Skip to main content

Finding Funding: Identify Your Core Values

By Cynthia Close

Shaking the Money Tree: The Art of Getting Grants and Donations for Film and Video Projects, 3rd edition
by Morrie Warshawski
Michael Wiese Productions 2010
192 pages; $26.96

Even in the best economic times, raising money for independent documentary films is no easy task.  And today, some filmmakers may describe the situation as dire. But we've been here before, and if you're old enough to remember the 1970s, suddenly things don't look so bad after all. Back then, we lived in a non-digital world. Films had to be shot on film. The bar to enter the magical world of filmmaking was much higher (this is both a good and a bad thing), and the tools to raise enough money to actually complete a project were not easy to acquire. Even after a film was completed, in order for a movie to find its audience, it had to be shown in a theater, and to do that, you had to be supported by a distributor who specialized in the theatrical market. There was no outlet for independent films on network television, and prospects for documentaries were on the decline there as well. 

There were a handful of forward-thinking distribution companies that were founded back in the late 1960s and early '70s (including the one I run today, Documentary Educational Resources), predicated on the idea that films were a great teaching tool and that there was a whole untapped market in schools, universities, libraries and museums. That turned out to be a very sustainable model for decades.  But nothing is forever, and with the tsunami of technological change that started in the early 1990s, we have all had to adjust. Those who didn't are no longer around to talk about it.

So where does that leave us? I would suggest that there has never been a better time to be an independent documentary filmmaker. The equipment to shoot and edit a great-looking film has never been cheaper. The tools to research your subject, find your audience and target your funders are just a mouse-click away. Unfortunately, this has created a glut of opportunity as well as a cacophony of "experts"--all of whom claim to have the secret formula that will guide you through the forest of funding and distribution options. On what do they base their expertise? In some cases, it seems that the production of one nominally successful film is all it takes to become a guru on the DIY bandwagon.

One of the criteria for selecting a consultant who might well have valuable insights worth the cost of a workshop--or the price of a book--is to see how long that person has been on the job. Morrie Warshawski was one of the first people to realize, back in 1994, when he published the original edition of Shaking the Money Tree, that while we were entering a period of game-changing technology, there were still core values that we needed to be reminded of in order to address the art of fundraising for independent non-commercial film and video. This book became the bible on fundraising. I used it myself as a reference when asked to give advice to filmmakers I worked with under our organization's fiscal sponsor program. Clearly, there were many others beside myself who found Warshawski's advice useful. For years, he has been one of the most frequently mentioned "experts" in this increasingly crowded field. About a year ago, when I had the opportunity to attend one of his workshops here in Boston, I decided to see first-hand the person behind the advice.

First, I was struck by his modesty--none of the puffery and self-promotion so evident among other consultants in this field. He was calm; no hyper, used-car-salesman-like techniques. He talked about life lessons and those he had learned along the way, and indeed, he opens this new, third edition of Shaking the Money Tree with a chapter entitled "Laying the Foundation: Your Career." He acknowledges that many filmmakers may take this for granted and just skip the opener to get to the meat of the story, such as how to raise money from individual donors, or Chapter 5: "The Paper Trail: Foundations and Government Agencies," but he cautions against skipping the advice he proffers in "Laying the Foundation." He began his workshop in the same way; he had us identify our core values.

It had been a very long time since I had reflected on that question, "What are your core values?" Having worked in the arts and the nonprofit sector all my life, I felt I lived my core values, and it was obvious. Most documentary filmmakers probably feel the same way, but it's easy to get caught up in the dog-eat-dog survival mode of scrambling for dollars, while forgetting why we got into this business in the first place. I had to remind myself of my core values: flexibility, creativity, curiosity. Then Warshawski had us create our personal mission statement and vision statement, imagining our future either as filmmakers or, in my case, as a facilitator/distributor. It has always been my feeling that you have to be able to imagine a future if you intend to have one. Warshawski helped to confirm that feeling.

The workshop continued in much the same way as the current edition of Shaking the Money Tree, which segues into step-by-step instructions for proposal writing, pitching, budgeting and distribution, sprinkled liberally with case studies and real-life results. I was reading the book on the bus on the way to give my own presentation on the importance of what I call "high-stakes pitching" to a meeting of members of Connect the Docs, a Boston-based filmmakers networking group. One of Warshawski's phrases, "Circles of Influence," jumped out at me; it gave me the hook that helped me structure my whole presentation. I asked the question, "Who do you know and who do you need to know [ order to get your film funded and seen on HBO, PBS or premiered at Sundance]?" The discussion took off, and I was able to incorporate much that I had read into my talk.

So, Morrie, thanks again for your most valuable advice-not only on raising money for films, but on guiding us through life as well.    


Cynthia Close is executive director of Documentary Educational Resources.