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

Tag Archives: proposals

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

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)