Documentaries Follow the Money

6:00 AM PST 01/03/2012 by Paul Bond
Marie Ueda

Raising the financing for nonfiction films like this year's Oscar hopefuls is as much of an art as making the movies themselves.

For a few years during the making of We Were Here, the living room of David Weissman's one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco served as a production office, while Bill Weber worked an editing system from his basement. Such are the challenges of documentary filmmaking: Each of the 15 docs that made this year's Oscar short list were produced on a wing and prayer; the quest for funds usually stretched for years.

For We Were Here, about the arrival of AIDS in San Francisco, co-directors Weissman and Weber began with two donors; one gave $1,000, the other $2,000. By the time they had finished, the filmmakers had raised and spent $240,000, with money from 200 individuals and a slew of foundations, including the California Council for the Humanities, which gave $40,000. "It's a treasure hunt," says Weissman. "You have to develop relationships and credibility. Fundraising is an art as well as a skill."

While the competition is stiff, the entities willing to fund docs are plentiful, and new ones are popping up. The nonprofit Moving Picture Institute, for example, was founded by Thor Halvorssen six years ago. It has assisted in the making of 20 films, including Battle for Brooklyn, an Oscar short-lister about a fight against eminent-domain laws. MPI gave Brooklyn co-producer and co-director Michael Galinsky $10,000 and helped him raise more from other donors. Galinsky also raised money through Kickstarter.com, which, like competing outlets such as IndieGoGo.com, allows filmmakers to pitch their projects and collect money from individuals. "Crowd-sourcing will be a huge part of funding in the future," Galinsky says.

A more traditional route -is to presell broadcast rights to channels like HBO or IFC. For Oscar short-lister If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, a documentary about eco-terrorism. Marshall Curry says a significant chunk of the $500,000 budget came from the BBC, which took U.K. rights, and PBS, which bought U.S. rights. Taxpayers, in fact, are a huge source of funds for documentary filmmakers. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting funds PBS, which has aired 300 documentaries on its POV show, as well as Independent Television Service, which funds documentaries that air on Independent Lens, also a PBS show. ITVS provided 46 percent of the total production budget for If a Tree Falls.

For her Oscar entry, Semper Fi: Always Faithful, about illness allegedly caused by polluted drinking water at U.S. Marine Corp. bases, Rachel Libert got money from several donors who gravitated to the film's environmental themes, including three separate grants from the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund. Libert's advice: "Have your film well thought out. There's a lot of competition for a small pool of money. Know what their mandate is."

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