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Chapter 5: Small Grants Seed Big Films: Film Arts Foundation's Unique Fund for Film Development

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Often the most difficult dollars for a filmmaker to obtain for a new project are the first. Research and development dollars, commonly referred to as seed money or preproduction funding, present unique challenges to funders and filmmakers To create a competitive proposal, a documentary producer usually needs funding to shoot a sample tape that will whet the appetite of future funders. Similarly, a narrative filmmaker needs time to complete a script, but grantmakers are hesitant to write the first check.

Film Arts Foundation (FAF), established in 1977, is one of the oldest and most established centers serving independent producers in the nation. In 1984, FAF created a small, but unique, annual endowment with initial funding from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation called the Fund for Independent Cinema. "We had so little money that we devised categories where we could make a difference," recalls Executive Director Gail Silva. Eighteen years later, one of those categories—development—remains one of the program's strongest commitments.

For filmmaker Nancy Kelly, a $2,500 Film Arts grant, along with another $10,000 in seed money from the LEF Foundation, was essential to get herself and her crew across the United States for the opening of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA). Kelly's documentary examines the way her hometown of North Adams, Mass., rose from economic blight after Mass MoCA was constructed in an enormous abandoned factory downtown. She used the opening day footage to make a trailer that helped her eventually raise money from ten other foundations, along with tens of thousands of dollars in in-kind services such as on-line editing time. Kelly recently premiered her finished film, Downside UP, at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA). "It's really such a small amount of money," says Kelly, "but it was so crucial to the story and for gathering momentum for the project."

"Film Arts is a national model of a service organization that provides direct support to artists. Technically, we don't fund endowments, but this was a way to get money to artists." San Francisco foundations and public arts agencies make contributions to the FAF endowment. Executive director Christine Elbel says that a $15,000 grant given by Fleishhacker for Film Arts to administer an endowment campaign was recognition of Film Arts' reputation as "a mainstay for artists, especially at the early development of their careers."

Other Film Arts development grantees include success stories like:
  • SusaƱa Munoz and Lourdes Portillo's Las Madres: Mothers of Plaza de Mayo
  • Allie Light and Irving Saraf's Dialogues with Madwomen and
  • Ellen Bruno's Sacrifice
Las Madres: Mothers of Plaza de Mayo was a 1985 Academy Award nominee, and Dialogues with Madwomen won the Freedom of Expression Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 1994 and was broadcast on PBS's P.O.V. Bruno's Sacrifice became a Sundance and P.O.V. screener, and winner of the Golden Spire Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Gail Silva expresses her understanding on foundation funding by stating, "It's not easy for a foundation to know all the intricacies: how to read a budget, what the marketplace is, can this person actually pull it off?" she says. "Re-granting gives us an opportunity to put together panel of people who are specifically knowledgeable in the field."

Development money re-granted on a regional or local level has an effect beyond the jumpstart it gives to particular projects. By affording artists the chance to explore new ideas, it enriches the work being made in a given community and contributes to a collective body of art vital to the culture at large.

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