Insider Knowledge: Tips from Funded Filmmakers


Georgiana Lee, a member of the Diné (Navajo) tribe in Arizona, has been the organization’s Assistant Director since 2009.

Insider Knowledge: Tips from Funded Filmmakers

Date Posted: 
2014-12-16 16:33

Blog Series:


Below are suggestions and advice from funded filmmakers. They were gracious enough to give us permission to share their applications that were funded in the 2014 Open Call.

Documentaries are not journalism.  They can be journalistic when based in fact, but documentaries move people beyond the numbers and facts and data, beyond the news reports of what happened and when it happened. Your documentary is a story, and those seemingly small stories - told by your main characters - actually help to tell a much broader, societal story.

Your proposal must illustrate your creative risk-taking and how you plan to tackle the complex or uncomfortable issues. As you write, think about seeing your film on paper, like it's a visual poem. Illustrate those universal feelings, behaviors and beliefs that others can identify with, even from the other side of the world. You will need compelling characters, drama, tension, conflict and triumph. You need to show transformation, what happens to whom, how does it happen and why does it happen? Conjure up powerful mental pictures and address them in a clear, dramatic style. How does your story build and move through moments of tension or conflict?

Make sure you answer all questions that any judge might have, such as: Who are your main characters? What's at stake if your main characters do one thing instead of the other? Do you have access to them? Do you have access to the needed locations? How will you tell the story in cinematography and editing? How much will your film cost? How long will it take to make? What are your promotional plans to market the film and get folks to watch it? What are your plans for the website? Can your film be part of a larger conversation and get audiences to react in some way? Do you have the right crew in place to successfully execute your film within the budget and timeline parameters?

When judges see and hear your passion reflected on the page, and you’ve convinced them that YOU are the right person to tell this story NOW, they will better understand the importance of bringing your film to light.

Christine Lesiak  [ VIEW APPLICATION ]
Assuming you have a great idea—and the access to make it into a film—how do you write a successful proposal? The hardest part is simply starting. After all (you say to yourself) I know this is going to be good—just give me the money and let me make it! Experience has taught me that this conviction is based on very little but enthusiasm. Good to have, but only the hard work, the nitty gritty work of putting it to paper is going to reveal what is powerful, special, and watchable about your idea. So, the proposal isn't just an exercise to get you the money, it's actually a way to find your story. 

But before you start writing, you have to figure out what it's about.

And it's not about a SUBJECT like "The History of the Indian Industrial Boarding Schools." That's merely the topic.  You won't get far if you start with a generality like that. You need the essence, the kernel, the short sweet statement upon which everything else hangs. When I proposed the boarding school idea many years ago to American Experience it went nowhere until I hit on what it was about—for me. Cultural Annihilation. It took me a while to figure it out but once it became my focus, it carried me through to the end.

So, I suggest that your all important first step is to find a quiet place and think about the essence of your story. It should be short, clear and simple. Not overly intellectual. Base it on your passion, which is the spark that got you started and will light the fire that attracts your audience when the whole thing is done.

Only then should you sit down and do the hard work of writing. And that clear and simple focus will be your friend. It will take you through, help you to decide what to keep and what to throw away. 

Valerie Red-Horse  [ VIEW APPLICATION ]
The one thing I've learned over all my years of test taking and application submitting is very simple and perhaps overstated: READ THE QUESTIONS!  I found early on in my application process days, I would have great answers about my projects and would input them into my applications only to later realize they may have been great narrative pieces of prose but were not necessarily addressing what the questions were asking exactly.

The folks that compile the applications and then judge them look for preciseness in your answers and the ability to read directions and answer the specific question. While it is always a good idea to have a standard package of materials prepared –- be sure to customize the answers to the exact questions they are seeking. 

Another lesson learned later in life for me is to UTILIZE RESOURCES! There are so many free seminars and webinars that provide helpful discussions, examples and case studies of the application process. I realized there is a large community of support and they are all pulling for us to get funding, so reach out and take advantage of the vast resources available to you as a filmmaker; ask questions about the applications and ask others who have applied before!

Also, GET A THIRD OR FOURTH OPINION…if you are the producer/director/writer (which I am on most of my projects) I can tell you right now you (and I) are too close to it to be objective. Identify someone you trust as a partner or friend and have them read the application objectively.

And please, DO NOT GET DISCOURAGED! I have found such creative ways of financing because certain doors were shut and then so much more opened up through other avenues. As an example I was a Sundance Lab Fellow and premiered my first film at Sundance back in the late 90s –- I thought they loved me and that I would be partnering with Sundance the rest of my career. They have turned down every one of my doc applications since then! But that doesn’t mean I haven't found the funding –- and it has created other great partnerships for me to explore. You and your project are most likely fabulous but sometimes that has little to do with the funding process.

And finally for me, I believe that God has a plan for all of us and I am on a journey of His guidance and direction. In my opinion the opportunity to tell stories and influence lives through film is a great responsibility and privilege; so I ALWAYS PRAY over my applications before pressing “send”…good luck!!!

Benjamin Shors  [ VIEW APPLICATION ]
Butch lost his mother in a flood in 1964 and now, 50 years later, he still searches for her missing remains. Webb lost his home and his cattle herd, but he persisted in rebuilding his life in the middle of the Montana prairie. Eloise lost her husband, but she found a son she had worried was dead. In writing our grant, we were lucky –- we found incredible, powerful characters who happened to be real people. We just tried to get out of their way. I don’t think there is a substitute for great characters. The story lies in the details of your characters’ lives. It was a matter of listening for those details.
If there's an easy shortcut to writing a grant, I have not learned it yet. It's work. It should be. But it should also be rewarding. It is an opportunity to distill all your research, effort and ideas into a clear, engaging proposal. After months or years of delving into an idea, it is a great mind-clearing, deep-breath of an exercise to search through piles of notes and interviews, to root around for themes in the collected mass of individual stories. We asked ourselves again and again, “What is this story about?” We argued about it, laughed about it, and when we were at our best, we adjusted our view rather than adjusting the facts to fit our narrative. Our answer to that elusive question shifted throughout our research, but it challenged us daily to consider the threads that connected our characters, both in the "real world" and in the narratives of their lives.
In the end, we tried not to force a broad, sweeping concept on our characters. We turned on the cameras, listened to our subjects, and watched the stories unfurl before us. When it came time to write the grant, we told their stories. Before we submitted the grant, we also talked with the granting organization so that we could tailor our proposal. We researched Vision Maker and asked a lot of questions. Often, people repurpose a grant over and over, copying and pasting the same basic proposal to multiple funders, hoping it will stick with one. For us, it was key for us to find a funding partner whose objectives and interests aligned with ours. Once we found that common ground, the proposal felt like a natural fit.

Get additional information by also reading  Insider Knowledge: Tips from Previous Readers



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