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And Now, A Word About Sponsors: Taking the Corporate Route to Funding Your Project

By Kathleen Fairweather

"It is difficult to produce a television documentary that is both incisive and probing when every 12 minutes one is interrupted by 12 dancing rabbits singing about toilet paper."                                                                                                                                   -- Rod Serling

The only thing harder than making your documentary film is funding it. What do you do after you've tapped out your credit cards, borrowed from family and friends, mortgaged your house and, in some cases, sold your own blood and are still in need of money for your film? Before you take a trip to the blood bank, there are several options available that don't involve selling vital organs or your firstborn. One of these is sponsorship.

Corporate sponsorship is as old as Robert Flaherty's 1922 epic Nanook of the North, which was funded by Revillon Freres, a French fur company. While corporate sponsorship of documentary films is viewed by some as the ultimate sell-out, smart documentary filmmakers are taking advantage of the convergence of reality and advertising. Nowhere is this more prevalent than PBS, which has followed commercial television's lead by recently allowing 30-second spots for high-level corporate sponsors. While PBS still maintains restrictions on the type of message, it isn't hard to imagine a softening of this policy as we soldier on through tough economic terrain. But will corporations buy it? And more importantly, will they sponsor documentary films? The answer seems to be "yes." With the advent of TiVo and other personal recording devices, corporations have realized that viewers not only have control over their programming choices, but have the power to eliminate those pesky commercials as well. How does a corporation guarantee that its message will be seen and have the desired impact on the consumer? By embedding the product or the company within the medium. This gives sponsors a guaranteed delivery vehicle where the message is incorporated right into the film.

Sponsorship is not to be confused with advertising, however. Although the lines do seem blurred at times, the benefits of sponsorship are vastly different. They are measured more by intangibles such as corporate association with the film, increased social visibility, the opportunity to shape consumer attitudes favorably towards the company and the demonstration of commitment to a specific lifestyle. Other benefits include an entertaining way for a corporation to distinguish itself from its competitors, and merchandising and branding opportunities that allow for the sponsor to increase sales––the real bottom line.

 But how does it benefit the filmmaker? The obvious answer is financing, but it may not always be that clearly defined. Doug Pray, director of Hype (1996) and Scratch (2001), warns that one of the dangers of sponsorship is losing control of your project or having to conform to a sponsor's vision of what your film should be. Pray recommends that filmmakers "take the discussion to its immediate logical conclusion as quickly as possible. Do they want final cut? Will they have a say in any of the content of the film? Will the audience know it's sponsored or are you trying to hide this? Any fuzzy middle ground on these issues will lead to disaster––for you and the sponsor."

Pray had the seemingly good luck to be approached by a major corporation to direct an urban lifestyles film. On the surface this seemed like the ultimate fantasy; however, it soon became clear that there were challenges to being a gun-for-hire doc filmmaker who was not in sync with the vision of the sponsor. "After I'd expressed concerns about the politics and scope of the project, they did allow me to go off on my own and present to them a complete vision of what I would like to do with their money [my own take and full treatment]," Pray says. "They allowed me to present that, were very respectful, and...I didn't get the job. But it's important to note that they were supportive and interested in my honest views. They were intelligent and completely understood the complexities of what they were asking for. In the end, they understandably decided to follow a path that was less complicated and served their corporate needs more directly."

Pray said he's learned from this experience and would do things differently in the future if approached for this kind of assignment again. "It's important to give a clear ‘yes' or ‘no' right away. Taking time to ‘figure it out' is a disservice to them and ultimately futile. What was I thinking? They're one of the biggest corporate giants in history! Of course I wouldn't have final cut!"

Kim Skildum-Reid, co-author of  the sponsorship industry bestsellers The Sponsorship Seeker's Toolkit and The Sponsor's Toolkit  agrees with this sentiment and acknowledges that while a filmmaker might not want to give up final cut, there may be other trade-offs to entice sponsors. "The benefits of sponsoring a documentary will vary widely from one subject and one sponsor to another," Skildum-Reid notes. "They may include hospitality benefits at the launch or the ability to host guests during filming and other ‘what money can't buy' experiences. They may want access to footage for use in ads, internal communications, Internet sites and training films. They may want to provide product––such as Toyota providing Landcruisers for use in a doc about the desert––so long as it gets some camera time and/or you promise to say something nice about it in the film. The filmmaker could make appearances or speeches to key customers or staff. The list really goes on and on and is only limited by what you are willing to provide and how much you need the money. There is a generic inventory of benefits in my book, The Sponsorship Seeker's Toolkit [see accompanying sidebar], that may assist in getting doc filmmakers to think broadly about their commercial potential and what they can offer."

Pray has also learned to approach sponsors with a project proposal that offers participation and association with marketing campaigns after the film is done, as opposed to product placement in the film. "It wouldn't be a contract or ‘client' relationship, but a trade," he says. "Up-front dollars or discounts on items or services in trade for brand ID later on the DVD, concerts and merchandising."

Agi Orsi, producer of Dogtown and Z Boys (2001), directed by Stacey Peralta, believes that sponsorship can be a great way to finance a film.  She explains how Dogtown and Vans, the sportswear apparel company, connected. "I had another project that I was talking to Vans about, a snowboarding feature, when I got a call about an article in Spin magazine on Dogtown [the section of Venice, California that inspired the film]. I called Stacey, who was one of three featured skaters [in the article] and said, ‘Do you want to do a film? I know where to go for financing.' He said that he'd been waiting all his life to do a documentary, because it would be authentic. I called Jay Wilson, executive vice president, worldwide marketing at Vans. He was my contact for the snowboarding feature, and he said, ‘Stacey Peralta is on board as director? He was our very first sponsored skater. We'll do it.' It's not always so simple, believe me.  But when the timing is right and the fit is right, it's karmic. We've had that same flow throughout."

Orsi says that although agreement to sponsor came quickly from Vans, she acknowledges that is highly unusual, and it sometimes takes as long as two years to negotiate a deal. "We couldn't have dreamed for a better relationship, but it's spoiled us. It might never happen again." Orsi says their project was free of any outside input or influence from Vans. "Not only did Vans not have any input, I had to call Jay to say ‘Hey, I'm insisting you take executive producer credit.' He didn't even want a credit! Then I told him that it's customary for the financiers to come and see what they are paying for. He said, ‘Okay, I'll come to the edit bay.' We were very nervous. When he arrived he said, ‘You guys look tired, let's go to lunch. I trust you'. They only got involved when I needed them and were very influential in a positive way when it came to marketing. Once we got the awards at Sundance, we had many suitors for a distribution deal. Vans consulted on everything with us. We were true partners."

Robert Bilheimer, Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker and director of A Closer Walk, a global survey of the AIDS pandemic, reports that his fundraising efforts for his recent film went on for six years. He wrote thousands of letters and emails that resulted in more than a dozen foundations and other donors--including his mother--funding the film, and General Motors kicking in $500,000 for a public awareness program. He adds that although it was a lengthy process, the letter-writing was a positive experience. "I turned those letters into a clarification of what I was doing. There is a writing discipline involved in fundraising, and writing is how you articulate what it is you want to do."

Bilheimer advises documentarians not to waste time asking corporations for production funding. "They're corporations," he says. "They work on business models and are conservative by nature. I never compromised. There were places I didn't go for funding because I knew at some level I would lose control."

 However, he doesn't subscribe to the notion that sponsorship jeopardizes the moral integrity of the film or the filmmaker. "The truism about filmmaking is that it's a collaborative enterprise involving hundreds, if not thousands, of people. This is the paradigm of the future. I love talking to sponsors; learning and understanding what their needs are is mutually beneficial."

So how does a filmmaker go about learning more about the needs of sponsors and the "how-to's" of sponsorship?. The three Rs: Research, Research, Research. Research the companies you are interested in, and, how sponsorship works. Skildum-Reid's The Sponsorship Seeker's Toolkit and The Sponsor's Toolkit are available through and major booksellers and offer a comprehensive and affordable crash course on sponsorship. You can also visit her website at

 Several conferences on corporate sponsorship are available as well. The Institute for International Research ( offers a wealth of specialized corporate industry information and hosts the annual Branded Entertainment Summit, which is billed as "a business-focused meeting place bringing together brands and entertainment to build profitable relationships." IEG, the Chicago-based sponsorship consulting firm, also has a very useful website, And don't forget the IDA, the fiscal sponsorship program of which allows filmmakers to receive sponsrship monies for their films through the IDA's 501 (c) (3) nonprofit status. For more information, visit


Kathleen Fairweather is a documentary filmmaker, DVD producer and former editor of International Documentary.


Top Ten Sponsorship Tips for Documentary Filmmakers

By Kim Skildum-Reid

1)         Sponsorship is not about your need; it's about achieving the sponsor's objectives. If you can't--or are unwilling to--accept that, don't even try to gain sponsorship. There is no such thing as free money

2)         Sponsors don't need to share your passion for your subject matter in order to sponsor you; they just need to be able to see the commercial benefit. Focus on that in any proposal you provide.

3)         Do your very best to gain sponsorship from companies or brands that are a natural fit with your subject matter. The more they look like they are an authentic part of the experience, the better marketing platform sponsors will have and the less potential they have to detract from your credibility.

4)         Be sure your whole organization understands why sponsorship is important to you and is prepared to treat your sponsors like marketing partners. If your colleagues think sponsorship is just free money or a necessary evil, the sponsors will know and your relationship will be difficult.

5)         Putting logos on things for awareness and exposure is very old school and is no longer a goal of sponsorship. Go ahead and offer to put logos wherever you want; just make sure that your proposals offer far more of substance to sponsors. Exposure is not the cake and it's not the frosting; it's just the cherry on the top.

6)         Start at least 12 months from the start of filming, if at all possible. It can take some sponsors months to make a decision, and they usually need at least six months to get their leverage program together before the film is released. This is for your benefit, as well as the sponsors'. If you get knocked back, you need to have enough time to source another sponsor.

7)         Keep in mind that you may be working with a very big, very bureaucratic organization. Be sure your proposal can stand on its own without the personal enthusiasm you may put into your first presentation, as it will likely be passed around to a dozen or more people who will all have input into the decision.

8)         It is better to get a couple of big sponsors than lots of small ones, if at all possible. There is less clutter for them and less sponsor management for you. Small sponsors are just as hard to look after as big ones and can quickly drain your time and energy.

9)         Don't ever think that once you've got the check your job is done. If you don't service sponsors properly, they will never give you another cent and will talk about you unfavorably to their peers. At worst, you will end up in litigation.

10)       Be sure you understand the basics of sponsorship before you try your hand at it. Go to a workshop, read a book or two and start networking with people in the business. This is a very rewarding field, but one that requires some very specific skills to be successful. If you don't do it properly, you will not get the money you are looking for, and may well burn bridges for funding in the future.


Kim Skildum-Reid is the  co-author of industry bestsellers The Sponsorship Seeker's Toolkit and The Sponsor's Toolkit. She can be reached at