Skip to main content

Funding from the Feds

By Mary Specht

From 'The Elegant Universe,' which was funded, in part, by the National Science Foundation, and which aired in 2003 as a three-part series on PBS' NOVA

There are a handful of federal agencies based in Washington, DC that have served, over the past few decades, as significant sources of funding for documentary filmmakers. These agencies have granted millions of dollars for documentaries ranging in topic from a troupe of geriatric tap dancers to undersea volcanoes teeming with newly discovered creatures. It's a matter of finding the agency and the grant that best fits your film.

Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)

Since its start under the Public Broadcasting Act in 1967, PBS ( has been a bastion of documentary film both in stand-alone feature programs and ongoing series like NOVA, Frontline, P.O.V., American Experience, Independent Lens and others.

PBS is a national membership organization of more than 340 TV stations that air programs the organization distributes. PBS doesn't produce programming and usually only offers partial funding. Production of continuing series comes out of member stations, with a large portion from Thirteen/WNET in New York and WGBH in Boston. American Public Television also distributes programming to PBS stations.

Filmmakers can approach a member station or producers of a continuing series with proposals, or they can apply for airtime and/or funding through PBS' national selection process. PBS receives more than 3,000 applications a year this way, totaling about 10,000 hours of airtime.

"The good news is there are a lot of doors in," says John Wilson, PBS' senior VP of programming and co-chief program executive. "If we see something that's pitched to us that looks like it would make a good American Experience, for example, we'll connect those dots for the producers."

Generally Wilson suggests producers avoid documentaries that run in parts, and instead condense the work into one feature-length program. It's often hard to keep viewers coming back for all parts of a series, he says, but there are exceptions, like the three-part Walking the Bible by Drew S. Levin that aired earlier this year.

Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB)

CPB ( sends government funding to PBS, National Public Radio, the Independent Television Service, Minority Consortia and other operations. The money it doesn't channel to these organizations--about $70 million--it offers for its own programming and training initiatives.

"America at a Crossroads," a recent programming project, funded 20 documentaries that examine different aspects of post-9/11 America, from the rise of religion in prisons to Muslim comedians who use humor to take on stereotypes. The programs will air in Spring 2007.

Though Crossroads is no longer taking applications, CPB currently offers funds for professional development and outreach programs. And CPB and PBS jointly offer the Program Challenge Fund for primetime programs and series for public television.

CPB made headlines in 2005 when its former chairman, Kenneth Tomlinson, was investigated for steering conservative public affairs programs onto PBS and hiring consultants to screen the political backgrounds of guests on some shows.

"One of the most significant negative effects of all the political turmoil in public broadcasting in recent years has been a greater reluctance to support controversial, risky programming," says Michael Pack, the former senior vice president of television programming at CPB, who launched the $20 million Crossroads project.

The CPB balanced strong political viewpoints when it chose grant recipients for America at a Crossroads, selecting both The Case for War, a film about neoconservative foreign policy theorist Richard Perle by Phil Craig and Brian Lapping, and By All Means Necessary by Sherry Jones and Christina Lowery, a program that criticizes the so-called Bush Doctrine.

Independent Television Service (ITVS)

ITVS (, based in San Francisco, seeks minority and underrepresented viewpoints and offers more than just funding. The organization is called a "service" because it provides feedback during production, helps promote its documentaries to PBS stations and helps craft a comprehensive launch including publicity and websites. ITVS receives about 1,200 applications each year for its $7.2 million of funding.

ITVS, which gets most of its funding from CPB, celebrates its 15th anniversary this year as an organization created to connect independents to public TV. Its unique Local Independents Collaborating with Stations (LInCS) program funds filmmakers who have formed a partnership with a local PBS member for a documentary of both regional and national interest.

Producers who send proposals to ITVS' Open Call receive feedback whether they get funding or not, and may reapply after they've taken the critiques into consideration. Claire Aguilar, director of programming, points out that Gail Dolgin, who produced and directed the Academy Award-nominated Daughter from Danang, applied to ITVS six times.

To bring in more minority viewpoints, ITVS offers its Diversity Development Fund only to African American, Latino, Native American, Asian American and Pacific Islander filmmakers and often partners with the National Minority Consortia.

The International Media Development Fund, which launched a year ago, supports documentaries about international issues made only by non-US citizens living abroad.

National Minority Consortia

CPB channels funds to five cultural organizations in the consortia: Center for Asian American Media, the National Black Programming Consortium, Native American Public Telecommunications, Pacific Islanders in Communications and Latino Public Broadcasting.

Members of the consortia supported Race is the Place, an Independent Lens program by Raymond Telles and Rick Tejada-Flores about race relations in America that aired on PBS last fall. The consortia has also provided grants for Heather Rae's Trudell, about Native American activist poet John Trudell, and Pham Quoc Thai's The Last Ghost of War, about class action suits Vietnamese Americans are filing over the effects of Agent Orange.

National Science Foundation (NSF)

NSF ( funds films about a range of science topics, from astronomy to zoology, except for medicine. Documentaries are funded through the agency's Informal Science Education Department, which offers $15 million each year. About $5 million of that is split between radio programs and IMAX films, and the rest is for television programs.

According to Valentine Kass, a program director in the department, some of the best recent works include The Elegant Universe, a three-part series about the "string theory" of matter, produced by Joseph McMaster and Julia Cort, and Einstein's Big Idea about relativity, produced by Gary Johnstone. Both ran on PBS' NOVA.

Volcanoes of the Deep Sea, an IMAX film that explores underwater ocean vents that sustain life at hundreds of degrees Fahrenheit, made headlines in 2005 when some theaters in the Bible Belt refused to show it. Creationists wouldn't see the film, which discusses the origins of life, so it wouldn't be profitable, theater heads said. Hyman Field, an official at NSF who helped arrange funding, stood by the film and rejected suggestions that the parts about evolution be cut to avoid controversy.

National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)

The NEH ( funds films on topics ranging from archaeology to literature to religion, but focuses strongly on American history. The agency's "We the People" initiative, launched in 2002, supports documentaries--as well as publications, events, preservation activities and other programs--that explore significant themes and events in US history.

The initiative has granted money for documentaries on Alexander Hamilton, Helen Keller, Ernest Hemingway, the First Amendment and women war correspondents during World War II, among other topics.

The NEH doesn't grant awards to individual filmmakers, only to nonprofit organizations with 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status or state and local government agencies. Independent producers should seek an organizational sponsor for their work before applying, says Noel Milan, an agency spokesman.

National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)

The NEA's The Arts on Radio and Television initiative ( spends $3.5 million each year in grants for arts programs slated for national broadcast. Last year about 130 people applied for the $20,000 to $200,000 grants. About 50 grants were awarded to filmmakers like Lynn Hershman, for Changing Worlds: Art, Women and Revolution, which will examine the feminist art movement since the late 1960s. The grant is primarily for series, according to NEA spokeswoman Sally Gifford, but some stand-alone documentaries are supported as well.

The Access to Artistic Excellence grant sponsors not only films, but festivals, workshops, seminars, publications and film preservation. The NEA recently funded the American Film Institute's Directing Workshop for Women; American Documentary, Inc.'s Youth Views Institute to encourage young people to work in documentary film;'s Media That Matters Film Festival, and other projects.


Mary Specht is studying journalism at American University in Washington, DC.