Oh, the woe of the documentary filmmaker. Nothing strikes a filmmaker to the core more than that singularly sad, stress-inducing word: funding. My POV minders recently directed me to filmmaker Patrick O’Brien, who has sought out a creative way to get financing. O’Brien has joined forces with Skinny Corp, a progressive, community-based company that backs a line of tee shirts called The Storytellers Collection. And now the tee shirts are backing his film: 100% of the proceeds garnered from the sales of these shirts goes to his film, Everything Will Be Okay which is very much about a worthy cause. O’Brien is documenting his battle with ALS, the terminal disease which results in the gradual degeneration of the body.

Patrick O'Brien and tee shirts from the Storyteller collection

Patrick O’Brien (l) and some of the tee shirts from the Storytellers Collection.

I got in touch with a couple of other filmmakers who are in the throes of pre-production on their respective films, and they’re all encountering the bleak doc-financing climate, too. Ultimately, I think, they are all coming to the same conclusion as O’Brien: The best hope for getting financing is from private donors.

Bengt Anderson
is a guy with plenty of filmmaking cred. He’s been working in television for years (his directing credits include Wife Swap and he has produced a slew of Top Chef episodes), but he’s about to make his first feature documentary: a road trip doc called Alice’s Drive that follows the descendants of Alice Ramsey, the first woman who drove across the U.S. It’s the 100th anniversary of Ramsey’s ride, and the film follows her descendants as they trace her route in the same sort of car she drove. So the film has a pretty easy hook, and you’d think some auto-related company would jump at the chance to put a little bit of money into a branding opportunity like this. Alas. “It’s a big no-go,” says Anderson, who thinks he may have been naive about his prospects to win over companies like Goodyear and AAA. He couldn’t even get Exxon to pay for gas. “The climate right now is extremely difficult,” he says.

Anderson is just weeks away from principal photography, which begins June 9th. And he’s had little choice but to strip the budget from $500,000 down to $220,000. He says he’s been working his butt off so he’ll be able to post the starting funds himself; he’ll also have to shoot the film himself, as well as lean on the support of a good friend who will be his co-cameraman and editor.

In hindsight, Anderson feels that he could have had better luck going to private investors, which is how director Henriette Mantel got her Ralph Nader doc, An Unreasonable Man, made. That financing came from her co-director Steven Skrovan. “I was lucky,” Mantel concedes. “Steve paid for the whole thing.” Mantel is currently financing her next project, which she doesn’t want to discuss, but she hopes she’ll be able to get the bulk of the money she needs from private sources.

Both Mantel and Anderson approach the grant-writing process with wariness, but one would think that grants are a tried and true resource. Or are they? If you’re a filmmaker, drop us a comment about the best ways to get financing these days. You can also tell us your tales of woe. Or are things so bad out there, that sharing your tips might mean giving up meager resources?

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen