Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Ask-an-Expert: Cinereach's Reva Goldberg on Fundraising Strategy

In my previous post I shared some fundamentals of the fundraising landscape I wish someone had told me when I was getting started. If you’ve been through it once or twice, this post will probably cover some things experience has already taught you, or simply reassure you that you’re not alone! If not, I’d love for you to comment and let me know some additional things you learned-by-doing. In future posts I’ll move on from covering the beginning of the fundraising process for projects in their early stages, to tackling more advanced tips for further progressed films.

So I’m guessing you have a specific documentary film you’re about to produce, or you’ve already started making one. You’ve already encountered access to a fascinating subject at an important time and you jumped at the chance to tell this story as only you can. You have to get (and keep) moving. It’s not a question of whether, but of how, you will fuel your project.

This post also assumes that because of your passion and commitment to this project, your primary goal is to complete this film as you envision it, and without driving yourself to financial ruin. [For some useful insight into the financial realities of a career in independent film, I highly encourage you to read Esther B. Robinson’s posts for Filmmaker Magazine, including this one, and this one].

In my experience, your strategy for getting your film made should stem from three key things: the resources you can access independently; the stage your film is at (i.e. development, pre-production, production, post, etc.); and your track record as a filmmaker.

Understanding and embracing this triumvirate will help you: figure out which funders to approach and when; create a working (living, breathing, evolving) budget and cash flow plan; anticipate where you may hit bumps on the way to completion; and figure out what to say if/when someone asks you that all-important question “what do you need to get this done?”

Your existing resources help propel your project forward through each stage of production, regardless of whether and when you receive donations, grants or other financing. As you advance through the stages of production and get closer to completion, it becomes easier to gain funder confidence in your ability to complete a good film. The better your filmmaking track record, the earlier in your production you can inspire funder confidence.

Each funder has its preference for how early in the life of a project, and in a filmmaker’s career, it prefers to become involved. Understanding your own triumvirate, however, along with researching your fundraising targets well, will help you crack that code. I hope to focus on this specific point more in a future post, and/or during the panel I’ll moderate at this year’s IFP Filmmaker Conference (Tuesday, Sept. 21 at 12pm). I also hope to discuss the idea of approaching funders who are less familiar with the film industry, and who may have some different priorities when it comes to confidence in you and your project. Even given the two x-factors I just mentioned, I think the triumvirate is a helpful guide.

I also recommend taking full inventory of your existing resources, estimating what you’ll need and when, as you move from production to post and beyond. Taking an objective look at where you are in your career as a filmmaker will also be helpful. Have you completed a work (of any length) that demonstrates what you can achieve and somehow resembles (thematically, stylistically, or otherwise) the project you’re currently working on? If not, it may be more productive to recognize that your current project is an exciting new proving ground, for itself and your future work.

Resources is a broad term I’m using to cover anything and everything you can put towards this film. I suggest that you view any resource you can invest in your project as an integral piece of your funding pie, not valued more or less than donations, grants or other financing that comes your way. It’s all part of getting it done. This pool includes everything from the personal cash you’ve put aside for your film [and please be smart about doing this so you don’t crash and burn!], to the camera and mics you can borrow from “the cage” at your alma mater, to the friend who owns an Armenian restaurant and wants to offer free catering for your first fundraising party because your film follows a family of recent Armenian immigrants. Think creatively about this one. There are more options than you think!

Each type of resource you can inventory deserves its own post, if not its own book, but in my experience as a fundraiser and a reviewer of grant applications, the resources that are most valuable and get you furthest over time are 1) your passion and commitment to your project 2) ownership of the technical and creative skills and tools of production and 3) the people who love you, a lot.

No doubt you’re so fired up about your current project that you will dedicate the next several years of your life to birthing it. Luckily, your perseverance is the single most important force in getting to the finish line. The fire in your belly is also the emotional glue that keeps everyone you rely on to help you (crew, subjects, even donors and funders) “on the bus.”

I know this one is especially hard to hear, but the sooner you embrace it the better: if you and your team have the means to shoot and edit yourselves without having to hire out (even if your skills are limited), you won’t have to miss capturing any of the important moments that are critical to realizing your vision. That footage in the can is your holy grail! You’ll hone your skills as you go along, and you’ll be able to cut selects together for potential funders, too.

And finally, your inner-circle, those you know you can count on. These are the first (and probably also final) people you’ll ask for donations (cash or in-kind) because they already believe in you and are invested in your success. You will have to ask explicitly (they’re not mind-readers), and time your asks sensitively and strategically, but they will do what they can to help you. They will also be the people who help you gain momentum when it’s time to conduct crowd-funding or audience building campaigns on the Web [see the great resource page Ingrid Kopp created for her ‘Digital Bootcamp’ if you have no idea what I’m talking about]. I also recommend applying for fiscal sponsorship so that you can offer proof of a tax-deductible gift when friends donate to your project (that fiscal sponsorship application is also great practice for grant writing).

All this is to say that it is truly very hard for an inexperienced filmmaker to gain funder confidence during the earlier stages of a project. I promise, though, as a project nears completion, the playing field becomes more even, especially if the project is really, really awesome. What this means for you is that the less experienced you are, the more progress you’ll have to make on your own before you attract their attention. It may feel unfair, that so many supporters want to be there for the glory, and not for the gritty struggle. Yes, it can be a very lonely trek sometimes. But then again, it’s your movie, you own it, and you’re the one who will feel the greatest reward when the thing you crafted makes it all the way home.

You’ll also find that the further along you get, the more the project crystallizes for you, theoretically and physically. When you start to see where you’re going you won’t struggle as much to talk and write concisely and compellingly about it. You’ll know what your best footage is and what emotions it illicits. These are highly powerful tools of influence. With them, you can rally excitement, confidence, and finally cash.

Reva Goldberg is Communications & Fellowships Manager at Cinereach (, an NYC not-for-profit film foundation and production company that champions vital stories, artfully told. There she heads up the Reach Film Fellowship program which provides a grant and seven months of mentorship to emerging filmmakers producing socially conscious short films. She also handles all public communications, as well as serving on the grants selection committee. Reva has an extensive background in film production, fundraising and audience building. Before joining Cinereach, she was a producer at Pureland Pictures where she produced the documentary All of Us (which aired on Showtime in 2008) and co-produced Pureland’s Toe to Toe, a narrative feature that premiered at Sundance ‘09. In 2004, Reva was Associate Producer of an Emmy-nominated History Channel documentary on the 9/11 Commission (produced by CBS). She has worked with TLC, UPN, Discovery, The Travel Channel, Washington Square Films/Arts and Cronkite
Productions. Reva likes to tweet about opportunities for independent filmmakers via @RevaGoldberg and @Cinereach.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, that's why it's also good to just shoot something so you can add something tangible for that plan.