Skip to main content

From Short Ends to the Long View: Dean Focuses on Fundraising

By Ray Zone

The Art of Funding Your Film: Alternative Financing Concepts
By Carole Lee Dean
Edited by Eva Hornbaker
Dean Publishing
256 pps. (paperbound), $28.85
ISBN 0-9743173-0-6


Carole Lee Dean is famous for originating the term "short ends" in the motion picture industry when she began a business in the 1970s called Studio Film and Tape, which recycled unused elements from production. From humble beginnings she built that business to a $50 million-a-year industry. She has also produced over 100 television programs and created a popular cable program called HealthStyles, which focuses on physical and mental well-being.

The Art of Funding Your Film is an inspirational work as well as an exceedingly practical handbook for documentary makers who are serious about getting their movies funded, completed and distributed. It is a hard-minded book but also tremendously encouraging. Neophyte documentary producers need to read it.

Do you think that funding has dried up for documentary producers and is impossible to get? "The money is out there," writes Dean. "You just have to know how to find it." She cites some heartening facts. In 2001 nonprofit foundations donated approximately $29 billion to the arts and culture. A 2002 report by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) released a breakdown of some interesting statistics: The endowment issued $7.4 million in grants to documentary producers in 2001, and the following year, the Ford Foundation donated $3.4 million in grants for documentaries.

To educate the reader/producer in the necessary techniques to lay hands on those production dollars, Dean has included numerous insightful interviews with industry professionals who have been down the production fundraising path. And she challenges the aspiring documentarian.

In the first chapter, entitled "Commit or be Committed," Dean confronts the potential filmmaker with a list of questions that reveals one's level of commitment to the film. There are challenging queries such as "Are you willing to quit your job for the next three years and accept the financial consequences that will accompany this decision?" Or, "Are you willing to forgo The Gap and wear the same clothes for the next three years?"

Dean cites the example of Nina Seavey, whose documentary The Ballad of Bering Strait, about a country and western band from Russia, screened at IDA's 2002 DOCtoberTM (now InFACTTM) in Los Angeles. Even with a track record as a producer, Seavey was initially turned down by PBS for funding to make this documentary. But she persisted and used a number of alternative methods, including acquiring funding from a Russian oil baron, to complete her film.

"I want you to recapture your childlike faith that will enable you to see, hear and feel your goals," writes Dean. To that end, Dean recommends writing down exactly what it is you want. Visualization, including picturing your bank account with a large balance, is important. Then, Dean suggests, "Verbalize your dream. Discuss it with someone close, taking great care to describe your dream or goal exactly as you see it."

Though there is much self-help style counsel in the book, there is also a lot of clearly pragmatic advice. Making his documentary American Chain Gang, Xackery Irving was able to raise funding by showing a few minutes of footage that he had shot with a small amount of some donated raw stock. "I believe you must start shooting," says Irving. "You have to shoot something to show [potential funders] your vision."

Pitching your project to an investor is very important. "The film pitch is like the baseball pitch in that it is critical to the outcome of the game," writes Dean. "Practice your pitch and your answers until your delivery is smooth and convincing."  It's a good pitch if it's entertaining, if the pitcher enjoys and believes it, and if it makes the project sound exciting and communicates how it will make a difference.

The proposal for funding is critical. "I consider the introduction or synopsis to be the most critical element in the proposal," writes Dean. "Sponsors use the synopsis during the selection process. If your synopsis is dynamic and is strategically placed on your application, it will remain active in the sponsor's mind."

Separate chapters of Dean's book are devoted to foundations and grants, raising funds from individuals and businesses, projects with nontraditional partners, and product placement. An interview with entertainment attorney Mark Litwak accompanies a chapter by Patric Hedlund entitled "Cowboy Economics and Entrepreneurs." Litwak has also written a separate chapter on financing independent films.

In an intriguing chapter entitled "Sponsorship Is Dead," Daniel Sherrett demonstrates that partnerships offering a return on investment (ROI) for corporations have replaced the old model of sponsorship. The ROI for corporations investing in films include good will in the community and other long-term benefits. Sherrett concludes by stating, "Now is as good a time as ever to be looking for a corporate partner."

To cap it all off, the book closes out with an appendix chock full of resources for public television, Internet search tools, public relations, funders and "Top Corporations with a Heart for Independent Filmmakers." Independent documentary filmmakers can really use the information contained in this book.


Ray Zone can be reached at