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Funding, Footage, Festivals and Friends: Film Independent's Filmmaker Forum

By Tom White

The Film Independent Filmmaker Forum, held this past Hallowe'en weekend at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles, offered a weekend's worth of food for thought for doc- and fiction-makers alike.

A perennial in-demand panel, Find Money for your Documentary, moderated by Caroline Libresco of the Sundance Institute, went beyond the usual areas of grant-writing and pitching to cover such areas as packaging, as presented by Dina Kuperstock from the agency CAA, and equity financing, a bailiwick of Impact Partners' Dan Cogan. Executive producer Stephen Nemeth (Climate Refugees; Fuel, Flow) weighed in with his tales of financing through his company, Rhino Entertainment; Karim Ahmad of ITVS represented the public sector, and representing the new kid on the block, the wildly anticipated Oprah Winfrey Network and its Oprah Winfrey Doc Club, was Jeff Meier, OWN's senior vice president of scheduling, acquisitions and Strategy.   

Kuperstock likes documentaries that have crossover potential into other platforms and ancillary markets, and cited RJ Cutler's The September Issue as a high-concept film that would attract CAA's attention.  Meier, whose OWN launches January 1, admitted that despite the formidable Oprah brand behind it, documentary is a genre that's "ratings challenged." What he and OWN are looking for are "personal stories-not necessarily cause-related or political documentaries, but documentaries that illuminate an issue through a personal story." Meier added that Oprah "wants to change ways that docs are marketed."  OWN had originally set out to acquire docs, but now they also finance projects from the beginning, and acquire about a dozen docs a year.

Nemeth, who is also in production on docs about the writers George Plimpton and Budd Schulberg and the board game Monopoly, declared himself "a terribly optimistic pessimist." In raising both recoupable and non-recoupable monies for his films, he has found that if you include a line item for yourself, you're less likely to be funded. Investors don't like to fund fees, he said. If you imply that you'll figure out a way to pay yourself, "it shows you're walking the walk." Nemeth also said that it's better to sell your film earlier in the production process than later. "If you sell at the end of the process, you get a quarter to a third less funding," he maintained.

Cogan's Impact Partners is, according to his bio, "a fund and advisory service for investors and philanthropists who seek to promote social change through film." Among the films that the company has been involved with include the Academy Award-winning films The Cove and Freeheld. In discussing the double bottom line--that is, films that make money and make a difference in a given social issue--Cogan cited three factors in assessing a documentary: "Can this be a great film? Is it about a compelling social issue? Can we get money back that we're putting into it?"

The conversation turned to footage--which these days is as important in pitching your documentary as a proposal. Kuperstock advised to send her "something that makes me want to see more, that conveys a sense of the story and what the film is going to look like."  The panel also seemed to shy away from trailers--"I've been tricked too many times," Meier noted, about slickly produced pieces that are not ultimately what the film is about.

As far as the revenue part of the conversation, Coogan maintained that 90 percent of it what you earn back on your doc comes from television sales, but cautioned that very few US outlets are paying more than $100,000, while presales in Europe can amount to $300,000. Nemeth advised to allocate a percentage of the revenue to your cause.


Left to right: Stephen Nemeth, Rhino Films; Dan Cogan, Impact Partners; Caroline Libresco, Sundance Institute; Dina Kuperstock, CAA; Karim Ahmad, ITVS; Jeff Meier, Oprah Winfrey Network. Photo: David Livingston


Next up at the Filmmaker Forum was a pair of case studies--Jen Arnold's A Small Act and Mark Landsman's Thunder Soul, both of which have garnered praise and honors this year on the festival circuit and beyond. Lisa Leeman, director of the award-winning One Lucky Elephant, moderated the panel, which also included A Small Act's producer/cinematographer Patti Lee and Thunder Soul's producer Keith Calder. Starting out the conversation with how the respective films got funded, Arnold said she had hooked up with a production company, Cherry Sky, at the FIND Directors Lab with funding. She admitted that she had budgeted her film very low, and the company funded about a quarter of what the budget actually was. Landsman, on the other hand, didn't have a budget when he and Calder made Thunder Soul, which tells the story of a Houston-based high school funk band from the 1970s that reunites 40 years later. "When you try to budget, it's unrealistic," he explained. Instead, "The content dictated the expenses." The production company, Snoot Entertainment, which had never produced a documentary before, gave Landsman and his crew the funding they needed as the production progressed.

Any documentaries have their own happy accidents and serendipitous moments. For Landsman, there wasn't much archival footage of the band, so they had to make do with stills. But late in the production process, someone he had met in Houston told him about a 35-minute documentary that had been made in 1972 for a local Houston television station about the band. That footage formed an essential spine for the film.

"Never make a documentary in a language you can't speak," warned Arnold. A Small Act tells the story of Chris Mburu, who grew up in poverty in Kenya and, thanks to an anonymous benefactor who financed his primary and secondary education, went on to become a Harvard-educated human rights lawyer. The film documents his efforts to start up a scholarship fund for the next generation of Kenyan children.  Arnold and her crew relied on their driver to let them know when something important was being discussed--but in filming one crucial scene he informed Arnold's crew after the subject had been discussed. They ended up filming a discussion about who had fed the cow. Given that 42 languages are spoken in Kenya, it was an an arduous task to find Kenyans who could speak the main ones as well as English-and it took nine months to get the dailies translated.

But all went well in the end for Arnold. HBO bought the film after the IFP Film Week, then A Small Act got into Sundance, and over the past year, audiences have contributed $1.4 million in cash and pledges to the scholarship fund. Mburu had hoped to make a modest difference with a small act; next year, according to Arnold, 300 kids across Kenya will benefit from the impact the film has made.


Left to right: Patti Lee, producer/cinematographer, and Jen Arnold, director/writer, A Small Act. Photo: Craig Barritt



For Landsman, after trying for a year to get Thunder Soul into high-profile festivals, he got into SXSW, where the film won the first of five festival circuit awards. "Never underestimate the power of community grassroots interest in your project," Landman noted. He screened Thunder Soul before an audience of music educators in Texas, and he forged a partnership with the Grammy Foundation to promote arts education in schools. As for distribution, Calder said that a major studio has expressed interest early on, then changed its mind. Now they've reinitiated interest in the film, and Calder was in the process of closing a deal.

Thomas White is editor of Documentary.