Story Structures that Funders Love

Karen Everett June 29, 2009

We all know an editor who needs to get out of the edit room more often. (I just have to look in the mirror.) I recently had the delightful and heady experience of being on the other side of the fundraising table, giving the thumbs up or down to a slew of documentary directors seeking money for their works-in-progress. Granted it was a mock exercise, part of Holly Million’s popular "How To Ask People For Money" class at the San Francisco Film Society. But as I wielded the power of yea or nay along with my fellow make-believe funding execs, I learned something very interesting.

The nervous director sitting across from us would invariably spent most of his or her precious time and chutzpah trying to convince us that the topic of their documentary was worthy of funding. In most cases, their films were social-issue docs that I deemed worthwhile in a liberal knee-jerk second. The issue that my cohorts and I were most interested in was this: Are you, dear director, the right person to bring this film to fruition? Do you have the editorial know-how and right structural vehicle? In short, do you know how to tell a story? If the directors in the class could have convinced me of that, I would have forked over the imaginary cash every time.

So I decided to set my New Doc Editing research team on a mission to find out what structural models are getting funded these days. I talked with grant agency managers and acquisition editors, including HBO’s Lisa Heller, who stressed the premiere cable station’s interest in funding "small stories that illuminate issues." Our research confirmed my sense that by far the most popular structural mechanism receiving funding these days is the character-driven documentary, with the essay-style documentary trailing a distant second. (For a primer on how to construct both types of films, see my first two columns for The Edit Room).

Top funding entities like Ford Foundation, the Sundance Institute and MacArthur Foundation have differing mission statements, but the documentaries they funded in the last two years all had very similar traits: they expose an important social, political or human rights issue; they are often either set abroad or about minorities living in America; and they were character-driven in structure. That’s noteworthy when you consider that Ford gave away nearly $4 million to documentaries in 2007, and most of that went to independent producers (as opposed to other funding organizations like ITVS) who were making one-offs (not series).

What about the other big funders? The program guide for ITVS, which recently funded 29 films from its last round of applications, reads like a synopsis of a three-act structure, featuring a protagonist on a quest against great odds. For example, “Last Chance Journeys follows brothers Sergei and Sasha, and their families, as they set off on this long journey through frigid temperatures on handmade wooden sleds, sleep in tents and struggle for survival off the land.â€? We learn the two protagonists and the obstacles they face on their journey to the Arctic Ocean. They character-driven synopsis are commonplace in "ITVS’s online program catalogue":

Networks like HBO and the Sundance Channel, which may step in with finishing funds for works-in-progress, are likely to green light stories where the climax scene of a character-driven doc is a sure thing. And according to ITVS International Program Manager Cynthia Kane, who developed Doc Day for The Sundance Channel, commissioning and acquisition editors are also risk-averse to projects where the outcome of the narrative arc is in question. "Broadcasters are coming in later with their finishing funds," says Kane, "As money’s gotten tighter, they really need to know that something’s going to work." At a minimum, for a character-driven doc, that means outlining the protagonist’s quest and the obstacles they are facing, and plausible outcomes. Unlike many broadcasters that offer finishing funds late in the production cycle, ITVS offers research and development money and has a special Diversity Fund geared toward giving early R&D revenue.

Let’s not forget U.S. governmental organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for Humanities, which are natural first stops on the documentary filmmaker’s journey to fundraising. Both entities primarily fund the private foundations that will then fund independent documentary filmmakers. For example, in 2008, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded $140,000 to the Sundance Institute and $40,000 to the Hartley Film Foundation. Projects that do get funded often feature an obligatory climax scene. For an example of these kinds of films, see an election film such as Journeys with George (2002) or a performance film such as Mad Hot Ballroom (2005).

Finally, a glance at the top ten box office hits (as of June 14, 2009) reveals that essay films are running neck-and-neck with character-driven docs in terms of theatrical revenues. Michael Moore’s trilogy of essays (Farhenheit 9/11, 2004; Bowling for Columbine, 2002; and Sicko, 2007) skews the figures slightly, but it’s interesting to note that structurally, these films are centered around ideas, with characters filling in as mini portraits and vignettes rather than having full-blown arcs. In my opinion, essay films that succeed require the well-honed voice of a master narrator, such as Moore or Werner Herzog (Encounters at the End of the World, 2007) or Morgan Spurlock (Supersize Me, 2004). First-time filmmakers tend to be drawn to essay-style films because they want to explore an idea, but if they want funding, they may be better off pursuing a character on a quest, and exploring their idea that way. Note that Supersize Me is a great example of a complex documentary that marries that character-driven arc with a compelling essay about nutrition. See last month’s article for more on the structure of the hybrid doc.

The brave documentary filmmakers in Holly Million’s fundraising class reminded me of my own earnest efforts to attract funding for my early documentary films. While I managed to stumble upon a compelling character-driven story in my PBS biography I Shall Not Be Removed: The Life of Marlon Riggs, my other greenhorn efforts weren’t so lucrative. Looking back, I see now that it wasn’t that funders didn’t believe my films about politics or lesbian relationships weren’t worthy topics. It’s that I didn’t even think to ask myself: What structural models for conveying these topics are currently being funded, and do I have the editorial know-how to craft these models? Now that I do, I want to share it.

Thank you to New Doc Editing’s Lucie Schwartz who provided research for this article.

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