Get Good: Funding Your Social-Issue Film

At Fenton, we believe the most effective way to change hearts and minds is to tell stories. So does Stephanie Bleyer, founder of Six Foot Chipmunk, who helps filmmakers use their projects to create social change. She’s working on two films premiering at Sundance in a few weeks: American Promise and God Loves UgandaStephanie’s services range from community engagement coordination and partnership cultivation to event production and fundraising. In the last few years, she’s raised millions of dollars and worked on the engagement campaigns for over 20 documentary films. Lucky for all you activist filmmakers out there, Stephanie agreed to share some of her secrets in this edition of Fenton’s Get Good series.

Over the years, you’ve helped dozens of filmmakers get funding for their production and social engagement campaigns. How has the landscape changed in recent years?
The landscape has slowly been shifting as more and more funders from outside the film world recognize the importance of mass media in supporting their program or advocacy work. There are a lot more issue-focused funders offering engagement and production support for film projects than there were five years ago.

Does that mean the field has grown more competitive?
The competition has increased significantly for grants from traditional film funders like Tribeca, Chicken & Egg and the Fledgling Fund. That’s why it’s so important for filmmakers to pursue support from relevant issue-area funders. For example, with American Promise, we’ve received a lot of support from film funders, but we’ve gotten an equal amount from foundations focused on black male achievement. Filmmakers have to be a lot more creative and get out of the mindframe that Fledgling Fund, Tribeca, Ford, Sundance, etc. are the only options for funding.

Let’s say I’m making a film and know I want to raise money for my engagement campaign. When’s the right time to start and what’s the first step?
It’s never too early. Because institutions can take so long to turn around funding, filmmakers will find themselves in a bind if they wait until the film is done to apply for engagement funding. You can never start too soon.

I start the process by creating a long list of prospective funders. It takes a lot of research. I look at the major funders focused on the issue area the project addresses. Which funders support the nonprofit organizations working on that particular issue? I’ll also look to see who’s funded previous film projects similar to mine and pursue those funders as well.

(Stephanie details her funding process and how to organize prospect research in this Creative Capital blog post).

Do filmmakers need to have all of the specifics of the engagement campaign planned out before they apply for funding?
It is unrealistic to expect filmmakers to have their engagement campaign fleshed out when they’re in the middle of production. The one film that has done this successfully is 10×10’s Girl Rising. The whole production process took place concurrently with the engagement campaign development, but that’s very unusual.

A lot of people start making a film and think they can go to a funder and say, “I’m going to create an engagement campaign to help people take action.” That’s totally generic. You need to give more specifics. At the same time, you don’t have to wait until you have fleshed out every single detail before you seek funding. If you can answer these four questions, then you’re in good shape:

  • What are my goals?
  • Who do I want to reach and how am I going to reach them?
  • Who am I going to partner with?
  • How will I measure success?

Let’s talk more about partners. What’s your approach to helping filmmakers find the right partners for their campaigns?
Partnerships are key. They’re gold. I love partners. You have to approach them in a strategic and truly collaborative way. Here are three main pitfalls to avoid:

  1. Asking organizations to partner by tweeting about the film, posting about it on Facebook, and sending out e-blasts. That’s not a partnership; that’s promotion.
  2. Going to a partner with preconceived ideas about what the relationship will look like. Instead, you want to approach the meeting by asking them: What are your goals? What are your programs? How can my film help your organization achieve its goals?
  3. Focusing on the usual suspects. Not every environmental film needs Sierra Club and Green Peace. Try the unusual suspects.

What sets a great social engagement campaign apart from a good one?
A great engagement campaign inspires people to actually do something after they see the film (beyond liking the film on Facebook). It provides multiple ways for audiences to engage with the issue. A good engagement campaign draws awareness, but doesn’t inspire action. It relies on online pledges, Facebook likes, and retweets, rather than real, meaningful engagement.