A Short Guide to Funding Short Narratives

Holly Million May 11, 2010

In 1998, I announced to nobody in particular, “I’m going to make a film, and it will be called ‘Changing Room.‘” In 2005 and again in 2006, Changing Room aired on PBS. In between the idea and its realization, I endured the nauseating g-forces of independent filmmaking, handling everything from writing to producing to directing to editing. My hardest task? Raising money. I’d raised money for nonprofits and other people’s films for years, but this time, it was personal.

Compounding the issue was my choice to make a short narrative. If you’re making a short narrative, foundations give you no respect. Financiers turn a cold shoulder. Government grantors snort. And, in the end, festivals may slot your film for Sunday at midnight. If you want to make a short narrative, be prepared for the ultimate in boot-strapping. Luckily, I succeeded, and so can you, especially if you employ some of these strategies I developed.

Hone your hooks. Changing Room is a 26-minute narrative film that tells the story of three women whose secret body-image issues come to light in a high-end boutique. I sometimes called the film a “body-image comedy.” I also said it was “*Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid* meets Pretty Woman, a female buddy movie that pits self-acceptance against culture’s decrees.” Nobody I used either line on ever knew what it meant, but employing these phrases was like snapping jumper cables on the conversation. One blast, and people were juiced. Come up with a pithy hook or two to snag people’s interest.

Employ camouflage. Private foundations fund films, but, honestly, that means documentaries. Foundations don’t want to fund feature narratives, let alone shorts. It’s too risky, and they don’t know how it will make a difference in the world. So my best advice is, act like a documentary. There are issues of social value in your narrative. Pull them out and flog them. Is your issue the environment, women’s rights, breast cancer awareness, girls’ self-esteem, body image? Changing Room deals with all of these things. What about your film? Freedom of speech? Civil rights? Ending poverty? There are scads of foundations interested in these issues. By presenting your narrative as a “mission-driven, social-benefit film” you may convince a foundation to bestow money on you.

Create your own distribution. The problem with shorts in general is that there are fewer outlets for them. Funding is often contingent on the numbers of eyeballs the film can attract. Without broadcast or theatrical distribution, the count goes down. Figure out early in the process how your film will be seen. Be creative. It doesn’t have to mean broadcast. There are zillions of festivals. Create a thoughtful, targeted list of potential venues. Look into public screenings. Work with nonprofits to get the film shown. Employ the Internet as your distribution channel and support your success with a superb outreach and PR strategy. Articulate a detailed and thoughtful plan so potential funders feel it’s mighty real. Then again, Changing Room was broadcast. Can you make it happen?

Focus on individual donors. I got the money for the fiscally sponsored Changing Room from smaller family foundations, individuals who wrote larger checks between $1,000 and $7,500, and lots and lots of small gifts from hundreds of people. It took me so long to raise the $70,000 budget to shoot and edit my film that by the time I was done, some of my donors had died. I employed an appeal letter, emails, events, a website, and face-to-face meetings to secure my budget. One week before shooting, my production manager shrieked that we were $8,000 short on the budget. I didn’t sweat. I returned to my biggest supporters, explained my dilemma, and closed the gap with a second round of gifts from these committed individuals. The only way I could pull this off was by maintaining communication with everyone involved over the entire process of making the film. Once you get checks, make sure to nurture your relationships. Care and feeding of donors is mandatory.

Let’s party. Once people knew what my film was about, they often became creative allies. Those who wrote small checks often helped in other ways, providing locations for shooting in their homes, sending group emails about Changing Room to their friends asking for support, or hosting fundraising parties at their homes. Through parties, I met many people who were interested in the important issues my narrative dealt with, and they met a real flesh-and-blood filmmaker and were part of the artistic scene for one evening. All these contributors stayed on my mailing and email lists, and many of them showed up for the film’s premiere. Those of us who make films may become jaded due to our total immersion in our craft, but most people would love to rub elbows with us. So don’t be shy. Give them a thrill! And take their checks.

Plastic fantastic. Don’t be afraid to lay out the plastic when the going gets tough. Because funders generally are reluctant to be the first money in and are extra risk-averse when it comes to short narrative films, you need to keep the project moving forward, even if means greasing the wheels yourself. If the fundraising is going slowly, or you can’t seem to close the gap on your budget through good old-fashioned fundraising, use the cards. Momentum is the biggest money-magnet there is in the film fundraising world. Don’t say, “I want to make a film,” say, “I am making a film,” and “Here’s the latest exciting news about how we are moving forward.” Eventually, you will recoup your investment.

Holly Million is a consultant, author, and filmmaker with nearly two decades’ worth of experience in fundraising. In addition to securing funding for A Story of Healing, which won a 1997 Academy Award, Million has raised money for documentary and dramatic films that have aired on PBS, HBO, and other broadcast outlets. She is the author of Fear-Free Fundraising: How to Ask People for Money, available on Amazon.com. For more information about Holly’s books, films, and classes visit www.goldenpoppy.com.

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