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How to Fund a Documentary: Eight Takeaways from the Film Independent Forum

Thompson on Hollywood By Nora Chute | Thompson on Hollywood October 28, 2013 at 3:14PM

Geared to giving up-and-coming indie filmmakers the tools they need to get their films made and seen, this weekend's Film Independent Forum provided many practical, business-minded takeaways. All the conversations at the documentary panels led back to the vital but soul-crushing topic of financing.
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Robert Reich and filmmaker Jacob Kornbluth of 'Inequality for All'
Robert Reich and filmmaker Jacob Kornbluth of 'Inequality for All'

Geared to giving up-and-coming indie filmmakers the tools they need to get their films made and seen, this weekend's Film Independent Forum  provided many practical, business-minded takeaways. All the conversations at the documentary panels led back to the vital but soul-crushing topic of financing.  

David and Jackie Siegel in 'The Queen of Versailles'
David and Jackie Siegel in 'The Queen of Versailles'

Luckily the Documentary Case Studies panel with Frank Evers and Lauren Greenfield (producer and director of "The Queen of Versailles") and Jennifer Chaiken and Jacob Kornbluth (producer and director of "Inequality For All") approached the topic through two success stories, giving filmmakers a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel:  

1. Hang on to your rights. The panelists focused on the difficulties of scraping together production financing, but they agreed that it worked in their favor not to sign away any of their rights too early. It left things open for them creatively and allowed them to hold out for theatrical distribution.

2. You don’t always know if the lights are still going to be on the next day.  A patchwork of funding is the norm for docs, which means that you’re often financing each piece of the process as production goes along.  For "Inequality For All," this meant scheduling shoots without knowing where the money to pay for it would come from, and balancing that fear with an unwillingness to make creative sacrifices for budgetary reasons.  

Lauren Greenfield
Lauren Greenfield

3. Making a movie about a buzzy issue helps.  Both "The Queen of Versailles" and "Inequality For All" went into development before the economic downturn, and didn’t start picking up buzz from investors until later on.  It wasn’t until Occupy Wall Street and the real estate crisis made “income inequality” and “the housing market” into buzz words that the films started to gain traction. (Leonard Maltin's review of "Inequality for All" here.)

4. Pleasing your subject is important, but not so important that you give them approvals. Both films rely on vibrant characters (economist Robert Reich and billionaire trophy wife Jackie Siegel, respectively) to carry their stories, and benefited from the full-fledged support of those subjects, but neither gave their subjects any deciding power on the final product. Greenfield knew she was right to do this when Siegel looked back at the film and said the only thing she’d change was that she would have worn make-up in every scene. (TOH's interview with Greenfield is here.)

The FIND Forum also featured a “Fund That Doc” panel, featuring John Lightfoot from The California Documentary Project, Lisa Kleiner Chanoff from the Catapult Film Fund, Luis Ortiz from Latino Public Broadcasting, Rahdi Taylor from the Sundance Institute, and Michele Turnure-Salleo from the San Francisco Film Society.  Some of their takeaways are below.  

This article is related to: Documentary, San Francisco Film Society, Inequality for All, The Queen of Versailles


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.