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Documentary Patrons Impact Partners Make Splashes at Sundance

Michelangelo had Pope Julius II and the Medici family. And socially minded documentary filmmakers have Impact Partners.

While they aren’t popes or an Italian dynasty, Impact Partners’ 43 members are patrons of the arts. Specifically they are 43 high-net-worth individuals — multi-millionaires, and in some cases, billionaires — who seek to promote social change through nonfiction film. For the past 11 years the group has provided millions of dollars in equity money to more than 90 documentaries, including the Academy Award-winning “The Cove” as well as 45 Sundance titles such as “The Queen of Versailles,” “The Hunting Ground” and last year’s “Trophy.”

This year Impact is behind four Sundance documentaries, including “Our New President,” about Trump’s newfound Russian supporters, and Mister Rogers doc “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” which Focus Features acquired in November.

“The only thing that unites all of the films we have worked on is that we think each and every one is a great piece of entertainment and cinema that also addresses social issues,” says Dan Cogan, Impact Partners executive director and co-founder.

Between 700 and 800 projects apply for Impact funding each year. From those submissions Cogan and co-founder Geralyn Dreyfous choose 10 to 12 projects to support partially or in full. Selected titles are sent to Impact’s membership, who then choose on an individual basis what films they will get behind. All 43 members pay an annual fee that covers operating costs, which includes Cogan and Dreyfous’ salaries. Members are also expected to invest a minimum of $100,000 of equity money each year in one or more of the selected titles. In many cases members give significantly more money than suggested. Impact’s equity investments in a film range anywhere from $25,000 to $2.25 million. Recently the group decided to fully fund Academy Award nominees Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s untitled documentary about sexual assault in Hollywood for seven figures.

Last year Impact spent north of $5 million on various films. While Cogan would not disclose how much the group invested in “Icarus” and “Step,” both Impact-supported films landed record-breaking deals at Sundance; Netflix bought “Icarus” for $4.6 million and Fox Searchlight nabbed “Step” for $4 million. Members who invested in either film recouped their investment plus net profits, which they rolled back into the their next Impact investment.

Prior to 2007, Impact’s founding members Diana Barrett, Jim Swartz and Susan Swartz gave grants to such films as the Oscar-winning doc, “Born Into Brothels” and Doctors Without Borders pic, “Living in Emergency.” “Brothels,” with a budget under $500,000, made marginal profits. “Emergency,” with an estimated $2 million budget, did not.

“It was the critical success of ‘Born Into Brothels’ followed by the financial failure of ‘Living in Emergency’ that made Jim [Swartz] reconsider how he was investing,” says Dreyfous, who executive-produced “Brothels.” “He wanted to develop a different model so he and other investors could have more skin in the game.”

So instead of grants or loans, Impact provides equity funding: Meaning if a project uses Impact’s money and recovers that money, investors get paid back. If a doc does not recoup Impact funds, filmmakers don’t owe anything.

“Writing [grant] check after check after check gets old after a while,” says Jim Swartz, a partner and founder of Accel Partners, a venture capital firm that was an early investor in Facebook. “I thought, isn’t there a way to structure this so we can recover some of the capital on the projects that do make some money?”

If and when Impact members profit from a docu, that money goes into helping other documentaries.

“Everyone involved in this fund is in it for motives beyond making money,” Swartz says. “But our model keeps people in the game.”

Dreyfous adds that anyone who wants to make money should not be part of Impact Partners. “If they want to learn, make a difference, support artists, be part of a cultural landscape and break-even if they are lucky, then Impact is a good choice.”

Various filmmakers who have worked with the fund including Lauren Greenfield (“The Queen of Versailles”), Maxim Pozdorovkin (“Pussy Riot”) and Morgan Neville (“20 Feet From Stardom”) are more than happy with the model especially since with the funding comes the expertise of Cogan and Dreyfous.

“Their notes are like filmmaker notes,” says Pozdorovkin, director of Impact’s “Our New President.” “And they are so enthusiastic.”

Neville, who had never worked with Impact before “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” calls the duo the perfect intermediaries between the artist and the investor.

“There are a lot of documentaries that get funded by a rich person who has an issue that they care a lot about,” says Neville. “So they fund a film and are breathing down the neck of the film director. What is so great about Impact is you pitch your film exactly like you want and if they say, ‘We like it and we will fund it,’ there is no interference. They have zero agenda other than we believe in your agenda.”

While Impact contractually has a final say on issues relating to the commercial exploitation of films they are behind, they say they have never vetoed a filmmaker’s distribution decision.

“We are a very filmmaker-focused company,” Cogan says. “I come from a tradition of producing films, not financing them. So we tend to see things through the filmmakers point of view. The result is that every step through the process we become advocates for the filmmaker.” Neville describes Impact as a “really good consigliere.”

While the economic dichotomy between struggling docu filmmakers and Impact’s One Percent funders can be startling, Greenfield, who used Impact money for “The Queen of Versailles” as well as her upcoming doc, “Fantasy Island,” finds the group’s 43 members refreshing.

“In this current culture that idealizes wealth, there isn’t as much philanthropy or sense of obligation as there used to be among the rich to give,” she says. “I think that anyone who is putting their money toward work that makes a difference is using their money in the right way.”

So far Impact has made plenty of difference. “Icarus” played a significant role in the Intl. Olympic Committee’s decision to ban certain Russian athletes from the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. Meanwhile, since the 2015 release of the “The Hunting Ground,” about sexual assault on college campuses, three bills addressing campus sexual assault have been introduced in Congress and 29 bills in state legislatures. Australia implemented new policies protecting students and New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo used the doc to pass his “Enough Is Enough” bill into law.

Thus far controversial topics such as doping and sexual assault haven’t scared Impact’s 43 members away.

“We are willing to take risks,” says Cogan. “I think that’s a huge benefit to filmmakers.”

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