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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
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 moreteachers, gay activists, inner-city
youth centers, social service agencies, probation officers, police
departments, and even the FBI. He included the surveyshowing
the impact of his previous workwhen 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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