The full Prenups guide contains perspectives from filmmakers and funders on how best to work together. Below are a few of those perspectives. We hope you’ll tell us your own stories and ideas in the space provided at the right.
WHAT FUNDERS TOLD US THEY WANT FILMMAKERS TO KNOW : Our goal [with grant guidelines and requirements] is to assess a project’s viability, not to make life difficult for the applicant,” notes one program officer. Another says that many funders “are held more and more accountable by their foundations and their trustees for every dollar spent, [and therefore] filmmakers must be prepared for more scrutiny than ever before.” Still another grantmaker says, “we want filmmakers to keep us informed, so that to the extent possible we can be a source of knowledge.” Another concludes, “This relationship can be a beautiful thing for both the funder and the filmmaker.
WHAT YOU TOLD US ABOUT…WHO GIVES INPUT : An equity investor in documentary film says, “What we [as investors] ask for is meaningful consultation, which means we get to see cuts of the film. Consultations start from the point of view of what we are trying to communicate in this film, and is it being communicated as well as it can be.” Some filmmakers might not want funders’ input, but at least one suggests soliciting it anyway: “It’s important to receive feedback on cuts from a wide range of sources—especially your funder! Do you ever want to receive a grant from them again? If yes, then you better have them weigh in.
WHAT YOU TOLD US ABOUT…NEGOTIATING BUDGETS : We are always open to negotiation and think of our funding much more in venture capital terms than as grants,” says one funder. Another takes a harder line, saying, “I keep my promises and you keep yours. If I go over, I should eat it, and vice versa.” Filmmakers, too, have diverse perspectives on budget negotiations. “Some filmmakers might be tempted to lowball their budget, especially if a funder has pushed back on an original bottom line. But that can lead to compromised quality and even stalled production,” warns one director. Another says, “Filmmakers take a lot of risks, often don’t have health insurance and spend time in development working speculatively and without pay. When funding comes in, the filmmaker needs to make up for lost income and receive a decent wage that reflects their previous investment in the project.
WHAT FILMMAKERS TOLD US THEY WANT FUNDERS TO KNOW : Most independent filmmakers lead what one calls “highrisk, lowfinancialreturn” lives, and that “when funders only see the final product, they tend to think it’s easy.” Another filmmaker says, “There is value to letting a story unfold in a more nuanced, complex fashion—that is almost always a more effective way of drawing your audience in and making your point than is hitting the audience over the head with it.” Funders may have a lot to learn from filmmakers, because “the films are great adventures. And [since] we work on our films so hard after they are made, the adventure goes on and on.
WHAT YOU TOLD US ABOUT…POLYGAMY (MULTIPLE FUNDERS) : Most documentary filmmakers are polygamous—they “marry” more than one funder. They have to in order to get the film made. Different funders may have separate goals, guidelines, reporting requirements, disbursement schedules, interests, desired audiences or versions of the film. Experienced people on both sides urge funders to recognize that the filmmaker is likely dealing with several different funders, as well as advocacy organizations, advisors and other people who are making demands on her film, time and resources.
WHAT YOU TOLD US ABOUT…CHOOSING A FILMMAKER : One equity investor in documentary film says the investor’s role is not to make the film but to choose the right filmmaker. “It’s a cliché that 80 of directing is casting—you’ve got to get the right [actor] for the job and they will do it. It’s the same thing with equity investments. It’s all about choosing the right filmmaker who you think has the right vision and giving them the money and the freedom to [make the film]. If you don’t trust a filmmaker to make a great film, you probably shouldn’t be working with that person anyway.
WHAT YOU TOLD US ABOUT…RESPECTING EACH OTHER : A film investor says, “Each side of the equation has to understand and respect the value that the other brings to the table. The filmmaker has to understand that the money the funder brings means a lot it could be spent elsewhere, and it’s being spent on this film because the funder cares about this issue and wants to see something good done. And the funder has to understand that the filmmaker is a creative person and that documentary film is not scripted there’s a fluidity to the process… If either side is breached—if the funder tries to get involved in the creative side of the film, or the filmmaker keeps going back to the investor for more money or doesn’t hit the benchmarks—it will result in a problem for the film. What a filmmaker and funder want are different. The key to this is having someone involved who can speak the language of both parties.”
WHAT YOU TOLD US ABOUT…BEING TRUE TO YOUR GOALS : All grants must be made with a goal in mind, one nonprofit funder says. “The idea of making a film is glamorous and seductive. You imagine going to a screening, and it would be sold out, and there’d be a standing ovation, and it would win prizes. But it’s important for organizations like ours to think about how a film would contribute to our mission.” Funders may get seduced by the examples of An Inconvenient Truth or a lowbudget blockbuster. One documentarian admits that “filmmakers may perpetuate these exceptional examples because it builds their case.” It’s equally important for filmmakers to be honest, he adds, and not get seduced by the charms (or money) of the funder. “Filmmakers,” he concludes, “need to be absolutely honest about whether they are a match.”
CASE IN POINT: A FUNDER AND A FILMMAKER BOTH MEET THEIR NEEDS : One nonprofit wanted a piece on solitary confinement but didn’t have a lot of money to produce it. The organization paid a filmmaker a small fee to go to a conference on prison issues, conduct interviews and produce a short video on the topic. The organization retained copyright to the video. The filmmaker received a fee, developed contacts for a longer documentary she wanted to produce on solitary confinement, and retained ownership of the raw footage. “The idea was to give her something beyond just the modest pay—so we gave her the material,” says the program director.
CASE IN POINT: STRATEGIZING ABOUT DISTRIBUTION : When Byron Hurt’s Beyond Beats & Rhymes came to the attention of the Ford Foundation, grantmakers saw it as a powerful way to jumpstart a public conversation about how hiphop culture deals with masculinity, sexism and violence. But because of the film’s profanity, provocative lyrics and images, they felt the need to strategize with Hurt about ways to ensure a successful broadcast—including negotiating with PBS about the content and building public momentum for the project. One of the lead grantmakers, himself an experienced filmmaker, thus helped the film get the exposure it deserved and created the impact that everyone wanted—without compromising the filmmaker’s vision.
Share Your Perspective
Tell us about your own thoughts and experiences in dealing with the issues raised in the Prenups.
The Prenups are a work-in-progress and need your input! Did we miss an important question? Did you have a great collaboration you want to tell us about? Or do you believe that all independent films need heat-proof editorial firewalls to protect the filmmaker?
Let us know—we may ask your permission to publish your perspectives, either attributed or anonymously. (You decide.)