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How to Build Values-Based Documentary Funding Strategies

By Rounak Maiti

Getting Real ‘20’s Main Stage programming sought to address some timely issues within the documentary community, and sparked nuanced, thought-provoking discussions among the panelists and the hundreds of viewers tuning in in real time. The “Documentary Funding Ecosystem: Building Values-Based Financial Strategies” session was one especially valuable discussion, among a group of five producers, grantmakers and film professionals. They discussed the key priorities for our community if we are to move towards a more just, equitable and value-based financial ecosystem for filmmakers of all backgrounds. How can filmmakers make business decisions that support values like creative independence, representation, sustainability and authorship?

We need to strengthen noncommercial funding streams. As big streamers and investors hoping to profit from docs grow in influence and pour money into the documentary space, how do we change the discussion on what a return on investment means for socially conscious documentaries? The panel questioned if we can ever fully reconcile a film's social justice goals with investors who expect to recoup the funds they commit to a project. Commercial funding streams can be a deterrent to filmmakers pushing the right stories. There is usually little discussion about what return on investment could mean beyond garnering awards and financial gain—does this story serve the community it features? Was the creation process behind the film equitable? Ford Foundation Program Officer Chi-hui Yang highlighted the importance of seeking other funding infrastructures to strengthen. "Imagine if larger documentary investments were poured into public media, and what that could do for doc viewership as a whole," he said.

Start with the problems BIPOC filmmakers face, and you will solve many problems for the field as a whole. The haphazard and uncertain nature of film funding especially impacts the more underrepresented parts of our filmmaking community. “A lot of major funders may not see BIPOC work as ‘profitable,’” argued Firelight Media’s Marcia Smith. “Creating more equitable financial strategies begins with funding disenfranchised storytelling.” 

Equity financing needs to be reassessed. The funding system available to most documentary filmmakers forces them to gather funds piecemeal, through various grants, individual donors, investors and more. As a result, filmmakers may enter poorly structured equity financing deals that parcel off rights, challenge their creative vision or threaten their ability to recoup their own investment. If equity financing becomes closer in form to philanthropic funding, we can ensure a better future for this particular form of funding. Additionally, many documentary labs are starting to reconsider what kinds of investors to work with. “We talk a lot about financing, but we also need to look at what exactly distribution is doing for the doc. Is it reaching the right audience? Is it having the right impact?” said Caroline Von Kuhn, Director of Sundance’s Catalyst program. “Investors and filmmakers need to align on what audience to engage. It’s not about making a wise investment, but a worthy investment.”

Documentary filmmakers need to be paid beyond the film’s budget. Making a documentary is an expensive endeavor, and more often than not, much of the film crew and the filmmakers themselves remain unpaid or in debt after finishing the film. As outlined in the DPA’s new Waterfall Guidelines, it is imperative that filmmakers are paid at every stage of filmmaking, and filmmakers and funders work together to ensure that the project is sustainable as a whole. The panelists also discussed the viability of using sales revenue to recoup budget costs, which, as time goes on, may become an essential part of budgeting for documentary filmmaking. 

Filmmakers need more distribution opportunities that allow them to retain ownership of their work. Commercial funders and streamers have undermined the filmmaker’s ability to maintain ownership of their creative projects and exploit rights that can lead to sustainable income streams. “One point in time indie filmmakers could bootstrap their own films and be able to prolong the financial potential of their work,” explained Producer Marilyn Ness. “And those funds, when secured, would go a long way in paying the filmmaker and going back into the world.” Now, we have moved almost entirely away from that model. 

We need to collect quantitative and qualitative funding data. Without collecting data, we can’t understand the long-term effects of the current funding ecosystem and create clarity around documentary funding. “It’s important to take a step back and understand how the current system is harming filmmakers,” said Yang. “Data about impact rights, authorship, streaming and more is absolutely critical.” Smith echoed those thoughts, adding that “the lack of data and lack of transparency around individual filmmakers' deals hurt the entire filmmaker community as a whole.”

Rounak Maiti is an artist, writer and researcher based in Mumbai. He is IDA's Digital Communications Coordinator.