A powerful thing happened in Casper, Wyoming, the week after Matthew
Shepard was beaten by two gay-bashers and left for dead on a prairie
fence. It centered on a documentary called Licensed to Kill,
in which director Arthur Dong, who 20 years earlier had himself been
a victim of anti-gay violence, enters the prison cells of convicted
gay-bashers and quietly, effectively probes into the background, motivations,
and psyche of these young men. Why did they do it? Where does their
hate come from? Why do they feel their attack was socially sanctioned?
The crowd in Casper listened attentively as Licensed to Kill
recounted large and small actions guided by hate. Many in the audience
had come to town for a vigil in memory of Shepard, and one man after
another stood up after the screening to tell his own story, demonstrating
that Shepard was not an isolated case. "Every one of them had
a similar experience; it was chilling," recalls Sara Dubik-Unruh
of the Community Outreach for Prevention and Education (COPE), who
had arranged the screening. "It took my breath away to realize
how many people in our community have been devastated physically,
emotionally, and spiritually by these types of attacks," she
wrote to the filmmaker. "I felt honored and in awe of the men
who shared their experiences at that showing." Dubik-Unruh now
screens Licensed to Kill every semester at Casper College,
joining the leagues of others who use 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 Federal Bureau
Licensed to Kill, which went on to win an Emmy nomination,
awards from the Sundance and Berlin film festivals, and a PBS broadcast,
would never have seen the light of day without funding from private
foundations. In fact, nearly every penny that didn't come out of the
filmmaker's pocket was provided by foundations. Three major media
fundersthe Soros Documentary Fund, The Rockefeller Foundation,
and the CPB-backed National Asian American Telecommunications Associationgave
the bulk of the production budget. But the rest came in small grants
of $2,000 to $7,000 from foundations that were more interested in
the message than the medium, including the Unitarian Universalist
Funding Program, Horizons Foundation, The Zellerbach Family Fund,
the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation, and the Hugh M. Hefner Foundation.
When it comes to funding 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
Dong is one of those filmmakers who knows how to stretch a dollar.
Licensed to Kill and his latest documentary, Family Fundamentals,
each cost in the ballpark of $130,000. That's lunch money by Hollywood
standards. More significantly, it's far cheaper than documentaries
used to be when film stock was the preferred format. Dong is careful
to note that his budgets are lower even than most independent productions
because he doesn't hire a director, producer, editor, or cinematographer,
but does it all himself. Even so, whether it's a one-man-band like
Dong or a small documentary team, a little bit of funding at the right
moment can have a big impact.
Take Dong's Family Fundamentals, a film about the conflicting
values that divide Christian Fundamentalist parents and their gay
or lesbian children. One of the film's subjects, Brian Bennett, was
about to head off to the California State Republican Convention. Bennett
had once been chief of staff for United States Representative Bob
Dornan, who was a surrogate father to Bennett despite the fact that
the congressman was a conservative Republican and vocal opponent of
homosexuality. When Bennett came out of the closet, Dornan broke all
ties. This convention presented Dong with the chance to film Bennett
interacting with other Republicans as an open homosexual. "It
was a one-time event. I had to go," says Dong, but he needed
$5,000 to cover the shoot. That's when the Theophilus Fund, a private
donor-advised fund in San Francisco, stepped in, enabling Dong to
capture this event.
Later, an offshoot of this fund called the Theophilus Foundation helped
out at another critical moment. Dong was racing the clock to finish
his film in time for the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. Family Fundamentals
had been accepted, but Dong still needed to complete the sound mix
and pay for transfers, up-conversions and insurance. Theophilus quickly
issued $15,000 to cover those costs, and Family Fundamentals
made it over the finish line, allowing the film to premiere at the
country's most important launchpad for documentary films.
"Fundraising is hard every step of the way," says Creative
Capital's Lerner, echoing the lament of countless filmmakers who can
spend as many years chasing funds for a film as they do actually making
it. "Unless you are lucky enough to get one of the big funders
like the Independent Television Service (ITVS) or HBO, you're going
to be piecing things together," she says. "Sometimes to
get a larger entity even interested in a project, you need to show
[a sample reel], which again means that up to that point, you're going
to be piecing together small money."
On the positive side, says Lerner, smaller investments give foundations
a certain flexibility. "You can make a $5,000 investment very
early on, then look at what that bought you and say, Wow! This
is really going somewhere. Here's another $5,000. Or at that
point you might say, Ugh, this is not turning out as exciting
as I'd hoped. So before you've made a $50,000 investment, you
can assess your investment every step of the way."
For filmmakers, small grants can be particularly effective in the
early stages of a film. Seed money is precisely thatthe seed
that promotes future growth. Coming from a foundation with a vested
interest in a topic, it provides a stamp of approval, a mark of credibility
that can act as a magnet for other potential funders. (See Chapter
5.) For his part, Dong used seed money from the Lear Family Foundation
($5,000) and the Soros Documentary Fund ($15,000) to lay the all-important
groundwork for Family Fundamentals: researching the Christian
Right and assembling 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.
"It wasn't an overnight thing or easy to reach some of these
advisors, especially the more conservative ones, because why would
they want to talk to me? I'm from PBS, right? Mr. Liberal.
So I nurtured the relationshipsand it was worth doing."
As a result, Dong was able to bring aboard individuals like Forest
Montgomery from the National Association of Evangelicals and Philip
Yancey, an editor and columnist for Christianity Today, the
leading Protestant magazine in America, among others. "Once I
had them confirmed, I was able to approach possible subjects for the
film. They didn't know me from Adam, but they knew of the people on
my panel. Oh, you've got so-and-so. Well, I agree with his values,
and his religion is my religion. So I guess you're okay. That
was well worth the work."
This board of advisors played a critical role in obvious waysinformation,
access and balance. But just as important, it helped pave the way
for the next stage of the filmits outreach.
Dong belongs to that special breed of documentary filmmakers that
thinks 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, and potential users are involved early on. (See
also Chapter 7.)
For Dong, the benefits of this integrated approach crystallized with
Licensed to Kill. During production he connected with the National
Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, an umbrella group with over 20
member organizations around the country. "I worked with the coalition
as a whole, which meant working with all those local agencies,"
Dong recalls. "That led me to have screenings in those cities
where there's an agency." As a result, community screenings increased
exponentially. "I learned how valuable that relationship was.
So when I set out to compile my advisory panel for Family Fundamentals,
I picked people who were connected with agencies as well," such
as the National Association of Evangelicals, which has chapters throughout
the United States.
Dong plans to involve his advisors and peer organizations in townhall
forums around Family Fundamentals. "Venues will be safe
and neutral spaces, such as libraries, museums, and public centers,"
writes the filmmaker in his proposal. "People with different
feelings about LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual] rights will
be invited and welcomed, albeit with one important condition: that
they are sincerely interested in civil dialogue and are open to the
idea of working through differences to find common ground."
For the Unitarians, Dong's strategic alliances with organizations
like the United Church of Christ, Soulforce, and People for the American
Way, plus his strong board of advisors and their affiliations, made
all the difference. "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. The organization's
nondenominational Fund for a Just Society normally provides grants
to groups organizing for systemic change. "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 toward production of Licensed to Kill, and later
came back with $8,000 for editing, lab costs, and outreach for Family
By the time of Family Fundamentals, Dong could more effectively
support his case. In his application, he included something new: an
in-depth evaluation of the impact of Licensed to Kill. Surveying
the film's users, he collected dozens of anecdotes and testimonials
from users, which he then synopsized for his grant proposal. "I
was able to evaluate what I did on Licensed to Kill and incorporate
that as solid evidenceto show that I could do this again for
Family Fundamentals. With Licensed to Kill, I didn't
have that type of evidence," Dong says. "I got more sophisticated."
Dong is not the only one. Many documentary filmmakers are becoming
increasingly savvy about outreachhow to do it, when to begin,
whom to partner with. But for outreach to happen, a film first has
to be made. Foundations interested in social change can get in on
the ground floor and support films that support their causeseven
if they have limited funds.
"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."
Patricia Thomson is the former editor-in-chief of The Independent
Film & Video Monthly, and writes for Variety, American
Cinematographer, and other film magazines.
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