Nuts, bolts, hot tips, and road-tested information from Holly Million for indie filmmakers raising money

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Outsider to Insider Tip #3: Volunteer to Connect

This post is part of my ongoing series — bordering on a rant — about how to go from outsider to insider. Doing this fuels your success in fundraising, and in every aspect of marketing and distribution for your film. I’ve become obsessed with this concept. Just ask my husband. I walk around the house muttering, “Outsider to insider. Outsider to insider.” He thought I was a little loony at first, but now he recognizes the zany brilliance of what I’m doing.

Today’s outsider-to-insider tip is to volunteer. Not just any volunteering. Volunteer with people who will help your film get money, get screened, get publicity, get connections. I just had an opportunity to do exactly this, and I’ll tell you what happened. I’m making a feature-length documentary called “A Permanent Mark” that tells the story of Agent Orange and how it has affected American veterans and the people of Vietnam. If you’re not a fan of Dow and Monsanto, this film will only make you hate them more. This is a film with a strong human story and a strong environmental story. In other words, the perfect film for a green film festival.

Environmental film festivals are coming into their own, and I have long thought that my documentary should enjoy a long run in these festivals. I’ve also learned — and have posted on this blog — that paying fees to apply to festivals is for chumps. You need to get invited to submit your film, and then you won’t be paying a dime. You also increase your actual chances of screening. So there is an environmental film festival in my local area that I have long held hopes of being one for my film. I have become friends on Facebook with the founder of the festival. So a couple weeks ago, the festival posted an announcement on Facebook calling for volunteers. And to this I responded with a vociferous YES! I looked through the volunteer options and decided to target the filmmaker brunch, because I knew it would not be a hard volunteer job, that I would meet all of the filmmakers in the festival, and that I would likely meet all the staff of the festival. Sure enough, the programmer and the founder of the festival both arrived, and I introduced myself and mentioned I am also a filmmaker who focuses on environmental issues. “Oh, what are you working on now?” they asked. So I launched into the pitch for the film, watching as they became more and more excited. The festival founder said, “We would like to see that film. Can you submit it to us when you’re done?” I said of course!

So just by volunteering, strategically, and putting myself face to face with the key people, I went from outsider to insider. Oh, yeah, and I won’t be paying any submission fee.

So ask yourself — how can you volunteer to get in front of a funder, a programmer, an investor, a community partner? Get in front of them. Help them so they will help you.

In my next post on this outsider to insider theme, I will talk about the power of just asking for the connection — I grew my Facebook following from 400 to 1,800 people in the past ten days. Find out why and how (hint: it’s about going from outsider to insider).

In fundraising solidarity,

Holly Million

Outsider to Insider Tip #2: Collect Data Like a Crazed Squirrel

Collect data, you crazy squirrel!

Collect data, you crazy squirrel!

I’ve been writing a series of tips on how you can go from being an outsider to an insider. Because being one of the cool kids is a sure-fire way to increase your chances of getting funding. Being part of the “in” crowd means people are more likely to listen to you attentively — not yawn,  not slam doors in your face, not back away slowly while reaching for their can of mace. So you need to use every tactic available to build the biggest personal network you can. In other words, Collect data like a crazed squirrel.

Imagine that you are a rabid squirrel on an insane personal mission to collect every nut from every tree. You need to start squirreling away the contact information of as many people as you can, starting right now. Because you are going to ask them to support your film with a contribution.

How many people do you personally know? Take a wild guess. Chances are that you will be wrong, and that your answer will be too low, rather than too high. The average person knows about 1,500 other human beings — unless, of course, you’re Lois Weisberg, then people write books about you. Think about it. How many people did you go to school with from kindergarten through college? How many people have you met through clubs, parties, volunteering, family connections, work connections, social media, blah blah? And how old are you? How many years have you been alive on this planet to network with your fellow mortals? The longer you have been here, the more people you have met.

Now, do you keep in touch with all of these people? Do you even know where half of them live? Undoubtedly not. You probably don’t keep in touch with all the people who are your “friends” on Facebook, even if there are one or two obnoxious ones who post a bit too frequently (for that I apologize). That’s true of most people. But it’s not going to be true of you. You will invite every person you have ever met to be your Facebook friend, your Twitter follower, your buddy.

Do you have an email list? Oh, good. Because that is going to be so unbelievably helpful to you in the fundraising work ahead. Collect every goddamn email of every person you have met and put that into a database of some sort, whether it’s Filemaker Pro, Vertical Response, or just a plain vanilla Excel spreadsheet. Religiously add new emails to that list, along with the person’s name and any other useful information like phone numbers, each and every time you have a new contact crop up.

Put a widget on your film website’s home page where people can give you their emails so they can receive updates on your film. Yes, people still do that. You can set this up so the data automatically goes to Vertical Response or whatever email management site you are using and is entered into your database. Considering that Facebook changes its algorithms for displaying posts more frequently than Mark Zuckerberg changes his hoodie, you don’t want to rely on Facebook to get the word out about your film project. You want the ability to deliver “push notifications.” These are more direct and more cost-effective than Facebook ads. Oh, and don’t forget Twitter. Twitter still works. So build up your Twitter following. Only problem with Facebook and Twitter is they don’t give you emails for your followers. But LinkedIn does. Gold! Jackpot! I love you LinkedIn! Download the emails and add them to your film outreach list. Sure, you can take off anybody who might get bent out of shape if you start sending them film updates. But I personally err on the side of asking for forgiveness and not permission. I have over 14,000 people on my personal email list. How about you? Not quite? Keep going.

All right? Ready to hit the ground running, you crazed squirrel, you? That foam collecting around your mouth tells me yes! Just start collecting contacts. Trust me. It will make you a superior human being — when it comes to fundraising.

In fundraising solidarity,

Holly Million

Break Through From Outsider to Insider


You probably already know this, but I need to say it. It is one of the most important things you can hear about the film fundraising process you will engage in. The rich get richer, and the poor stay poor. Ouch!

You’re probably saying, “Oh, come on, Holly, you’re always so blunt and over the top.” Well, there is a reason for that. I’ve been alive for what seems like a very long time, and I’ve gotten a good look at how things work. Knowing how things work is the secret password, the “Shazam!,” the “Abracadabra!,” the “Ala Kazam!,” the “Open, Says Me” in the world of film fundraising. Also known as the world.

I am still astonished by how trusting, how like little lambs newbie fundraisers can be. They assume things will be fair and that everybody gets equal consideration. Nope. Nope, nope, nope. Because the funding world is a whole lot like the rest of the planet. There are some people with advantages and some people with disadvantages. There are insiders, and there are outsiders. There are people who will be worshipped and kowtowed to and catered to because of who they are. And there are people who will be ignored because they are “not important.” This state of things pisses me off to no end. Because I believe that every person is important. That every filmmaker has something worthy to say. That the busboys and waitresses and bartenders at a gala dinner are just as important as the keynote speaker. And that just because you’re a celebrity does not mean you are contributing one extra iota of anything useful or positive to the Planet Earth.

So I’m about to stir the pot. I’m about to rouse the rabble. Here is my best advice for the key ways of being in this world that will help you improve your chances of fundraising success now and into the future. Come with me while I tell you how to break the code on this horribly mixed-up system so you can break through from outsider to insider.

I’ll be publishing a series of tips over the course of the next few days.So today, I’ll start with this one:

Don’t be shy ever again That’s right. Time to strap some on. You will never, ever, ever again say, “Oh, but I can’t approach Bill Gates at this event we both happen to be at. That would be so rude. I don’t know him.” That’s right, and you need to know him right now! Put that shrimp cocktail down and go right up to him. He’s probably shoveling some shrimp into his mouth right now. So what! Go right up to him and put out your hand. Tell him your name. Tell him what you do. Ask him about his own interests. Treat him like a human being, not a celebrity. Remember that Bill has biological functions just like every other human creature. He does not excrete 100-carat diamonds. He’s real. And so are you. There is nothing on this Earth that prevents you from connecting with him whenever and wherever there may be an opportunity. Okay, maybe you won’t run into Bill Gates, but you will run into somebody “important.” Go introduce yourself.

Doing  this helps you go from outsider to insider status. Being an insider helps you raise money for your film. It helps you get jobs. It helps you get loans, investments, advice, whatever you need. So never be shy again. Next time on FFFFlog!, I’ll post the next tip in this series: “Collect data like a crazed squirrel.”

In fundraising solidarity, Holly Million  

Why Fees Are for Chumps — Don’t Pay When You Hit “Submit”

Watch your cash swirl down with every fee submitted.

Watch your cash swirl down with every fee submitted.

I’ve been gone from this blog too long, but I have a good excuse. I have been in the thrall of fundraising and producing three documentary films over the last few years. It’s been intense. But now I’m back and ready to share everything I learned and everything I already knew before that.

Recently, I have started taking on consulting clients who are filmmakers needing fundraising support. If you fall into that category and want to find out more about my services, how they’re structured, and what they cost, you can email me at holly(at)hollymillion(dot)com.

Between the fundraising for my own documentaries and the researching funding opportunities for my film clients, I’ve become much more familiar with what’s going on in the funding world at the moment. There’s been a ton of upheaval in this world over the past six years, due to the economy tanking in 2008 and due to the tectonic shifts in the film and media world itself. Recently, I’ve come across several funding entities that actually charge a fee for filmmakers to submit a proposal for funding consideration. Pondering this for a moment caused me to experience a blood-boiling anger. Because I have learned that paying fees for submitting your film for consideration is a total scam and that these entities are treating filmmakers like chumps. 

Funders charging a fee is not the norm most of the time, but it happens enough that I realize it’s something I should write about. I’ve seen this situation, where a fee is charged, in the case of some foundations, but also in the case of film festivals, and also in the case of other special conferences with pitch opportunities. Now, I’m not going to name names here, because it’s liable to unleash a wave of defensiveness on the part of the guilty parties — I mean the helpful funders, festivals, and conferences who just want to make money — I mean help filmmakers. One of these funders positions themselves as wanting to help women in film, but they charge $75 for each funding proposal submitted. Now, $75 seems pretty confiscatory to me, especially when you consider that they hand out less than 10 grants a year. The vast majority of applying filmmakers who are paying $75 are doing something functionally equivalent to flushing cash down the toilet. One of my film clients wanted to apply for this specific grant, and  she asked me, “Do you think it’s worth it?” To which I replied, “I actually think this is unethical and a complete scam.” To which she replied, “But I am desperate and want to try.” That’s right, she was desperate, just like a lot of filmmakers who are wondering how in the hell they are going to raise the money they need to finish their films. 

But, once these filmmakers do finish their films, the scam continues. Because all of these filmmakers want to get into festivals, so all of them are about to pay hundreds, or even thousands of dollars in submission fees to film festivals. And in almost every case, the films that will be selected to screen will have by-passed this whole lame-ass system and will have paid not one thin dime in submission fees. Because there is a whole secret, separate system where the filmmakers who get into  festivals have used their connections to by-pass the front door, the fees, and all the plebeians who are trying to get in that way. And they are talking to the programmers directly. So my best fest advice is, “Screw fees! Contact the programmer directly somehow, find a consultant or ally who will champion your film and get you direct consideration without the fee.”

And don’t ever, ever, ever submit your film to a festival through Without A Box. Yeah, I know I said I was not going to name names, but this one merits being called out. The site is an abhorrence, first of all, that looks like a relic of 1995. But the real sin is that the fees you are charged to submit your film to festivals through WAB will purchase you absolutely zero. So call me shrill, but I am going to exhort you never, ever, ever to submit a film through WAB. It is a total lie.

And then there are the filmmaker conferences that offer pitch opportunities. You’ll get to pitch your film to industry representatives, get feedback, and maybe even score funding opportunities. Hallelujah! Where do I sign up? Not so fast, young filmmaker! You first have to become a member of the host organization. And THEN  you have to pay a fee to be considered for the pitch opportunity. Does this sound familiar? Good. Because if you’re being asked to pay $100 to become a member and then you are being asked to pay a fee to be “entered” into consideration, you might as well open up your wallet, take out all your money, walk to the john, toss it in, and flush. Your chances of being selected for this “opportunity” are only marginally better if you pay your fee to that organization instead of flushing.

Stick with funders who want to GIVE you money, not the ones that want to CHARGE you money. Save your precious cash for something more important, like, oh, I don’t know, hiring crew, travel, renting equipment, editing, color correction, you know, all that film stuff.

In fundraising solidarity,

Holly Million

Real-Time Fundraising: WITH YOU’s New Campaign

I’ve been writing up case-studies of the fundraising I did for two separate documentary films — WITH YOU and JACK LONDON: 20TH CENTURY MAN. Well, things just amped up for WITH YOU. Instead of blogging about our past fundraising success, I’m going to post over the coming weeks about our NEW fundraising campaign to raise $20K by April 20.

Continue reading

Case Two: “Jack London: 20th Century Man — Compassion Clinches a Major Gift

So I left off in my last blog post for Case Two with my saga of the major donor who would not be reasonable. This is the guy who had promised to give me $50K for a documentary if I raised another $50K first. I promised to tell you how I responded when he got a little hot under the collar. I said in the last post that I was like a tiger waiting in the bushes at the watering hole for the gazelle to lower its head and extend its neck. So true. Continue reading

Pitch Perfect — Look for Opportunities to Pitch Your Film to Funders and Distributors

If you’re going to fund your film, distribute your film, or — “Please, Film Gods, hear my prayer!” — SELL your film, you need to be able to pitch. I used to teach a class at Film Arts Foundation and later at the San Francisco Film Society on how to pitch. I guided the participants through an intensive process in which they learned how to answer ten key questions about their film in a concise, compelling fashion. Continue reading

“Jack London: 20th Century Man,” Case Two: Major Donor Madness

If you really want to make serious fundraising hay while the sun shines, you have to build upon all those micro-donations you gather like fallen blossoms. You have to build the top of your funding pyramid. At the top, above all the little, heartfelt gifts from Aunt Mathilda and your former yoga instructor, you need some major gifts. Continue reading

Hey, narrative filmmaker peeps! SFFS-KRF grant deadline looms!

Hey, all you narrative filmmakers out there awash in a sea of documentarians! Here is your rare chance to apply for grant funding for your narrative. Deadlines are fast approaching for the Spring 2013 round of the SFFS/KRF Filmmaking Grant LOI — The San Francisco Film Society and Kenneth Rainin Foundation have $300,000 smackeroos to give away to projects that “help contribute to the Bay Area filmmaking community both professionally and economically.” And by “projects,” they mean narrative films. Documentarians, there is no need for you to read further. Past grant recipients include Destin Cretton’s “Short Term 12” (SXSW 2013, World Premiere), Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale” (Sundance 2013, Dramatic Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize Winner) and Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (Four-time 2013 Academy Award Nominee). Here are the deadlines, and I told you they were looming!EARLY DEADLINE: February 13, 2013, 4:59pm PST LATE DEADLINE: February 20, 2013, 4:59pm PSTHere is where the fine print lives. To apply, visit this link and be ready to submit! And by the way — good luck! — In fundraising solidarity, Holly Million (Public domain photo by Kosta Kostov)

With You, Case One: Feet on the Ground

When we got ready to launch our fundraising campaign for “With You,” we first set our goal, our deadline, and our purpose. Once that job was done, our next task was to amass our arsenal — I mean toolkit, of tools and devices we needed in order to run a successful campaign. I have to watch myself sometimes. The language of war seems to creep into the fundraising lingo sometimes. And this is nothing like war. It’s more like building a community — a community of like-minded people who want to work with you and each other to achieve a goal you all believe in. So, we started work on our toolkit. The toolkit is how you put your feet on the ground and have a strong, steady platform to move forward from. We needed a website with specific language about the campaign. That included a prominent button with a few succinct words about donating right on the home page. Then, we needed a donation page that gave a bit more information and had a link to our online donation page via our fiscal sponsor. That way, with just two clicks, people could go to a secure, online donation page where they could donate by credit card. We also gave instructions on how to donate by check, just for those who don’t like to give their credit card info online. Next, I wrote a one-page letter that described the campaign goal, deadline, and purpose and which gave a “Call to Action.” In the fundraising world, you’re always channeling your activity to the call to action. That’s where you activate people as donors. The letter was printed out and mailed to a select group of people who don’t use the Internet or who are going to be asked for larger amounts of money. This letter contained a reply envelope with our mailing address affixed to it. Then, we set up an EventBrite page to use for the fundraising event we planned to cap our fundraising campaign. By using this tool, we could sell “tickets” to our event in advance, and EventBrite would deduct a small fee. We set ticket prices from $35 to $1,000, allowing people to select what they wanted to give. This made it much easier for us to see who was coming and to ensure that they would give prior to the event. When the money is in your hand, it’s in your hand! When the money is still a promise, who knows? Lots of people gave at the $35 level, and a handful gave at the $1,000 level, including some who knew they would be unable to attend in person. Another tool we created was three short clips from the film that we could show at the event. If you’re making a film, the best draw for an event is sharing something from the work in progress. With all of these tools in our hands, we were able to launch our campaign. Find out more next time about how we secured some major gifts as part of the campaign, how we enlisted lieutenants from the closest friends of the film to help tap their own networks for bigger gifts, and how we kept up the excitement level and awareness of our entire donor prospect list to ensure that we would meet our goal. — In fundraising solidarity, Holly Million (Public domain image by Leigh B. Shaklee)