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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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1. Doc funding is competitive, but also democratic.  But also really really competitive.  These organizations fund on average less than 5% of the applications they receive.  However the panelists went out of their way to emphasize how democratic the process is, that it’s not about who you know or what you’ve done, but how good your end product is going to be.  With that said, experience does make a difference because it’s evidence to your ability to get the job done. Basically: good luck, young filmmakers, you’re going to need it. 

2. There’s no such thing as free money. Sundance and the SF Film Society demand that all their fundees come back and serve as mentors, a practice that Turner-Salleo pointed out was often viewed by filmmakers as too much work.  The SFFS looks at the long view of a relationship with a filmmaker and developing that talent.  And while it’s not true for any of these particular funders, many organizations attach their money to deliverables, rights, or recoupments.  

3. Many funders are trying to be catalysts.  When deciding who gets money, grants givers often focus on who the money would do the most for.  They want their money to cause a project to gain momentum.

4. Ultimately, the end game is getting as many good, worthwhile stories and talent out there as possible.  For these panelists, the most important return on investment was telling a great story that needed to be told. 

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

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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.