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Funder Road: Navigating the Correct Path to Packaging and Funding Documentaries

By Mitchell Block

I am frequently asked by students and emerging filmmakers about how to fund their first documentary work, and it is evident that there is a disconnect between most of the film training programs and the field. Students and emerging filmmakers generally do not ask this question until they are well into production. This is a mistake. The process of selling a documentary (or fiction) work has remained unchanged since Edison and company first started cranking them out at the turn of the 20th century.

My first rule of production is, Get funding before you start. It's fine to start pre-production and casting without funding--put together your sizzle reel, see how your subjects present themselves on camera and capture material needed for your film. It's not such a good idea to complete the production unfunded (or unsold) if one looks at the success rate of the 1,644 documentaries submitted to the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Only a few of those films have found or will find, distribution, and fewer still will ever make back their cost.

1) Begin with the Idea

The idea is everything with a film. 

a) Determine if Your Idea Has Already Been Done

This can be as simple as looking on to see if a video or DVD is being offered that is similar to your proposed project. Use search engines, looking by both topic and concept, to see what is out there. Talk with broadcasters, festival programmers, distributors and others to see what has been made. They are all gatekeepers and have seen thousands of works and have a good idea of what is in production as well as what has been produced. For example, when I started researching CARRIER (a 10-part PBS series about life aboard the US Navy aircraft carrier USS Nimitz), I kept finding references to numerous one-hour programs about aircraft carriers and a handful of books. I viewed every work that had been made about the subject, and read all of the books that were available. None of the existing nonfiction media works were character-driven, multi-part series, or even one-offs. They were focused on jets and technology, not people. I needed to be able to know what other works were out there and how my work would be different.  

A project that has been done repeatedly is hard to sell. Always try to avoid news-type projects if you have to raise funds. Ideas that can be produced by shows like 60 Minutes or Frontline or on network news channels (CNN, BBC, Fox) are best avoided because these broadcasters will get their work out well before yours, and the market will be even more difficult to crack when your film is finished. It is terrible to go to a meeting and have a buyer say he already aired a similar show or is making a program similar to yours. Be sure your take on the content is unique. Talk to as many people about your idea as possible. The more enthusiastic the funders or buyers are, the more you know you are on to something.

Do not underestimate foundations, television programmers and distributors as sources of information and as evaluators of your ideas. They pay a great deal of attention to what is in the market, what is coming in and how projects have been received in terms of reviews, ratings and box office.

b) Get the Rights

You cannot pitch a show when you do not have the exclusive rights to shoot, or some aspect of the shoot that makes your approach exclusive. With historical projects that cannot be filmed as they take place, be sure that you have footage to sell the story. What will be on the screen? While Fair Use can work in some cases to allow the use of footage, do not put together a pitch based on Fair Use footage without first talking to a knowledgeable copyright expert. While some networks allow the use of Fair Use footage, others that are owned by a company that includes a studio may insist on works being cleared. Can your work be based on a book (or books) or a newspaper or magazine story?  Can some aspect of your work be exclusive? A film dealing with recycling, for example, needs a way to differentiate itself from the dozens of works made about recycling. 

Do your homework and be sure that you will have "characters" that are interesting on screen; that you will have access to the process (the race, the show, the rehearsals, the results, etc.); and that you can shoot censor-free, or almost censor-free. Try to not give your subjects the right to approve what is shot and edited.

Be careful if your funding makes it look like you're making a sponsored film. For example, PBS closely examines the funding to be certain that the funder does not benefit from the project or even "appears to benefit" from a project. The same PBS standards apply to many nonprofit and for-profit sponsors of works aired on PBS. For example, a film funded by the Ford Foundation about a program they are doing in Africa will not likely be aired in PBS' core schedule because the film could appear to be "commercial" for the foundation.

c) Build a Production Team 

If you are doing a first film, you will need footage to show how great the material is and that a film can be made based on your idea, your selection of the character, etc. Nothing, however, can replace an experienced production team with strong skills in producing, directing, camera, sound and editing. While it is great to give emerging filmmakers a start, it is difficult to get a serious financial commitment from any funder for an inexperienced director. Production teams should have at least one senior person who has made a successful film or series.

d) Make the Sizzle Reel Simple

Do not over-produce a trailer. Show characters, story idea and perhaps even some of the story arc. Recently, we pitched a show using a commercial the subject had developed. This 30-second spot summed up the idea of the show. It was dramatic and inventive and it had cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. One of our consultants had found it on YouTube.

Another show was sold to a network based on a 20-minute edit of footage shot with the central character. Another was sold without any footage at all, but with a great original concept. An Inconvenient Truth was sold on the basis of Al Gore's PowerPoint presentation, although it also helped to have a former Vice President of the United States as the central character.

e) What is the Right Length for a Project? 

The best length is the one the funder wants. A short documentary film for Academy Award consideration cannot be longer than 40 minutes. Television prefers works that will fit into 30-, 60-, 90- and 120-minute slots. Theatrical features generally need to be over 70 minutes. If you finish your film before you sell it to a broadcaster or distributor, it is likely that you will have to fix the length to fit the time slot in which it will air. An "hour" is sometimes 44 minutes and sometimes 57. Some hours have no breaks for commercials and others have has many as six. The pacing of a commercial hour on A&E is different from one on HBO or PBS. Logic suggests that it is better not to "finish" a work until you have sold it. With computer-based software, you can make the best film for your portfolio and festivals and then make the version that airs on television and meets all of the network technical specifications. Series are even better, if the material can support a series.

2) The Proposal

Once you have the rights to the idea locked, write up the project. All that is usually needed is few pages about the show. What will the look and feel of the work be? What is special about it? What will the story be? How will you tell it? A proposal needs only a few things:

  • A short treatment, focusing on one or more of the following: the characters, the event, the narrative arc of the story
  • A statement about the nature of your exclusive rights and access to the story
  • Description of the team making the show
  • Information about archives or footage that will be licensed for the show (if it's a clip show)
  • A summary budget and a detailed budget
  • Some letters of support
  • Articles, news stories and other printed materials about your show's content to provide a funder with a sense of how current or important your idea is
  • Sample works by team members and perhaps some footage that you've already shot

This proposal is the starting point. Get the idea on a single page for setting up meetings and pitching. Try to liven up the type with pictures; still images are a great way to sell your show. Try to have pictures of people who might look like your characters if you don't yet know who your characters will be.

3) Paying the Bills: Selling the Film

Sorting out how to fund your film begins with locking the idea. The idea's content, approach and form will further define the markets for the work. Once the length is estimated, then the filmmaker has started on the path to funding, since length helps determine markets.

There are only four ways to fund any work; one or more of these sources funds every film:

Funding It Yourself. This is the classic independent film model-for example, Andrew Jarecki's first feature, Capturing the Friedmans. While this approach can speed the funding process, it does expose the filmmaker to all of the risks of production if the work can't be sold to recoup the costs. Funding films with credit cards, second mortgages or your retirement fund is not a good idea.

From Buyers. Networks, theatrical distributors and others who use works to draw viewers to their sites, sell copies, products or theatrical experiences are the best funders. There are also a dozen international broadcasters that fund documentaries of American as well as non-US-based companies. Ultimately, these gatekeepers complete the process of making films, since they provide access to the audience or viewers and are in the business of promoting, marketing and selling films. As stated earlier, they should be the first stop for the filmmaker, not the last. Examples include those funded by studios like Disney/Miramax (Earth), The Weinstein Company (Fahrenheit 9/11) or Lionsgate (The US v. John Lennon); specialized entertainment entities like Participant Media (Food, Inc.; An Inconvenient Truth); and networks like HBO (When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts). Of the ten highest-grossing documentaries of all time (according to, only one work, An Inconvenient Truth, was not funded by a studio-distributor. None of the 656 remaining theatrically released films on the BoxOfficeMojo list grossed more than $12 million, and most of these works were acquired, rather than funded.

Sponsors are a different kind of buyer. They fund films in large part to enhance their company profile and image. For example, General Motors supported Ken Burns' films for over a decade. These sponsors are critical for public television documentaries.   

Other examples of corporate-supported work include long- and short-form music videos (paid for by the acts or record label); and giant-screen films for museum and tourist sites, of which IMAX is a leading longtime underwriter.

From Investors. There are individuals and investors who feel that funding a film and then selling it makes sense. Private placements, finding investors and selling shares are all methods that can be used to raise funds. Be sure to check with a security or business lawyer to make sure your funding strategy does not violate state or federal security laws and that your deal is properly papered. While this method is both risky for the investors and difficult for the filmmaker--since only a small percentage of documentaries actually make a profit--it nonetheless seems to account for what I would estimate to be well over half of the over 1,000 documentaries that are submitted annually to Sundance.

This method of making films generates hundreds of workshops and seminars. The deliverable is a business plan, or something similar, and this method sidesteps the problem of getting "No's" from buyers. Business plans don't reflect possible failure, only possible success. But be sure to consider the specific strategies of your plan; simply planning to market the film via the festival circuit or your website doesn't work in the vast majority of cases. 

From the Public Sector. Foundations, sponsors and individuals that want to support a project or filmmaker can do so with grants and donations. Government agencies such as the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts fund films, as do many state-level agencies. Thousands of foundations and religious organizations also fund works. Unlike buyers or investors, who generally focus on the bottom line when it comes to documentaries, public sector funding supports the production of works that further intellectual, cultural, political or other objectives of the funders.

PBS, via the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and ITVS, and PBS strands such as POV, Independent Lens, American Masters, American Experience and Frontline provide funding for documentaries. PBS itself (and PBS member stations) generally requires distribution rights or equity positions as a condition of broadcasting the works. 

The "PBS-gets-to-show-the-film" model allows filmmakers to raise money that includes funding from for-profit entities, and then allows films to be aired. PBS is particularly cautious about the nature of the funding and how it appears to relate to the content of the work (for example, an environmental work funded by a coal company would be difficult to clear), but the PBS schedule is heavily supported with films funded from outside of the network. This model works well with PBS when advertising budgets of for-profit corporations can underwrite programs, but filmmakers need to clear the funding sources with PBS prior to accepting funding.

PBS and other broadcasters often show films without paying for them or paying the fair market value of their production costs. Filmmakers should try to get PBS to pay and/or help raise funds for outreach (marketing) and consider retaining video rights as part of this kind of deal. While the CPB-PBS Challenge Fund, ITVS, POV and Independent Lens actually do require an outreach and marketing component as part of their respective support, this component is difficult for independent filmmakers to raise money for, given that they're already struggling to find funds to cover production costs.

It is fine to mix for-profit support with nonprofit funding. For example, a film funded by a grant or a foundation can be shown and sold to commercial television (or cable) and distributed commercially in DVD. While some filmmakers choose to make their films within nonprofit structures, this complicates the ownership of the project. I do not recommend that the filmmaker own and operate the nonprofit producing the film, either, since this really complicates the filmmaker's ability to end up owning his/her own film. I generally recommend that filmmakers use a nonprofit conduit to receive funding and pass the funds on to their own business for the actual filmmaking. This allows the filmmaker to keep ownership of the work and directly derive revenue from it.

4) You'll Sell Your Show on the First Pitch if...

  • The whole package makes sense to the funder
  • Your idea fits the needs of the network, funder or distribution company
  • You're talking to the right buyer-i.e., the decision-maker at the company
  • Your project can be produced within budget limits
  • Your team has a solid record of achievements

If your show is not selling, it is probably because one or more of these areas needs to be fixed. In my workshop, Documentary Tune-Up, I focus on why a show is not attracting funding. Much of the time, the work can't be sold. It is better to know sooner rather than later. Most documentaries that are not pre-sold never sell, much the same way most screenplays for fictional features are never produced. 

Finally, a work-in-progress is worth more than a finished work. Once the work is done, you lose any leverage you ever had when it comes time to price it, unless you have that one-in-a-thousand work that is going to make several million dollars theatrically or win an Oscar. Not a smart bet.


It has never been easy funding films or selling a finished film. While the financial entry barriers for character-, process- or event-driven documentary production now are really negligible, the difficulty of making compelling selections, getting access and having the skill sets necessary to produce a work is complicated. It takes a lot of talent to make a good film. Just as the advent of the word processor has not created more great books, the prevalence of the low-priced camera and desktop editing has not produced a flood of great films, just a flood of films. Unless a filmmaker wants to approach filmmaking as a hobby rather than as a business, it is imperative to consider the pre-sale of work as a prerequisite for a work being financially successful. Filmmakers need to understand that while the demand for documentaries is increasing, the funding for individual works is not. More channels means more buyers but fewer viewers and consequently smaller acquisition and production budgets to acquire, since the audiences are smaller. It also is relevant that the buyers know they can buy completed works for less because the Sundance statistic shows there is an over-supply. The good news is that there is a shortage of great ideas. These ideas, if properly packaged and presented, will be funded.


Mitchell W. Block works as a producer, consultant and lecturer globally. He teaches independent producing at USC School of Cinematic Arts in the Peter Stark Producing Program. He is presently producing the documentary Poster Girl. His Emmy Award-winning 10-hour series CARRIER aired on PBS in 2008. Block, head of The Carrier Project, conceived, co-created and was an executive producer of this work, which was funded by Icon Productions. Last year, his short film " lies" was selected for inclusion on the National Film Registry by the Librarian of Congress, joining 500 other American films.

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