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

Tag Archives: grants

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

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)

Funder Feature: Gucci Tribeca Doc Fund

If you are starting to plan (or worry) about where you will apply for grants for your documentary this year, then take a look at the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund.

Their website says that:

The Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund provides finishing funds to feature-length documentaries which highlight and humanize issues of social importance from around the world. Funded films are driven by thoughtful and indepth storytelling, bolstered by a compelling visual approach.

As mainstream media moves away from in-depth coverage of world affairs, domestic issues and social conflicts, the documentary has become an important and much needed tool to draw attention to the serious issues facing our world today. At the same time, the craft of the documentary is expanding in exciting directions, merging diverse points-of-view with new technologies and responding to the immediacy of the internet.

They are looking for films that cover issues ignored by the mainstream media and which humanize people who are ignored or ostracized. Show them something unique and compelling

This fund gives away about $100,000 per year in grants that range in size from $10,000 to $25,000. That’s probably not going to be enough to put your film to bed, but it would be a nice chunk of change to move it in that direction. Projects in development or production are not eligible — surprise! To be eligible, projects must be at least 70 minutes long.

This is a ferociously competitive fund, so make sure to look at the site and check out the types of films that have won grants in the past.

You can submit an application for the next round of grants starting in October 2010 and continuing through January 2012. You’ll submit online forms and also deliver materials to the Gucci Tribeca office. One of the required elements is a trailer at least 7 minutes long.

So start planning now if you want to apply — you don’t want to wait until December to start thinking about making that close of deadline in January.

In fundraising solidarity,
Holly Million

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

The Leading Causes of Film Trailer Failure

Ultimately, it is the sample/trailer that causes a film project to be funded — or rejected. Here are some of the common trailer snafus that can torpedo your funding chances as well as some tips for how you can create a trailer that can “make” them love it.

Problem: The trailer doesn’t match the proposal. It’s a Catch-22. The funder touts how they want to fund films that push the envelope, films that go where no other film has gone before. You know that’s you. You are thinking big. And you write a vivid description of your narrative/documentary/animated film shot in HD and distributed via Twitter. They love you and think you are a genius. Then they see your trailer, you know, the one for the film you haven’t raised any money for. You do your best to simulate your vision in the trailer. You don’t have the camera you want to use. You can’t pay for the animation. Of course the trailer is just a pale imitation of your unfunded vision. Sorry, they don’t get it.
Solution: Under-promise in the proposal and over-deliver in the trailer. Tone down your vision on paper so that it doesn’t sound like something completely unattainable. Then blow their socks off with the best trailer you can muster with limited funds.

Problem: The trailer tries to say too much. Who the hell are all these people? They are saying a lot of things. They’re doing random things. I’m being lectured by a voice-over narrator who is reading a long list of information. I’m watching a blow-by-blow five-minute condensed version of a 90-minute film. Blah. Blah. Blah. There is no meaning.
Solution: Less is more. You can’t tell the whole story of your film in five minutes. Don’t try. You will not succeed. Give them a tasty slice, not the whole freaking cake.

Problem: The trailer fails to hook them in the first 10 seconds. They say they want a 10-minute sample. But it’s the first few seconds to hit their eyeballs that will seal your fate. They’re bushed. They’ve watched umpteen trailers. You’re number 43. If they watch past 43 seconds, you’re doing good. Like a thoroughbred in a high-stakes race, how your project comes out of the gate determines whether you’ve won or lost.
Solution: Lead strong! Forget the wind-up and deliver the pitch. Have the viewer enter the action in progress. Slight disorientation is remarkably focusing.

Problem: The trailer lacks emotional punch. I was sitting on a grant panel a few years back. We’d read hundreds of proposals and watched dozens of samples. Then somebody popped another DVD in the player and BOOM!, we all sat up. The screen was filled with raucous crowds of women in a prison in Colombia. They were cheering on beauty pageant contestants strutting on a walkway. There was color everywhere! Ribbons! Balloons! Guards trying to hold back the screaming women. Everybody on the panel was screaming along with them. When the sample ended, we looked at each other as if to say, “What was that?!” We didn’t get any additional information from the trailer about what the film was about. But we knew we wanted to see the film just because of how the trailer made us FEEL. This was not the case with the majority of trailers we had seen.
Solution: Find the emotional intensity in your project. Collect it from the scattered corners of the film. Gather in a ball. Insert in trailer.

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