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Docus can be easy sell when looking for donors

With all the buzz about Wall Street hedge fund money flowing to independent films like venture capital did to Internet start-ups during the dot-com boom, filmmakers may forget a simple fact: Wall Street expects its money back, and then some. Not so with many funders of another recent cinematic boom: documentaries.

The convenient truth for issue-oriented producers and the activists who love them is that docus can have some of the highest profit margins in the business, inspiring many small distributors to look for the next "Fahrenheit 9/11" and many organizations to fund films that will advance their social or political agenda.

New York filmmakers may benefit the most from this. The city remains the indie film capital of the world, and five of the 15 movies on the new Oscar documentary feature shortlist were made by New Yorkers. Most of the top documentary film sales agents also are based in New York, from Josh Braun at Submarine Entertainment and John Sloss at Cinetic Media to Andrew Herwitz and Andrew Hurwitz (of the Film Sales Co. and Epstein, Levinsohn, Bodine, Hurwitz & Weinstein, Llp., respectively). The more nonrefundable grant money that filmmakers gather, the less agents have to raise to help fund a project through presales and the greater the return on their distribution deals.

Despite the docu boxoffice boom, more distributors are now playing the waiting game in a bid to lower asking prices for all indie films on the festival circuit, making lower budgets all the more important.

"Financing documentaries can be easier than financing fiction films because the budgets are generally lower and foundations will invest in films on a nonrecoupable basis," the Film Sales Co.'s Herwitz says. "Often, much if not all of a documentary's budget can be covered through grants and one TV presale or co-production deal. That leaves the rest of the world to sell and most of the budget already paid for."

One New York-based filmmaker who's been down this road for some 14 years is Sandi DuBowski, producer-director of the 2001 documentary on gay and lesbian ultra-Orthodox Jews, "Trembling Before G-d." He's about to enter even more controversial territory by producing Parvez Sharma's chronicle of gay and lesbian Muslims, "In the Name of Allah," filmed on Mini DV in 12 countries and budgeted in the mid-six figures. (The film, now in postproduction, may have its working title changed to "Love Is Jihad" over concerns about potential trouble from using Allah's name in vain.)

DuBowski, who has gathered funding from more than 40 foundations during his career, says the first steps for any docu filmmaker are establishing tax-exempt status for donations, then going to the Foundation Center's Web site and typing in keywords matching the film's subject to find ideal donors. The IFP, which holds its annual Gotham Awards fundraising gala Wednesday night, also can direct indie filmmakers to grants.

But they should be prepared for a hard sell. "Many foundations are scared to fund a project that may not get finished and worry how to demonstrate that their investment has had an impact," DuBowski says.

Still, the money is there if filmmakers dig deep enough, network and build relationships with the right people. "Some of these foundations are just one family with one person," he says.

One way DuBowski has uncovered funders is through the 10 benefit galas he's thrown. A New York "Allah" gala in June raised $100,000 alone and led him to private benefactors he might never have found. "A lot of the wealth in America is hidden," he says, but for documentary filmmakers, it's a treasure hunt worth taking.