Art House Dallas + Dallas International Film Festival Panel :: Grassroots Funding for Movies with a Mission

Art House Dallas + Dallas International Film Festival Panel :: Grassroots Funding for Movies with a Mission
Featured Blog | May 2013

Okay. So you’re an aspiring filmmaker or screenwriter and the electric buzz of a once-in-a-lifetime, earth-shatteringly-good idea has just lit up above your head. You know this idea has the potential to help people, to make the world more like it ought to be, and you know you’re the right person for the job.

You may even have the artistic and technical know-how to get started. You may be able to develop the story, write the script, shoot or edit the film, but there’s just one thing standing between you and the realization of your idea, and that’s money.

If you or someone you know is ready to birth the next great creative idea aimed at the common good, and the only thing stopping you from putting it out there is funding, then you absolutely must keep reading.

Last month Dallas Film Society Artistic Director James Faust told AHD why it is important to nurture up and coming filmmakers. Then his film festival went and did it. Lightly sprinkled amidst 11 days, 175 films and a few frenetic locales, the seventh annual Dallas International Film Festival offered up a handful of enlightened panel discussions aimed at equipping aspiring filmmakers, all at no cost.

Art House Dallas joined in the fun co-sponsoring alongside Film Matters a panel discussion on grassroots funding for movies with a mission. If you weren’t fortunate enough to make it out to the Nasher Sculpture Center in person, what follows is just a snippet of the content shared by the distinguished panel and it’s moderator, M3Film’s own Michael Cain. 

T.C. Johnstone, panelist and director of Rising From Ashes deviates from the traditional Hollywood entertainment model to make movies that are tools for transformation. His non-profit Gratis 7 has produced a couple of feature films, for which they raised some $1.5 million, and several smaller projects. Rather than seeking traditional investors for his projects, T.C. relies on donors who are more concerned with external and eternal returns and who want to be a part of the filmmaking family. T.C.’s latest project was 6 years in the making.

Keith Maitland, panelist and director of The Eyes of Me seeks to aid his audiences in their quest for identity. Life is about figuring out who you are so you can find your place. Keith recommends a four-tiered approach to fundraising: distribution, grant support, investors and individual donors at the grassroots level. He secured a $200,000 dollar grant from ITBS, an arm of Corporation for Public Broadcasting, as well as a grant from the Meadows Foundation. 

Keith recommends filmmakers apply for grants such as ITBS’ because it is a comprehensive process that forces the filmmaker to think through every aspect of the film, from it’s meaning and message all the way to it’s distribution. Also, they were willing to fund a film that wasn’t ready to show, whereas HBO and A&E wanted to see at least a rough cut before granting funds. He adds that it is hard to get a granting body to believe a first time filmmaker is going to complete and get a film in front of an audience, so you have to be ready to make a case for your film, that it’ll get finished, be good and get seen.

Jason Cirone, panelist and producer for M3 Films, was pleased to learn there was more to filmmaking than action, drama and comedy. He views movies as an opportunity to tell stories that mean so much more. Jason has headed up two successful online fundraising campaigns for The Stark Project and the Stanley Marcus Documentary. Jason points out that it’s important to consider all communicative avenues when considering online crowd funding. Kickstarter, Facebook and Constant Contact were among the services he used to connect via the web, social media and e-mail. You need to know what you’re asking for, how it relates to the audience, and who the audience is. He spent 3-4 months putting together his company’s Kickstarter campaign, and posted updates including news videos each day for its thirty-day duration. 

Jason did point out a significant discrepancy between the numbers of “Likes” his campaign received and actual donations. He also got buy in from a handful of donors prior to launching his campaign so he knew that they’d start with a few thousand already pledged. He stressed the importance of building connections in the hope that the campaign would get legs of its own and reach an entirely new audience than the one it was initially intended to reach. He guesses that 20-40% of the money raised came from people they knew, but that the rest came from completely new audiences.

Lauren Embrey, panelist and President/CEO of the Embrey Family Foundation talked about her organization’s commitment to cultivating human rights awareness, and how they consider film to be one way to share that message, reach the masses and ultimately change people’s perspectives. Lauren got her start by executive producing a film about sex trafficking, but shortly after turned to Impact Partners, a New York investment group, to sift through and present possible film funding opportunities to the foundation. She stressed that she wants to see what happens after a film. When considering whether or not to fund films that explore social issues, she wants to see that there is a plan in place to do significant outreach after the credits roll.  The film has to be part of a larger effort to carry on a conversation and make a lasting impact in the world. Laura also seeks to aid women filmmakers through two new programs.

More quick hits from the panel: 

  1. Movies with a mission are tools, not just entertainment. You have to create a back end to get people excited and involved, create community and continue conversation. It must be a deliberate approach. Don’t just make a movie, start a movement.

  2. Some money is more expensive that other money. If a donor or investor expects you to do things that are not in line with your character, you need to know when to walk away and not accept their dollars.

  3. You must be business minded. A wealthy philanthropist could pay for a clean water well in a village, or give money to a filmmaker who could tell a story about the need for clean water, raise awareness, and eventually bring in three times the initial seed funding. It’s about maximizing the amount of good you can do with the money you have.

  4. Before you do anything else, set up an advisory board with trusted film and business folks, and with people who have a unique or authentic perspective on the subject matter of your film. You can lean on this board throughout the duration of your project for crucial instruction and support.

  5. When you take funds from a donor or investor, you shouldn’t think of it as a one-time transaction but as the creation of a lasting relationship. Think of it as client servicing. You need to reach out to them long after their gift. The benefits of creative projects for the common good can take years to realize.

  6. Remember that most people who give money want some sort of a return on their investment. The three most common types of returns are: internal, give a dollar and get a dollar back; external, give a dollar and make the world a better place; eternal, give a dollar and make a lasting impact?

  7. There is no road map for funding a movie. Every filmmaker and fundraising campaign is different. Answering these questions is a good place to begin: Why does this movie have to be made? Why am I the person to do it?

  8. Above all, remember that the film industry is a business. Johnstone recommends that students going to film school add a business degree. At this point commercial property is a better investment than film simply because it’s safer. But, if a filmmaker is prepared, has a 25 page business plan, has the film broken down, knows the target audience, has 5-6 other projects in the same vein, already has a short film to his or her credit that’s done really well, then you’re ready to talk to an investor. Do you have a business plan or a script?

  9. Lastly, in all that you do make your work excellent. Movies with a mission that are created with excellence can complete in the main stream market, and the more successful your film is, the more likely it is that you’ll make them as a vocation instead of a hobby.