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Chapter 6: The Documentary in Action

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Foundations are often reluctant to fund production, preferring to invest in distribution or outreach once the film is completed.

When it comes to funding documentary film production, "It's hard to feel you're having an impact with small money," says Ruby Lerner, president of Creative Capital Foundation, which provides grants to performing, visual, and media artists. But as former executive director of the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (AIVF), Lerner knows that a little can go a long way in the documentary world. "We can't offer that much money, because we're small. But we know that $5,000 has helped a lot of people get critical things done in the production process."

Filmmakers like Arthur Dong think of production and outreach together from the get-go. Outreach is not an afterthought, but operates on a parallel track throughout the film's creation. Because he clearly identifies his target audience and has specific strategies to reach them, funders are comfortable investing in the production phase of his projects.

For Dong, the benefits of this integrated approach crystallized with his Emmy award-winning film Licensed to Kill. In Licensed to Kill, Dong, who was himself a victim of a hate crime 20 years before, enters the prison cells of convicted gay-bashers and quietly, effectively, probes into the background, motivations, and psyche of these young men.

During production on Licensed to Kill, Dong connected with the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP), an umbrella group with over 20 member organizations around the country. Dong attended screenings in every city where NCAVP has a chapter. Dong conducted a survey and wrote up an evaluation of how individuals and agencies used the film and its study guide for education, sensitivity training, defense courses, and more—teachers, gay activists, inner-city youth centers, social service agencies, probation officers, police departments, and even the FBI. He included the survey—showing the impact of his previous work—when he applied for funding of his next project.

Three major media funders gave the bulk of the production budget for Licensed to Kill. The rest came in small grants of $2,000 to $7,000. Foundations that were more interested in the message than the medium made contributions that had significant impact. "If Arthur had submitted this proposal on its own without the other connections, we probably wouldn't have funded it," says program director Hillary Goodrich of the Fund for a Just Society. "We usually fund small grassroots groups challenging an institution that could be, say, dumping toxins in their backyard, or a group of waitresses in Nevada who are organizing against wearing three-inch heels as a condition of employment," says Goodrich. Film is not normally on their plate, but the foundation awarded $7,000 towards production of Licensed to Kill and later came back with $8,000 for editing, lab costs, and outreach for Dong's latest film, Family Fundamentals.

Dong used seed money from the Lear Foundation ($5,000) and the Soros Documentary Fund ($15,000) to lay the all-important groundwork for Family Fundamentals. Family Fundamentals is Dong's film about the conflicting values that divide Christian Fundamentalist parents and their gay or lesbian children. Dong researched the Christian Right and assembled an advisory board of individuals from both the Fundamentalist movement and gay and lesbian organizations. "I spent over half a year forming my advisory panel," says Dong.

Dong's strategic alliances with funding, plus his strong board of advisors and their affiliations, made all the difference. "You can't just say that because it's a film, it doesn't have the potential to be incredibly valuable as part of an ongoing organizing strategy," says Goodrich. "The films that we fund are few and far between, but we've been really gratified by the results."

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