Everyone has less these days. Money is disappearing. Doc distributors like ThinkFilm, Warner Independent Pictures and Paramount Vantage are vanishing. And the recession continues to roll on.

In this climate, where does a doc filmmaker turn for financing?

In the past, one of the best go-to resources was the diverse realm of foundations. The big film-friendly arts foundations, like the Jerome Foundation, the Sundance Documentary Film Program or New York State Council on the Arts have been invaluable to filmmakers. But there’s also a whole world of specific issue-focused foundations. And despite the fact that many of their endowments have plummeted some 30% (or perhaps because of the lack of funds), foundations are finding new ways to collaborate in quid pro quo relationships with filmmakers: in exchange for doling out money, additional credibility and connections, they get the word out on a particular cause.

I discussed this phenomenon with Dan Cogan, the executive director of Impact Partners, a consortium of private investors that fund documentaries. Cogan recently partnered with the Fledgling Fund to create Impact Philanthropic, an effort to match filmmakers and foundations with similar goals.

There’s no one rule to these sorts of partnerships. It’s all about finding the right fit,” Cogan says. “Some foundations will want a great film that is a work of cinema and could go to festivals. Other foundations want something that’s more of a straight advocacy piece, and that doesn’t air on HBO and POV. It’s about getting everyone on the same page so that there are shared goals and shared expectations.”

For filmmakers, that means hashing out issues such as editorial control, time frame for completion and the final film length. Working with issue-based foundation can mean working closely on editorial content (more so than working with the big arts foundations). But that is not always necessarily so: In fact, a lot of these partnerships come about after the film is finished or nearly finished, when the foundations get involved in financing outreach campaigns.
For example, there’s The Cove, the doc about a secret cove of dolphin hunters in Japan. Impact arranged to have the Swartz Foundation, which is concerned with matters of the brain, to finance a 20-minute short film related to mercury poisoning that will appear on the DVD of the film. It’s a win-win arrangement for both parties.

On a larger scale, POV’s recent The Principal Story was funded from the get-go by the Wallace Foundation, which is committed to lifting the quality of educational leadership in this country. Next week, I’ll talk to the filmmakers behind The Principal Story (watch the film online until December 14) about working with the Wallace folks, and the issues of making a film for a foundation.

Published by

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