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

Tag Archives: foundations

Funder Feature: Cinereach

Hey, filmmakers! How often do you hear about new film-specific funding opportunities? Not often these days.

Well here is a relatively new funding opportunity you need to check out. And it comes in three flavors: Cinereach Grants & Awards, The Reach Film Fellowship, and Cinereach Productions.

Cinereach is now accepting letters of inquiry and sample work for their winter grant cycle. The deadline is December 1, 2009, and they will request full proposals from select projects in January. Each year Cinereach grants over $500,000 to well-crafted feature films that depict underrepresented perspectives, resonate across international boundaries, and spark dialogue. Grants usually range from $5,000 – $50,000 and are awarded to films at any stage.

Cinereach was created in 2006 by young filmmakers, philanthropists, and entrepreneurs to champion vital stories, artfully told. The young nonprofit facilitates the creation of films that challenge, excite, innovate, offer new perspectives and inspire action. Cinereach has awarded well over $2.5 million in grants and achievement awards to more than 40 feature films.

Recent Cinereach funding recipients include October Country, a new documentary by Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, which won Best American Documentary at Silverdocs and Entre Nos a fiction film by Paola Mendoza and Gloria La Morte, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.

For more information, visit the Cinereach website. And good luck! Let me know how it goes.

In fundraising solidarity,
Holly Million

(Lightning photo by Mark Coldren)

Writing a Kick-Ass Funding Proposal

You need several things to land a foundation grant for your film. One, a well-edited trailer or work sample. Two, the hutzpah of Attila the Hun. And three, a kick-ass written proposal. Okay, so you have the first two. Is it the written proposal that is baffling you? Well, be baffled no more. Here are all the basic ingredients you need to bake up a tasty grant proposal.

A good proposal begins with good ideas. You have to know what you are trying to create and what success looks like for that creation. With a film, your proposal is only as strong as the ideas, images, and people your film contains. Do you have strong characters that give the audience somebody to identify with or whose story will move them? Are existential truths revealed through your film? Are there ideas, themes, lessons, and morals to give your film shape and life? Have you thought through what the film is about, and is there a driving rationale for what it contains?

A good proposal includes a plan. Who is your film aimed at? How will they see it? How are you going to raise the money to make the film? How long will it take you to make the film? You need to be able to answer these questions with some sophistication. Don’t say your film is aimed at everybody. Nobody believes that. Are you planning to have your film screen in festivals? Put down a really well considered list of festivals with an explanation of why you picked them and what your chances are for getting in. Don’t list the top ten festivals in North America and walk away. That will just look plain lazy. Will you use some creative tactics to help your distribution plan? Then give some juicy details about how that will work and what it will look like.

A good proposal paints a picture. Can a reader envision this film? Can they see the characters and what they’re going through? Can they visualize what’s going to be on the screen? One way to help your readers do this is by using actual quotes from the film. Having the words of real people from the film on the pages of the proposal helps bring it alive. Another way can be to tie current events to what your film will be about. Put in some description of what’s happening in the world and show how your film directly connects with this. A film is visual. Make your written proposal as visual as possible.

A good proposal is convincing. One of the things program officers, board members, and panel reviewers will all do is to decide whether they believe you can accomplish what you say you want to accomplish. You can make your proposal more likely to convince them by doing the following things. One, use affirmative language, not tentative language. Don’t say, “I would like to interview Joe Schmo, expert on the subject,”€ say, “I will interview (or even better, have interviewed) Joe Schmo, and he says X.” Include information about distribution to show you not only have a plan, but you are already taking steps to make it so. Do you want to be on Discovery Channel? Then call up Discovery Channel and talk to a producer. Now you can put that in your proposal. I helped one director I was working with by setting up a meeting with a producer at HBO. She met with him, and he was polite but noncommittal about the whole deal. However, the fact that the conversation had taken place allowed me to write in the proposal, “the director met with producer ‘Mr. X’€ from HBO to discuss the project and share our trailer. HBO sees this project as being a potential fit for their CineMax outlet.”€ All of that is absolutely true.

A good proposal is well written. Well written means engaging. A good proposal has energy, verve, zing! The sentence structure is active. There’s a certain muscular quality to the writing. It is not flabby. Every word on the page must contain valuable information that presents the case for funding. There are no typos or grammatical errors. Yes, I need to say that last line, because some proposals go out in the mail in absolutely awful shape. Proofread! If you’re not good at that, have somebody else do it.

A good proposal includes partners. You are just one person. Wonderful as you are, unless you are Ken Burns, you alone will not be enough to convince the foundations you can pull off your film as proposed. Solution? Surround yourself with an experienced team who enhance your skills and abilities. Find a known filmmaker who has been around the block a few times who can serve as your executive producer. Hire an experienced director of photography and editor. In addition to the crew, how about an advisory board? Ask experts in the field to serve as advisors to your film, and include their bios on the proposal. Last, nonprofit partners are often a big boost to your credibility with foundations that are used to funding nonprofits. They can understand a nonprofit and its programs a helluva lot more than they can understand Joe Q. Filmmaker and his film. Nonprofits can bolster your resources by helping secure interviews with key people, adding advisors to the advisory board, helping to screen and distribute your film to interested audiences, and assisting with joint fundraising efforts that truly benefit both partners.

A good proposal is tailored to the funder. You cannot imagine how many people think applying to foundations is a one-size-fits-all deal. They write one boilerplate proposal and don’t change a word with each submission. That is a formula for failure. Your proposal needs to shift and evolve with each application. That’s why you’re going to all that trouble of poring over the guidelines, sifting through the records, and becoming bosom-buddies with that nerdy program officer. Why would you go through that and then use the same proposal every time? That’s right up there with recycling used underwear! Please, be more civilized.

In fundraising solidarity,
Holly Million

(Photo by Angie Perkins)

Funder Feature: Sundance Documentary Fund

Hey, documentarians! One advantage you have is an ability to present your film as a “mission-driven, social-benefit project.” In other words, your film’s gonna change the WORLD! Narrative filmmakers have a harder case to make in that realm (although not impossible, as I’ve done it before), so most grants go to docs. Here’s a marquee grant that all social-message docs should take a look at: The Sundance Documentary Fund.

Back in the day, the Sundance Documentary Fund used to be the Soros Documentary Fund. This is a very competitive grant. You really need to have all of your ducks in a row before you attempt this one. Even better, there are two funds, one for Development, and the other for Work-in-Progress. So if you can snag the Development grant, you know that increases your chances of grabbing the Work-in-Progress grant. Work-in-Progress covers films in production or post-production. Almost nobody funds production anymore, it seems. Which is why they say, “For everything else, there’s VISA.” But here is a rare exception.

The Development Fund gives grants up to $15,000, and the Work-in-Progress gives grants up to $75,000, although most grants fall in the $20,000 to $50,000 range. There is a checklist of application materials available online. As with most competitive grants, for which hundreds if not thousands of filmmakers are applying, you need to have outstanding ideas that are clearly and compellingly communicated, a solid team, a solid plan, and for the work-in-progress grant, a kick-ass trailer that blows their socks into the next county.

I recommend forming your own “review panel” to read your application and critique it before you send it off. If you want to enlist more public commentary, you can do what filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein did and post your Sundance Documentary Fund application online, on your blog, soliciting input from random strangers. You know what they say about the kindness of strangers.

In fundraising solidarity,
Holly Million

(Photo by Andrea Schafthuizen)

The Victory Lap: It Came From Kuchar

I was talking to my good friend, Jennifer M. Kroot, about the string of film festivals she has been traveling to for the past couple weeks and will continue traveling to for a couple weeks to come. Jennifer is not a big fan of travel in general. But this time, it’s different. It’s her chance to bask in the afterglow of all the hard work she has done to take her documentary film, It Came From Kuchar, from a little twinkle in her eye to a great, big, feature-length documentary that is totally first rate.

I reminded Jennifer that these festivals are her “victory lap,” the payoff for the struggle, the Herculean efforts at fundraising we went through, the long, dark nights and days in the edit suite, and on and on.

We raised nearly $110,000 in grant monies for the film with the rest of the budget coming from individuals. The Creative Work Fund/span> deserves a rousing round of applause for providing the first big grant. I can tell you that the first grant is always crucial to get the fundraising skids greased up. I can also tell you that this was some of the hardest fundraising I have ever done, because when we started foundations were already turning away from film. Luckily, we finished our efforts before the latest economic meltdown.

If you would like to see the fruits of our labors, come see It Came From Kuchar on Sunday, June 21 at 6:30 PM at the Castro Theatre when the film screens in the Frameline LGBT Film Festival. Both Kuchar brothers, George and Mike, will be on hand to receive a lifetime achievement award from Frameline.

Oh, yes, and I’ll be there, too, along with my husband, Chris Million, the DP of the film, to answer any questions you may have about that fundraising highway to hell that we survived. Glad to swap war stories anytime!

In fundraising solidarity,
Holly Million

Upcoming Film Funding Deadlines

Finding foundations that fund film is about as hard as finding a dinosaur egg. Actually, given the economy, it’s getting harder to find ANY foundations that are funding anything. Seriously. Thank God there are 70,000 foundations around the country. Somebody must have some money for your film! Okay, here are two dedicated film-loving foundations that you should take a look at.

Pacific Pioneer Fund
August 15 is the next deadline for emerging documentary filmmakers to apply for grants between $1K and $10K. Visit their website for more information. What do they mean by “emerging?’ Somebody who has made at least one feature documentary before but who has not been a working filmmaker for more than 10 years. However, there are always exceptions, and this foundation is no exception.

The San Francisco Foundation
The Fund for Artists Matching Commissions has a new deadline of June 19, 2009. Visit their website for more information. The San Francisco Foundation is a relative newcomer to funding films, but their arts program officer is a working filmmaker who deeply appreciates all the struggle that raising money for a film represents, and he has been a true-blue champion of creating funding opportunities for filmmakers. Bravo!

The Malcolm X School of Fundraising

I am a graduate and proud alumna of the Malcolm X School of Fundraising. The motto of my alma mater? “Raise the funds by any means necessary.” By any means necessary, you say? As in lie? Cheat? Steal? No, silly! It’s never necessary to become a lawless madman or madwoman in order to raise funds. However, you do need to play the game to win. And that sometimes means bending the rules, not breaking them. There are some key ways this credo comes into play when an indie filmmaker is applying to foundations for grants.

One prime example is the foundation that insists you have to submit a treatment for a film you have not yet shot. A good example is the National Endowment for the Humanities. How can you describe your film if you have not yet shot it? Tricky, right? Nope. Write it up. Fake it. Write the most brilliant, detailed treatment ever submitted. Is that what’s going to end up on film? Probably not. Does the funder know that? Not! Are they going to insist that you submit a big, shiny, flowery, glorious treatment that gives a shot-by-shot description of what they’re going to see in the final product? Yep. Fake it to make it.

Many foundations now refuse fiscally sponsored projects but allow partnerships where one partner has its own 501c3 status. I had a situation where I wanted to apply for a grant from a foundation that had this rule. And they were pretty damn emphatic about it. We had already established a fiscal sponsorship with another production company that had its own 501c3. To make this proposal legit, we signed a separate agreement creating a partnership solely for the purpose of this one grant. We submitted the application under their 501c3. And we got $60,000. Our partner got the same fee they would have gotten as our fiscal sponsor. If I had played by the rules rather than playing the game to win, I would not have been eligible to apply for that grant.

Are there other such examples? Myriad examples! Your job is to sleuth out the hidden truth behind the written guidelines, the real agenda behind what the website says, the actual facts of what they’re looking to fund but can’t say because of politics. Become cunning. It’s the only way to win the funding game.

For more tips about playing the game to win, visit The Money Couch Internet radio show on, or read my Fear-Free Fundraising column on

Cozy Up With Nonprofits!

If you have been wondering whether building friendships with nonprofit organizations might enhance your chances for success with you film, let me help you decide. Get on it now! Forming partnerships with nonprofits is one of the smartest things an indie filmmaker can do right now to get a leg up on funding, finding good interview subjects, creating innovative screening opportunities, and much, much more.

Let me tell you about a partnership I have formed with the East Meets West Foundation in Oakland, CA. Contrary to what the name suggest, East Meets West (EMW) is not a grant-making institution. Instead, EMW is a nonprofit that provides access to healthcare, clean water, and education for people in Southeast Asia, specifically Viet Nam. As I was plotting my course for my film, A Permanent Mark: Agent Orange in America and Viet Nam, earlier this year, I did some research and compiled a list of nonprofits that work in Viet Nam. My goal was to secure letters of support, suggestions on Agent Orange experts to interview in Viet Nam, and also to score a real partner with whom I could apply for grants, including the Creative Work Fund. I wrote letters and made follow-up calls to over a dozen nonprofits, but it was EMW, located right in my backyard, that welcomed me with open arms. After meeting the staff, getting to know them, discussing their own video projects, having lunch with them, asking them for advice on Vietnamese restaurants in the area, and taking them shopping at my favorite second-hand store, I now can safely say that I not only have a nonprofit partner, I have some friends.

In October, I traveled to Viet Nam and spent one full day working exclusively with EMW’s Viet Nam staff. They set up two interviews with children who are affected with cerebral palsy connected with Agent Orange exposure. We traveled together to both homes in two separate remote villages in Quang Ngai province. Their staff helped with translation, preparation, securing permits, and interfacing with local officials. The footage I secured at these interviews was beyond my expectations, and some of the most important to tell the story I envision for my film.

My original intent was fundraising-based, however, and that’s where I have more news to share. I am completing a letter of intent to the Creative Work Fund, a joint initiative of several foundations based in San Francisco that fund the arts. Every four years, the fund gives grants for film. I helped secure a $35,000 grant for a friend’s film, It Came From Kuchar, in 2006. Now, with the help of EMW, I am now applying for A Permanent Mark.

Finding the right nonprofit, forging a relationship with them, and nurturing that relationship have taken time and effort. Was it worth it? Yes, it sure was! And one key was that I thought not just about what I would get out of it, but I seriously considered what EMW would need and how I could help them. Giving and receiving. It is the key. I urge you to reach out and touch someone today at a nonprofit that shares the same goals and mission as your own film. MMMMMmmmm, cozy!

Cracking “Film-Hating” Foundations

If you’re a healthy, normal filmmaker, your plans surely include applying to foundations. After all, that’s what we’ve been taught. Filmmakers get grants, then they make films. Sucker. The unfortunate truth is that the number of foundations explicitly funding films is shrinking while the number of filmmakers applying for grants is expanding. Think giant mosh pit. If you’re going to rely on these same, “usual suspects” for grants, expect a long, hard film row to hoe.

If you want to make a noncommercial film — narrative, documentary, experimental, or some exotic hybrid — then you must seek money from new sources. That money should include individual contributions, a subject we’ll delve into in posts. But, it should also include grants from foundations that “do not fund films.” That’s right. You need to walk right up and knock on the doors of these film-phobic funders. The fact is, they “don’t fund film” — until they do.

Who Fouled My Watering-Hole?
Fewer and fewer funders are supporting film. What happened? Why is this so damned hard? Sadly, somebody was there before you, and they fouled the watering hole. Many funders have become gun-shy of funding films because filmmakers failed to deliver on their past promises. Sure, grants were made, but not the mother-scratchin’ film. Or, the film was made, but not well. The program officer got her head bitten off by an irate board. She won’t be funding film again. Even if the foundation has no prejudices against film, they’re not primed to be receptive. They don’t understand film. They don’t understand how media impacts the world. Or, they’re just not imaginative. If they can’t see it, they can’t imagine it. If they can’t measure it, they can’t fund it.

Who Are These People?
There are approximately 70,000 private foundations in the United States, and untold legions of family foundations. Foundations exist as a mechanism to shelter money from taxes while at the same time encouraging charitable giving. By law, foundations must give away 5% of their assets each year in order to keep their tax-free status. That’s right. They must give away money. It’s the law! And you’re here to help.

In the foundation realm, program officers are gatekeepers, and board members are decision makers. Program officers employ a solid CYA strategy. They’ve learned what their boards like, and they plan to keep serving it up. If you fit what they’re looking for, you’re golden. If not, you’ve got your work cut out. This is why, with foundations that fund film, as well as other sources of funding, veteran filmmakers have an easier time getting grants. The vets are a known quantity. They’re low risk, unlike those greenhorns trying to crash the gate. As in other areas of life, so in grants: “The rich get richer.”

Tips for Success
All right, now that I’ve taken all the wind out of your sails, let me puff them back up. You don’t need no stinking film-funding foundations. That’s right. Because, while there are a couple hundred foundations that fund film with any regularity and which don’t bar the door and grab a rifle when they see a filmmaker approaching, there are just under 70,000 other private foundations out there. You can get grants from them if you know how to improve your odds.

Here are tips for increasing your chances of success. First, take the long view — look to develop a personal relationship with program officers. This is labor intensive but pays off. Go to “meet the funder” events hosted by local nonprofits such as the Foundation Center (which has offices in New York, San Francisco, and around the country). Second, read the foundation’s guidelines, and figure out how your film serves the foundation’s mission and objectives. Call the program officer and talk about your film. Describe its “mission,” how you expect it will impact the world, who it will impact, and how. If possible, talk to another filmmaker who has gotten a grant. Ask for insights into the process. Although it should go without saying, write a clear, concise, compelling proposal. Put a strong team around you that includes people who have skills you don’t, or more experience than you do. Write a clear plan for distribution and fundraising as well as a reasonable budget you translate to the foundation’s terms. I urge you to create partnerships with nonprofit organizations who can join your advisory board, help recruit interview subjects, help distribute or screen your film, and help give foundations that warm, fuzzy feeling of familiarity. Finally, note that they’re more likely to fund distribution and outreach than any other part of the process.

It works. I recently secured a $60,000 grant from an art-loving foundation that “does not fund film.” Until they funded mine.