes and takeaways for the audience. It’s not an easy thing, but as a filmmaker, you have to know your subject matter, your characters and your story’s structure inside and out. Jamie and his team did a great job of conveying those possible resolutions in their proposal.”

For this reason, films in mid-to-late production often fare better than those that are just beginning to shoot because this information is clearer. If you’re still figuring this out, according to MacArthur’s Im, then it’s just too soon to apply for production grants. Your application will not be competitive.

The last few paragraphs for most program descriptions should deal with target audience, community engagement and any distribution strategy, as well as how the funds will be used. If you don’t have a well-thought-out audience and distribution plan, then I would not stress too much about it. If funders are looking closely at these paragraphs, then you’ve come far into the process.

That being said, for the mission-minded organizations such as Sundance and ITVS, thinking about your audience is a consideration. “This is an optional paragraph, just like our interactive elements,” Taylor said. “I don’t expect them to have it all worked out, but if you have an idea, we want to know. We want to have you start thinking about it.”

Our Nixon
Our Nixon

Forget the Kickstarter trailer

Though most of my focus has been on the written treatment, I should say a few words about the work-in-progress tape. Most funders say that the visual sample and written treatment are of equal importance. However, “poor work samples have sabotaged many an interesting proposal,” Creative Capital’s Lerner said.

Yang, a frequent Creative Capital panelist, agrees. “A strong sample will cover up deficiencies in the written material but not vice versa,” he said.

Also, if you think you can spruce up that zippy Kickstarter trailer as a work-in-progress tape, I would think twice. Most of these funders said that trailers don’t work well in the grants arena. Tapes that show scenes expressing your storytelling abilities and reflect what you outlined in the treatment are more appropriate.

And lastly, samples should also show production value — this includes sound quality, which is often neglected in low-budget filmmaking.

Some Parting Wisdom

When it comes to the fixing the budget and the request amount, I always feared I was asking too much when I put the maximum, but surprisingly almost everyone I spoke with said request amount was the least determining factor. The budget should, however, reasonably reflect the film you’re trying to make. Otherwise, your credibility will be at stake.

Second, that adage of “if at first you don’t succeed, then try, try again” applies to grant applications. Sometimes projects don’t get funded until their second or third time applying. But each time you apply, you must show some progress. Funders track the development of a project each time the filmmaker submits to see how she or he has progressed and also to test commitment.

Lastly, grants can take six months from the time you apply to the time you’ll have a check in hand, so I wouldn’t give up that day job any time soon. Cinereach’s Ladjevardir put it best, “We advise you to hope for the best but plan for the worst.”

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