Filmmaker Andrew Goldberg says the skill set required to get a documentary made is equal parts storytelling and tenacity, particularly when it comes to fundraising.
He has landed funding from corporations, foundations and individuals for films such as PBS’ “Armenian Genocide” and “Out in America,” and the task often involves cobbling together money from multiple sources.
“It’s virtually impossible to get an organization to fund the whole thing — from soup to nuts. The overwhelming majority of documentaries are not funded by a single source,” Goldberg says. And the fundraising process is never-ending.
Filmmakers aiming to make a career out of docus alone must begin fundraising for a new project before completing the current film, Goldberg says. It’s why three years ago he diversified and began producing cable nonfiction programming in addition to his docu work.
HBO and PBS are two network homes for many docus on television, but even on PBS there can be challenges to getting them aired. In March more than 65 filmmakers signed a letter protesting PBS’ decision to move “Independent Lens” from Tuesday to Thursday nights, which resulted in 39% lower ratings. In May, PBS announced a new strategy to have “Independent Lens” and “POV” share the 10 p.m. Monday timeslot beginning Oct. 29, with “Lens” airing October through June and “POV” being telecast June through October.
Producer James Whitaker (“Changeling,” “Cinderella Man”), who directed the Showtime docu “Rebirth” that examines the rebuilding of lives impacted by the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, says making such docus is a challenge that requires a high level of dedication to the subject matter.
“It has to start from a place of real, pure emotional feeling,” he says. “Showtime came to us and we felt very fortunate to have that happen.”
“Rebirth” aired on the pay cabler in September and also had a theatrical run.
But there is no single path in which a docu comes to fruition. John Block, who made “Different Is the New Normal” — a WNET presentation that aired on PBS stations last month — was approached by WNET president Neal Shapiro about using footage shot by a family about their child with Tourette syndrome.
“They underwrote the documentary about their own family,” says Block, a former producer and writer for NBC News. “They were willing to open their lives up for others and willing to pay to have that story told. My condition as a producer was that I wanted to be clear that my sense of how it should go would carry the day.”
Damon Ristau, a filmmaker based in Missoula, Mont., had a passion to make “The Bus,” a documentary about the iconic Volkswagen van after his own experiences traveling in a VW van with his parents and, now, with his own children.
“For me, fundraising was the most challenging,” he says, noting his total budget was $110,000. “With dumb luck, I ran into some funding sources that panned out for me.”
He raised $25,000 through a Kickstarter campaign and Volkswagen offered to be a presenting sponsor for the film, but he worried about maintaining his independence. So he struck a deal with the company to cut together “trade show-esque videos” from his raw footage. The fee they paid him was invested back into the film.
Ristau also received funding from Documentary Channel, the Nashville-based cabler that is seen in 28 million homes. Launched as an ad-supported net in 2009, Documentary Channel acquires between 150 and 200 films per year.
“There’s no shortage of passionate filmmakers with stories they want to tell and, fortunately, with HD cameras and technology, the cost of making a documentary has come down considerably. But to make a quality film, pulling the funding together is no easy task,” says network president/CEO James Ackerman.
Documentary Channel invests in about a dozen films each year, often providing finishing funds in exchange for rights to air the film for a set period of time.
“Documentary filmmakers have to be entrepreneurial,” Ackerman says. “They have to understand the landscape of the media and they have to be super-creative.”
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