Active Voice
Home The Prenups Who We Are Perspectives Blog Resources

Money and Power are Overrated: Why true love for your subject conquers all

Monday, September 14, 2009
Alyce Myatt, Grantmakers in Film + Electronic Media (GFEM)

Alyce Myatt is the executive director of Grantmakers in Film + Electronic Media (GFEM), a membership organization of funders. She previously worked as a consultant to independent media organizations and the philanthropic community.  Clients included the Center for Digital Democracy, the Council on Foundations, Free Speech TV, the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture, Emerson College, TVE Brasil, the Heinz Endowments, and the Annie E. Casey and Skillman Foundations.  Prior to her return to consulting, she was vice president of programming for PBS and was a program officer for media at the MacArthur Foundation.  Over the years she has provided program development, production and planning services to a variety of clients in television, radio, and for the Internet.  Her production credits include the Smithsonian Institution, Nickelodeon, and the ABC News magazine, "20/20." Visit

GFEM advises grantmakers on how to use and fund media effectively. How do you tailor recommendations for each grantmaker?

The question is, where is your audience? Do they watch PBS or MTV? Are they on mobile phones, are they online? What's the behavioral pattern of the audience that you want to reach? I think the technology, after you deconstruct it, tends to be fairly straight ahead, even though you're looking at multiple platforms. At the end of the day, as always, it's: What's the most appropriate platform, and where can I find my target audience?

Can you tell us a bit about GFEM's Media Policy Working Group?

It's a group of funders who are supporters of media policy advocacy organizations or are interested in learning more about how media policy affects the impact of their grantmaking. When funding opportunities around the area of media policy arise, in some instances members of the Working Group fund collaboratively. In other instances, it's just about raising awareness around opportunities, such as the current federal broadband stimulus request for proposals ( We don't broker relationships between funders and practioners, but we do provide the space for those discussions to occur. Primarily because of capacity, we see ourselves as a conduit through which information flows. We don't fund, we don't recommend funding, but if one of our members says, here's an opportunity and I'd like to let my grantmaker colleagues know about it, or raise awareness about it with their grantees, then we facilitate that through our briefings, teleconferences, etc. We don't advocate around any particular media policy. We serve as a "town crier," if you will.

Is your membership increasing?

You know, it is. The organization, while it's been around for a long time (since 1984), has only been official for three years, and we've only had our 501(c)(3) status for one year. I was hired three years ago, and I'm the first paid staff member. So, we've been building our organizational infrastructure since then. When I was brought on we didn't have a membership plan and dues were voluntary. After the first 9 months or so we put in place a paid membership policy, and our membership has grown by better than 20 percent each year. It's still small in terms of paid membership (50), but it is growing. And our mailing list of funders in now over 1300.

What does your most recent data tell you about new trends in media funding?

Well, one of the things that has happened in the last 20 years is that the philanthropic sector has broadened tremendously. There was a lot of wealth created in this country in the eighties and nineties. And as a result, a number of people are entering into the field of philanthropy: family foundations, individual donors, etc. Whereas filmmakers once relied solely, or to a great degree, on the large institutional funders - like the Fords, the Rockefellers, the MacArthurs - there are now a lot more family foundations that are supporting media. But, the grants are smaller. So an amount that would have been the value of perhaps one MacArthur grant is now comprised of five or six smaller funders. I would say that's one of the most significant trends that we're seeing. We're also seeing funders who are more engaged in their grantmaking. And I think that there are more people entering the field in general, both funders and practitioners.

Talking about multiple funders and engaged funding brings up relationships between filmmakers and funders. Do you have a sense - for the funders and the filmmakers - how it changes the relationship to have so many parties coming together and working on the same project?

Well, I think that it is yet to be seen what the impact of that's going to be. I think that this trend is still too young. It's difficult under any circumstances when you have six different grant reports to write in six different forms, even if you try to create a template. But that's always been the case. And I think that the smaller funders are less demanding in the formality of their reports in some instances.

Do you see funder engagement across the board? Is it more common at a small funding organization or an institutional one?

It's a different kind of engagement. I think that it's one thing if it's a program officer at a foundation, versus someone at a family foundation, where the resources are their own. That's not a judgment, but it does make for a different kind of engagement. There is a big difference in your ability to engage if you’re managing 10, 20 or 40 grants per year versus 150 to 200 including multi-year grants for both individuals and media organizations.

Do you think that certain films or filmmakers are better paired with smaller foundations versus larger?

No, it depends more on the project size and goals.  And often a large project requires money from every type of source: large foundation, small ones, government funders, individual donors, self-financing and more ─ all mixed in together.

Based on what you observe, then, do you have recommendations for how funders and filmmakers can avoid a mismatch?

Well - and this is my candid opinion - I feel like the Prenups are making the relationship issue more complex than it really is. It's really about the issue that a funder is interested in and finding a project that addresses that issue. Rarely are funders these days generic. It's more about knowing your own goals, and being able to state them clearly. If somebody says, "We fund women and girls," then you don't go with a project on climate change - unless it's climate change related to women and girls. It's fairly straightforward.  That’s one of the reasons we created the Media Database ( to allow funders to search for projects that meet their program goals. It’s searchable by issue area or topic, geographic region, completion status, and more.

Do you think that others in the field are complicating the "relationship" issue as well? Are we missing the point?

I think that, particularly with tight money, funders are looking for projects that can potentially have an impact. What's important is for filmmakers to be able to clearly articulate what their hoped-for outcomes are - they can't guarantee. And then, to be able to say what activities they are going to put into place to reach those hoped-for outcomes. It's all about clarity and communication. But that's what it's always been about. In other words, it's not about a funder-practitioner relationship; it's about people being clear and not over-projecting.

So no matter how much the technology and the funding landscape change, those are the essential things that people need to be able to do well?

Exactly. And if a filmmaker can't articulate the focus of the story they're seeking funding to tell, then it's not a good bet. Granted, it’s a documentary and you don’t know what’s going to happen once you get into the field, but there’s a reason you chose the subject in the first place. Let funders know the story you’re hoping to tell, how you’d like to tell it, and what impact you hope the story will have on the audience once it’s seen. And, what actions you hope the audience might take as a result of seeing the film and what you’re going to put into place to help them take that action.

"Be clear." It sounds like good common sense, but our research and interviews tell us it can be a surprisingly difficult thing to do. How does a filmmaker make their vision understood?

Well, the death of common sense is a critical problem, but it's not just related to doing media funding! An emphasis that I think is so important for filmmakers to understand is that, if they want to attract funders, they have to have a really smart audience engagement piece attached to their work. It's important to start developing that work early on in a project. Unfortunately most filmmakers leave outreach/engagement planning until the end. But I maintain that if they started out sooner, and articulated their plans in their production proposals, they would be able to close their funding gap on production quicker. And these days they have more tools and templates to design an engagement campaign, even without funding.

Many people have discussed the power dynamic between funders and filmmakers, saying it's why some projects hit a snag. Would you agree with that?

I still think that's a communication issue. It's easy to say, "Well, this didn't get done well because of the power dynamic." But, I've seen tenacious filmmakers who are hell-bent and determined to tell a particular story. They get that story done, and they're able to explain the story that they want to tell to everyone. I think, quite honestly, the money issue is overrated. It's really not about money. It's about creativity and tenacity in equal parts.

So that tenacious, clear vision conquers all?

Yes. I've just seen it happen too many times. And if you look at most films - if they're long-form, in-depth, needing research and travel and whatever else - they're expensive. They need many funders, large and small. And they get done, and they're good, and they get awards. What I hate to see is the whole thing being reduced to whether or not you get adequate funding. That's not what it's about. Filmmaking is an art, the craft of storytelling. And in the end I really do believe that the artists prevail - and that's where the tenacity comes in, where somebody really feels compelled to realize a vision. No amount of Prenups is going to make a film real or good.


Click here to leave a comment

Hybrids, Relationships and Staying on Message: Thoughts from a Communications Expert

Monday, August 31, 2009
Bruce S. Trachtenberg (Communications Network)

Bruce S. Trachtenberg is the Executive Director of the Communications Network, a nonprofit that provides resources, guidance and leadership to advance the strategic practice of communications in philanthropy. He has more than 30 years of experience in journalism, business and foundation communications, and nonprofit management. During his career, he has worked as a general assignment and sports reporter; held communications positions in the banking, forest products, and technology industries; served in senior management at two national grantmaking foundations; and helped launch an online magazine. Visit

The Communications Network, which you direct, serves communications experts who work for foundations. How do you think films fit into an overall strategy to maximize a message?

To me the form communications activities take are secondary to what the organization is trying to accomplish.  Or as friend said to me the other day, “It's not about the how but the why that matters most.”  Clearly there are times when film makes sense – either as the driver of the project or a piece of it.  And in those instances, it's key for communications staff to have a voice in helping shape – to the degree possible – the content, i.e. the message, as well as serving the overall purpose. 

As an example, about a year ago the Peter G. Peterson Foundation – just a few months after it opened its doors – released a film called I.O.U.S.A. The film was used to highlight the foundation's key areas of focus, specifically that America is living beyond its means and the resulting debt is threatening both present and future generations.  As part of the film's release, the foundation scheduled showings at town hall meetings around the country, and it was later featured on CNN.  Between attention for the film itself and attention to the message in it, the foundation very quickly took “ownership” of an issue core to its work  and effectively “branded” itself.

Is there something about film that makes it particularly useful for that kind of branding? How do you feel about the use of documentary as a communications tool?

Film is a unique form of communication. It works on levels different than others.  Watching a film is usually a group experience that brings people together at the same time. A great film touches your emotions in ways that no presentation of facts, figures and charts, or even stories told out loud, do.

I also believe that the act of making a film is a statement in itself.  The fact that somebody thought something was worth making a film about gets people thinking that it must be an important topic or issue.  And the ability these days to couple a film with other activities meant to futher inform people or compel them to action – such as producing a companion website, creating online discussions – helps create another level of excitement and awareness.

As I mentioned, viewing film is a group experience that adds to its power to communicate. Ironically, while there are unlimited ways to connect today through the many emerging forms of social media, and they create the feeling of being in a group, people are not physically together in the same place at the same time.  Being physically together allows people to say to each other, in the moment, "Wow, what did you think?" – and then build on it. You can get a conversation going right at that moment and then channel that energy into a set of follow-up activities. It's one thing to get people to pay attention to or notice your message. But it's so much more important to get people to act on what they see and hear.

As a communications expert, how do you recommend reaching a large base and mobilizing people?

It really depends on the specifics of the activity. It depends on the project, your understanding of the audience, etc. The first question is, which strategies make the most sense – and those have to flow from the overall goal. Once you know that, the tactics follow. Do you do launch an e-mail campaign, do you invest in media relations, do your grantees launch a public service campaign, do you set up a bunch of town hall meetings? You start with a backwards analysis – tell me the end goal, and then we can figure out how to get there.

One of the bigger challenges these days is how to truly reach people.  There are so many competing forms of communication – traditional print and broadcast, and exploding forms of social media and online outlets. As a result it requires more experimenting than ever before. It's not like it was 10 or 15 years ago, when there was a predictable pattern to what people were doing at particular times, so you'd know how to find them and the best ways to reach them. Back then you knew the media they were consuming with some regularity – a certain percentage would be watching television at a certain hour, everybody would be reading newspapers in the morning – and they weren’t being distracted by all this other social media. Still, for all the things yet unknown about the power of social media, it clearly offers opportunities to engage people in ways you couldn't even begin to imagine even just a few years ago. I’ve seen interesting examples of people doing just texting campaigns. I had a discussion a couple weeks ago with a colleague whose foundation is starting to create more mobile web content because more people are reading off of their BlackBerries and iPhones – the same foundation is also making an iPhone application. It's about adapting.  The way we communicate is changing minute by minute.  There are no certainties about what works, but there are also great opportunities to learn about what works and under what circumstances.

Roles are changing, too. We’ve learned that some communications staff who work with foundations are becoming more involved in media production, sometimes even working closely with program staff. Is this a good thing? What are the challenges? You must observe some identity confusion.

Well, all you have to do is look around to see how fast things are changing. Sometimes it's hard to distinguish what falls under communications and what's a program activity.  In some cases it's neither – but instead some sort of hybrid. In the old days, there were things that were clear communications vehicles, like the annual reports and the press releases, and the "institutional" films, if you will. Now you're getting into projects that use smart communications strategies to deliver the content – and sometimes content is almost like program itself. I've seen examples of foundations that have taken content from documents they routinely publish – on topics ranging from improving health care to creating quality after-school time – and developed companion websites dedicated to delivering information on those topics. Many of these allow users to plug in their own data to produce reports or charts that show how their activities rank against others or compare with quality standards. From there, users can access information about how to make improvements, costs, staffing issues, etc.  That's more than just informing people – that's helping deliver change and social betterment.  Even if there is an ultimate program goal at the root of these activities, communications plays a side-by-side role in helping create and deliver the end product.  Communications staff help ensure whatever is delivered is useful and accessible, and they also take responsibility for promoting it and bringing it to the attention of people who would benefit most from knowing about it and using it.

Hybridization is happening in a lot of places where communications is involved, because the technology is driving changes that are forcing people to do their jobs differently, and maybe even expand their skills, and perhaps be more effective.

Given all this hybridization and merging, do you have new recommendations for navigating the relationships and partnerships between funders and grantees?

I know I'm repeating myself – but that's what communicators do: stay on message.  It all comes down to what you are trying to do and over what period of time, who needs to be involved, and what resources are available. Effective partnerships are formed when all the parties involved are given the opportunities to do what they do best and in tandem with each other. A foundation I worked at years ago made a point of ensuring that its work always combined the efforts of its program, evaluation and communications staff and grantees as a way to strive for maximum impact. These weren't add-on activities – it wasn't a case of  program first making grants, then communications getting involved, and finally evaluation providing an assessment of the work.  Instead, from the design through the implementation stages and all else that followed, all groups worked together and applied their combined expertise to the work being done.

How does that happen with a film project?

A filmmaker has a vision which serves as the basis for the project. The foundation looks at it in light of its overall mission and what it is trying to accomplish.  If there's a willingness from both the filmmaker and foundation to have a genuine conversation about what each can do in a partnership, and the full range of resources and activities that can be applied to the project, the end result could be more than a film. What began as a film project could possibly turn into a larger social change effort tied to specific goals and measurable outcomes.

You’ve mentioned the importance of having clear goals, but also the need for adaptation. How easy is it to adjust the direction of a project once it's underway?

I don't think it's ever easy, but you have to be aware that changes outside the project might have an effect on the ultimate results. If you recognize that, you can see what the strengths are in what you're already doing, and you might be able to find new opportunities in what's changed. It's a chance to remind yourself not to work in the abstract. These are real lives, real causes – and today, what's different? Of course there's still the added challenge of sifting through all this information and figuring out what's real and what's noise. But we are probably living more in the moment than we ever have in our history.

What's the one piece of advice you give most to foundations? To nonprofits?

Be sure to answer these questions before you start any work:  “Do you know where you want to go, and how will you know when you get there?”


Click here to leave a comment

It Takes Two (at least): Participant Media’s Director of Documentary Production on Creativity and Communications

Monday, August 24, 2009
Courtney Sexton, Participant Media

Courtney Sexton is director of documentary production at Participant Media. She supports the documentary production president in managing all Participant projects in production as well as in reviewing all projects submitted to the company for consideration. While at Participant, she has been involved with such projects as The World According to Sesame Street, the Academy Award®-winning An Inconvenient Truth, Angels in the Dust, Jimmy Carter Man From Plains, Darfur Now, Chicago 10 and Standard Operating Procedure. Visit

I was interested to learn that you studied political economy at the London School of Economics. Can you talk a bit about your background, your interests, and how you began working in production and media?

I think like many people I didn’t figure out what I wanted to do until I was well into my education. It took some trial and error before I realized what truly interested me and how I could make a career of it.  After the LSE, I was actually heading to law school in Washington D.C.; however, I decided in the middle of my graduate degree that I wanted to continue studying politics and social issues, but I wanted to do it in a creative way.  I had always been interested in film, so documentaries seemed like a natural way to encompass all of those interests.  I definitely didn’t know at 5 years old that I wanted to work in this field.   

Fast forward through many internships on documentaries and production work in TV/movies, and I met Davis Guggenheim.  We worked together for a couple of years before moving to Participant to run the documentary division.  I was truly fortunate to find my mentor very early in my career, and he agreed to take me along for the ride.  Basically, I did not go the film school route but learned on the ground from some amazing filmmakers and executives.          

What have you learned directing documentary production at Participant that would be relevant to independent filmmakers?

One of the most important skills I’ve learned at this job is how to communicate within the industry.  Filmmakers tend to speak one language that is not always the same as the financiers or distributors.  I’ve learned that there is a delicate balance between realizing a director’s vision and meeting the needs of the financial backers. 

For independent filmmakers working with a company like Participant, it’s important to understand that making a film is a collaborative process.  Starting with the proposal to the premiere of the film, we are all after one goal – a successful film.  Our successes have always been with filmmakers who are open and willing to work as a team.  Likewise, we are committed to the filmmaker’s vision and the artistic integrity of the film.     

In your work with filmmakers, what have you found are the most effective communication strategies, and why?

The most effective strategy is one of openness and a collaborative spirit.  It’s important for filmmakers to understand our process and have access to everyone in the company.  We try to keep an open door policy across all departments from production to marketing and so on.  This philosophy starts on day one.  We want our filmmakers to feel like they are part of our family, and that requires regular contact and availability for support.

The same holds true for filmmakers.  Our most successful films and relationships have been with filmmakers who invite us into their world.  My boss just said yesterday that no film is made by one person.  Collaboration and sharing of ideas is key to any great film.  Our most prolific filmmakers are those who share that sentiment.

As a production company, Participant isn’t neatly defined as a funder or filmmaker. What is your role in the filmmaking process? What advantages and challenges come with it?

We are a funder, but we are not filmmakers.  Each film goes through a different process, so it’s not a one size fits all approach.  For some films, we help guide the development process to writing the treatment.  On other projects, they come in completely set up, and we start by bankrolling the film.  On every project we are involved in supporting the production and working closely with the filmmakers during post.  We take a hands-on approach that most filmmakers find helpful and that is rewarding for both parties. 

Unlike most companies, we also have social action, digital and marketing departments who contribute to the release and social action campaigns for our films.  We always look at each film as a creative endeavor; however, these departments work closely with the filmmakers to advance the message of the film and to secure a robust audience. 

The only issue we typically run into is transitioning filmmakers from the indie world where they don’t have access to this machine.  Most filmmakers are used to making the film, fundraising, marketing and if there is any time left trying to get a social action campaign off the ground.  It takes a little convincing for filmmakers to understand we are all here to serve the film and the issue at hand.

I’m fortunate to work with all of these divisions within the company and the filmmakers.  I spend most of my time on the creative side, but it’s very much a collective effort here.     

Participant emphasizes social-issue media. How do you identify filmmakers or other partners who will be a good match for your goals? What do you look for?

Projects typically start one of two ways.  One, a filmmaker comes to us with a film idea.  For example, Robby Kenner came to Participant with the idea of making a film about the industrialization of food.  We loved the idea and ultimately financed the film with our partner River Road Entertainment.  Two, we will find an issue particularly compelling, and we go out to filmmakers who might be a good match for the issue.  Typically, we prefer filmmakers to approach us because their passion for the issue is paramount to the success of the film.  You can’t hire a director to make a documentary about a subject he/she is not passionate about.  The process takes way too long for a work-for-hire situation to be effective without a true connection to the subject matter.  

When looking for films or partners, we are always looking for someone who shares our creative vision for the film.  It’s icing on the cake if we find a partner who believes in the social aspect of our business.  Our partners are always willing to let us pursue our social action campaigns, but they are not always involved in the process.  On the creative end, it is imperative that we are all working to tell the most compelling stories that will hopefully find success in the theatrical marketplace and beyond.  

Click here to leave a comment

From Prenups to “Postnups”: Where a Funding Guru Sees Opportunity in an Era of Engagement

Monday, August 17, 2009
Morrie Warshawski, Arts Consultant/Writer

Morrie Warshawski works with nonprofits, especially arts and culture groups, to create roadmaps to a better future through strategic planning.  He was the Executive Director of two media arts centers (Bay Area Video Coalition and the Northwest Media Project) and has consulted with dozens of independent filmmakers on matters of career development.  His practice has included work with state and regional government agencies, foundations, the President’s Commission on the Arts and the Humanities, and numerous nonprofit organizations throughout the US.  He is the author of many articles, and of two books, Shaking The Money Tree: The Art of Getting Grants and Donations for Film and Video (a new 3rd edition will appear in January 2010, Wiese Books, LA) and The Fundraising Houseparty- 2nd Edition.  Visit

You’ve been called a “guru” of fundraising for films. How did you develop that expertise?

I am a little embarrassed by the title! Especially since I had no formal training to prepare me for this role.  I started my professional career as a teacher/writer after attending the Graduate Writers’ Workshop in Poetry at the University of Iowa.  Through a bit of serendipity one summer while teaching at the University of Southern California, I was invited to be an intern at the National Endowment for the Arts.  However, instead of working with the literature program I was assigned to the Artists in the Schools/Dancers in the Schools Program, which changed my life.  After that my wife and I moved to Portland, Oregon where I worked as the Managing Director of the Portland Dance Theater.  That’s where I had my first fundraising experience – a trial by fire pulling the company out of a deficit that the Board had conveniently failed to mention during my interviews!  It’s the best way to learn about fundraising, though a little hair-raising.  My next two jobs were with media centers – the Northwest Media Project, and Bay Area Video Coalition.  In both of those jobs I was doing a tremendous amount of fundraising to keep the organizations alive, and at the same time I was consulting with independent filmmakers on how they could raise funds for their films.  I was often learning more from them than they were from me.  It was this sum of experience that led me to write the first edition of Shaking the Money Tree: The Art of Getting Grants and Donations for Film and Video.  My hope was that the book would answer all the questions a filmmaker might have and that they wouldn’t have to call me anymore!  I think the “guru” moniker really has more to do with my demeanor than with my expertise; and the fact that I tell filmmakers the single most powerful thing they can do to get better at fundraising is to raise their level of self-awareness.

How has the emergence of “engaged philanthropy” changed the dynamics of the funding process? Has it also changed the filmmaking process? What opportunities do you see in this era of engagement?

I am very excited by this new era of engagement.  It is a bit of a double-edged sword, but the upsides far outweigh the downsides.  Keep in mind that this level of engagement has increased along the full spectrum of funding – from the very large foundation 3,000 miles away writing a check for $1 million, to the individual donor personally handing over a 20 dollar bill to the filmmaker at a house party.  The major shift I see in attitude is that smart filmmakers are dropkicking the word “audience” out of their vocabulary, and adopting a much more powerful concept – “community.”  Filmmakers used to make a film and then present it to an audience.  Now, you are enfolding a community with the film from the very start.  Sometimes the community gets involved in the actual production and content of the film (as with Michael Gibson’s 24 Hours on Craigslist).  What is more important is that donors now see the act of giving to a film as the beginning of a dynamic relationship.  They want to help make the film a success.  On an institutional level, they might not even be calling their participation either a “grant” or a “donation” anymore, but rather an investment where the funder hopes, but doesn’t expect, to recoup some funds.  In the case of some funders, like the Independent Television Service (ITVS), accepting their support also means a partnership on many levels, including distribution and marketing.   On the individual donor level, people become avid fans and advocates for the filmmaker and the film.  This is where the power of social networking can come into play.  This new community of supporters not only helps the filmmaker find more money, they also begin to generate buzz for the work before it’s released, and then when it goes into distribution they are an army that helps keep it alive and healthy in the world. 

You’re spending this summer on the road teaching workshops about getting grants and donations. Who is attending them? Are there common themes in what attendees are looking to learn, their frustrations, their experiences?

I just returned from teaching an all-day workshop to filmmakers in New York hosted by Shooting People and Downtown Community Television.  The mix included very young filmmakers, some still in school, to some very seasoned and experienced filmmakers over 60, and everything in between.  Most of them are making social issue documentaries running the gamut from the Israel-Palestinian conflict to HIV and AIDS, doggie wheelchairs, Iraqi sexual assault victims, an aging jazz guitarist, and dancer/choreographer Karole Armitage.  A few are narrative feature filmmakers, and just one or two are doing very personal short-form works that are hard to categorize.  This would be a fairly typical mix for one of my workshops.  The major thing they all want to learn is “How do I find the money for my film?!”  They want to know:

•    What are the sources for funding?
•    How do I find, approach and then talk to funders?
•    How do I write a great grant proposal?
•    What makes a great pitch?
•    How can I get funders to love me and love my project?
•    How can I leverage the power of the Internet and social networking?
•    How can I construct my project so that I can work with both donors and investors?
•    How can I survive with a decent lifestyle and still make noncommercial films?

And, like many of us right now, they are very worried about the effects of the recession on their ability to find funds.

You have stressed that aside from foundations, individuals are often major funders of films. Do filmmakers have a good understanding of what defines a “funder”? How well-versed does a filmmaker need to be in the world of funding to succeed in attracting support?

Yes, I am a big proponent of going directly to individuals for support.  For as long as there have been records on giving in the US, donations from individuals have always exceeded 80% of the total amount of giving from all sources to all types of nonprofit endeavors.  I have not seen the figures for independent filmmaking.  But, what I see is that where once-upon-a-time filmmakers were heavily dependent on getting grants from foundations and government agencies, they are now much more diversified in their approach to raising money and they have dramatically broadened their understanding of the term “funder.”  With respect to how well-versed the filmmaker needs to be in the world of funding in order to be successful, the answer is, the more well-versed the better!  It’s possible to be a complete novice who has a great deal of luck and bumps into some money through happy accidents.  But, the environment for raising money has gotten more diverse, and geometrically more competitive over the years.  The upside is that there are many more avenues for funding now than ever before. This is also a downside, because every funding source (grants, individual donations, social networking, etc.) requires a different dance with slightly – and sometimes dramatically – different steps.  Filmmakers are being pulled in many directions.  They have to work harder and smarter than their colleagues ever had to.  It’s one reason I’ve been pushing the notion of “interdependence” rather than “independence” and counseling all of my clients to surround themselves with teams.

As a consultant and facilitator, what are common pitfalls you’ve witnessed in the funder/filmmaker relationship? How can a “prenup” make a difference?

A “prenup” can make all the difference.  If I could, I’d wave a wand and force every funding relationship to begin with some form of the Prenups.  The document you have created presents a very accurate portrayal of the common pitfalls that I’ve witnessed between funders and filmmakers – misunderstandings about ownership, false assumptions about the extent of the funder’s role, lack of full disclosure about timelines for completion, and no formal mechanism for resolving disputes.  One major difference a prenup makes is that it forces the two parties to talk!  Many filmmakers have some trepidation about talking with funders because of the imbalance of power between them.  Filmmakers are afraid they might lose support by asking the wrong questions or being too insistent on certain terms.  The prenup puts everything on the table and forces a healthy and constructive conversation.  The whole viability of the long-term relationship between funder and filmmaker will rest on a system of healthy, open, and consistent communication.  Both parties need to push for and nourish this type of communication before, during, and after completion of the film.  Maybe it’s time to create a “postnup” too?!

Click here to leave a comment

The Rise of Relevance: On Participatory Funding and Ethnic Media

Monday, August 10, 2009
Luis Ortiz, Latino Public Broadcasting (NPB)

Luis Ortiz is Managing Director at Latino Public Broadcasting, where he oversees the development, financing and production of Latino-themed programming distributed for broadcast on public television. He manages and executes LPB's Open Call process and other programming initiatives. He also administers all projects, from initial contract negotiation with producers through delivery of the completed program, and implements LPB's nationwide workshops and outreach initiatives. He serves as Series Producer for Voces, an 8-part Latino anthology series. Visit and

As managing director at LPB, you're approached by many filmmakers. What do think new and emerging filmmakers need to know about working with funders when they're starting out?

New and emerging filmmakers should do research about each organization before applying. They should look at it almost like researching a job before an interview. The bottom line is that you are pitching an idea for a film to someone who doesn't know you. Filmmakers should look at how each organization operates in relation to funding, what their standard requirements are, and investigate what they have previously funded.

The key to our process and that of many funding organizations is putting together a well written proposal. Many new filmmakers do not know what a solid proposal entails. Several funding organizations have tools to help filmmakers with this process, including sample proposals, workshops and mentors they can recommend. Make contact with someone and see what is out there. This could be another filmmaker or an executive at one of these organizations. You would be surprised by how helpful people are in non-commercial media. Once you have taken these steps, you are that much closer to accessing funds.

Can you tell us a story about a time a filmmaker and LPB could have used a Prenup?

Yes, there was a producer that applied to LPB for development of a series that has now become a high profile series for PBS. The producer didn't understand how LPB worked and our relationship with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the public television system, but spent quite a bit of time and money applying to the LPB open call and waited patiently through our six-month selection process. The project was ultimately selected for funding, beating out hundreds of other proposals. However, after reviewing our standard boilerplate agreement, the producer was unhappy with the CPB requirement terms and declined our funding. By declining our funding, the project also lost our endorsement and support in the system. I don't think this should have been an issue if the producer had done the research to see if this was the norm. At that point, it was clear to me there was not a good understanding of LPB within the PBS world. In the end, the producer had to agree to those same requirements when he/she finally secured funding from similar organizations.

You read a lot of proposals. What do you wish applicants knew about LPB in particular, and public broadcasting in general, before they push "send"?

I wish applicants understood that LPB is not just a funder of projects. Our relationship with these projects and the filmmakers goes way beyond funder/funding-recipient status. We also serve as a "presenter," meaning we present the finished film to PBS and work to secure good placement on the national programming schedule and on the individual schedules of each station. We also help to build audiences with community engagement across the United States, through education, new media and special screenings, to help drive more people to see the broadcast. So, our investment goes way beyond just the production of a film.

What are your thoughts on the growth of ethnic media? What is LPB's place in the wider arena of ethnic media organizations, and how are these groups collaborating amongst each other and with the mainstream? What obstacles are they facing?

Ethnic media allows for better representation of minority groups within the United States. It plays a vital role in today's society by allowing our stories to be heard since mainstream media tends to overlook them. LPB is a key player in this system and serves as a vehicle for disseminating these stories to the world. I don't think films like The Devil's Miner or Valley of Tears would have been made if we did not support them.

LPB is also part of a bigger collective called the National Minority Consortia (NMC) that serves each of our respective minority constituents (Latino, Asian, Black, Pacific Islander and Native American). Each organization plays a fundamental role in keeping ethnic stories alive within today's media landscape. The NMC works together to raise the profile of our filmmakers and the stories they are trying to tell. In this process, we find ourselves working more and more with community based groups that share our mission and enthusiasm.

As far as obstacles, we continue to encounter barriers to getting the representation we deserve. For example, Latinos are now the largest minority group in the U.S., yet this is not reflected proportionately within the primetime schedule on PBS as well as other major networks, and many Latino organizations continue to criticize this phenomenon.

How important is cultural understanding to successful working relationships? Are there cultural or other considerations that filmmakers, funders, and others need to take into account when creating programming? How is increasing diversity in media affecting relationships between funders, filmmakers, and other stakeholders?

What a great question. Yes, there needs to be cultural understanding any time an ethnic story and/or filmmaker is involved. Latinos have traditions that non-Latino Americans may be unaware of or don't understand, yet they need to be sensitive to them. There are also struggles that we face (as do many, if not all other, minority groups) that are forgotten or overlooked by people who are not part of those specific groups. That is why the makeup of all media organizations should start reflecting the true diversity of America. That way, minorities will begin to see themselves reflected in all forms of media. I think we have started to see a major shift now that we have a Black president in office – and it's about time. This increase in diversity should allow for organizations to communicate with each other about programming and issues with sincere connections to the material.

Click here to leave a comment

Trust Issues: Staying True to Your Story Without Burning Bridges

Monday, August 3, 2009
Jack Walsh, National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture (NAMAC)

Jack Walsh is an independent filmmaker and a former public television producer. Currently, he is Co-Director of the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture (NAMAC), a service organization whose mission is to foster and fortify the culture and business of independent media arts. Visit

You’re an advocate for filmmakers, and a filmmaker yourself. Have you ever had to negotiate with a funder over a creative difference?

I’m a big believer in the idea that you follow the story, and if the story changes, you stick with it. It shouldn’t be to fulfill the goals of the funders or any underwriter unless that’s specified in advance. As I see it, one of the values of the Prenups is that it helps both funders and filmmakers specify from the get-go what their expectations are, and who plays what role. I executive produced a film called “Girl Trouble,” which followed four “at-risk” girls in San Francisco for four years. We had a short demonstration reel that we used to pitch the project to foundations. One prospective funder of the film called me and said, “We really like the story and the characters in the reel, but we can’t get behind the title.” I told him that the girls in the program had come up with the title, not the filmmakers, and that the whole idea was to involve the girls in the creation of the film. He said, “We just couldn’t fund something with a title like this.” The film’s directors decided to keep the title, wanting, as I did, to honor the girls’ involvement. We felt we had to be true to our subjects, whether it’s in following their story, or sticking with a title they give us. Even if that meant risking some potential sources of money. That’s my own personal opinion. But everybody’s situation is different.

Your trust with the film’s subjects was primary.

Exactly. And I would add that, for me, the relationship that I develop with audiences is also important. I worked on the “Living Room Festival” on KQED—an independent film series for San Francisco’s PBS affiliate—and if there’s one thing that working in television demonstrated to me, it was that people are much more open to seeing complex films than a lot of funders and television programmers give them credit for. I produced a film called “Screaming Queens,” co-directed by Susan Stryker and Victor Silverman, about a riot by transgendered people at a cafeteria in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district in 1966. This happened three years before the Stonewall riots in New York City, which are commonly seen as the birth of the modern gay rights movement. One of the subjects of that film was a police officer, who, it turns out, ends up being rather heroic, because he came to understand the needs of this very marginalized community. One funder argued that we hadn’t made that character sympathetic early enough in the film. We had an interesting back-and-forth about this issue with the funder. We didn’t want to condescend to the audience by knocking them over the head with this, inserting a little pop-up sign over the cop’s face that said “sympathetic character!” Audiences like to figure stuff out for themselves, it gets them more involved in a film.

You’ve said that trust is an issue in regards to a film’s subjects, and its audiences. What about funders? Do you have to build trust with them?

Without a doubt, yes. You can negotiate a contract to within an inch of your life and try to account for every contingency, but in the end it’s really about developing a good relationship between the two parties. A good relationship is built partly on experience between a given funder and a given filmmaker, as they get to know each other. Part of it is built on instinct, which also develops over time. And part of it is  to know what questions to ask each other and how to communicate. That’s another reason I love the Prenups—it illuminates what you’ve got to talk about to make a good relationship.

Any other advice for funders?

Like any relationship, this is a two-way street. Many filmmakers already do research into funder guidelines. Filmmakers could stand to learn more about the relationships these funders want with work they support.  I’ll leave it to funders to talk about that. But I think funders who are new to media funding should learn about filmmaking, or at least enough to know how to make good decisions about what to fund and who to work with. One way for funders to get educated is to watch films they like, and talk with the filmmakers—ask them questions about why they made particular choices, what obstacle did they encounter in telling their story. It’s best if that’s done completely outside the funding cycle, so there’s not the same kind of pressure. It may also be helpful to review media grant proposals submitted to another funder, so that you can understand how creators approach a topic and how that funder makes decisions. Funders tend to be shy about investing in media, and at this moment film and digital media are the vehicle to communicate most of their messages. I hope the Prenups encourage more of them to get involved.

Click here to leave a comment

Risk, Passion and Impact: What a Business Scholar Sees in Filmmaking

Monday, July 27, 2009
Diana Barrett, The Fledgling Fund

Diana Barrett founded The Fledgling Fund in 2005 after a long career at Harvard University, where she taught in both the Harvard Business School and the School of Public Health. At Harvard Business School, she was a member of the Social Enterprise core group, where she taught Business Leadership in the Social Sector as well as in various executive programs. Her areas of interest at Harvard included the use of public-private partnerships for global poverty reduction, and specifically, in addressing the social and personal burden of diseases such as HIV/AIDS. She received both her Masters her Doctorate in Business Administration from the Harvard Business School. The Fledgling Fund provides an opportunity to further those interests by focusing on innovative approaches to complex social issues including the use of media to ignite social change. In addition to leading The Fledgling Fund, Diana serves on the Boards of the International Center for Photography, the Institute for Philanthropy in the U.K. and the Social Change Film Forum at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Visit

Why did you leave the world of academics and the business sector to work with social issue media?

After teaching for more than 20 years at Harvard University, it became clear that while there were aspects of my job that I really loved - the constant excitement of learning new ideas, meeting new people, trying to figure out how ideas connected, and most important to me personally, how to leverage new ideas and business models to solve social problems - it was time for a change.  I was beginning to feel that teaching represented too slow of a method to achieve. Sometimes while teaching you get a clear sense that you’ve had an impact, an “aha” moment, but more often than not, the excitement and enthusiasm generated in the classroom may take years to translate into social change and is dependent on students becoming change makers themselves.  And, of course, I could not expect all of them to share my goals.

About this same time, I was asked to see some recently completed footage about a group of children in Calcutta who grew up in a brothel, where their mothers were “on the line”.  This of course was Born into Brothels, which The Fledgling Fund supported.  This experience led me to think about how to apply some of the ideas I had taught at Harvard and to use my experience as an educator in a new way.  I began to explore whether and how films and other creative media could be used to further The Fledgling Fund’s core mission of improving the lives of vulnerable individuals, families and communities.  Over the next year or so, I met scores of filmmakers, cinematographers and producers and began to better understand just how complicated this world was and also what extraordinary possibilities existed to use compelling stories as vehicles of social change locally, nationally and internationally. 

How different are filmmakers from your colleagues in your “past life”?

Enormously different in just about every dimension! Filmmakers are artists; they make films because they must – because it is their passion.  Many have chosen social issue films because they become intensely interested in a topic, a problem, a challenge, and hopefully in a solution. Credit cards are maxed-out, friends and family are asked repeatedly for help - because, as I said, the film must be made! My colleagues at Harvard naturally understood the connection between a case or an anecdotal story and the possibility of using that case as a way of exploring issues and working toward solutions, but the impetus for moving forward was often intellectual rather than emotionally driven.  I am not saying that filmmakers are not methodical and intellectual about their craft, but that the drive and the passion I believe comes from a different place.  And yet, as different as their approaches may be, many of the challenges faced by filmmakers today are similar to the complex challenges that exist in other industries.  How does one deal with a rapidly changing environment and new technologies that fundamentally alter business models? How does one obtain the necessary resources to launch a project and then build a sustainable enterprise? 

What have you learned about communicating with filmmakers? Do you have any tips for them about communicating with funders?

I’ve actually had to learn a great deal. As I’ve said, while filmmakers are creative, very smart, artistic and driven, many may not be fully attuned to the way funders approach decisions.  Funders, more often than not, think like businesspeople; they want to see clear goals and a project plan that outlines specific activities and deliverables linked to those goals as well as a specific budget.  Ultimately, a funder wants to know what impact the film or project might have, and might even think in terms of return on investment that is measured in both financial and nonfinancial terms. Sometimes conversations about these issues can be challenging if the funder and filmmaker have different goals and because they often have different language systems.  I see the concept of the “prenup” as useful in bridging this communication gap and making sure everyone is on the same page.

The Prenups attempt to define broad categories of funders (please see Archetypes on pages 6-7 in the Guidelines.) What do you think of our effort? Where on the spectrum would you place Fledgling?

I think the spectrum is useful as a way of giving filmmakers a sense of what a funder’s goal or bottom line is in funding a project.  Although, I would add that Fledgling, and I suspect other funders, don’t fit neatly into one category. In general I would say we fit into the Responsive Strategic Media Funder.

What kind of involvement does Fledgling expect or want to have with grantees?

As Fledgling has evolved, so has our portfolio of creative media projects.  The majority of our funding is focused on outreach and audience engagement strategies for social issue documentary films.  Many of these projects leverage new media, interactive games, and other web-based tools.  Our level of involvement is highly dependent on the project and its needs.  When we take on a project, we consider the level of the financial and other support needed.  In some cases we work intensely with grantees helping them develop innovative and strategic plans for a finished film and outreach campaign. In other cases, we provide feedback, mentoring and input at an earlier stage connecting them to other resources if necessary. In still other cases, we remain involved and track specific benchmarks but don’t play a hands-on role because we have confidence that the grantees have the skills and experience to achieve their goals themselves or they have engaged an organization like Active Voice to assist them.  We want to be sure that each project has the right mix of resources to achieve social impact.

How do you assess social impact?

It is certainly a tough thing to do but we believe it is possible and highly important. We spent the better part of a year developing a framework that lays out how we think about and assess the social impact of our work.  We look at it along several dimensions.  We begin by looking at the quality of the film or media.  Next we track how a project has raised awareness about a key issue, and then more importantly if it has been able to engage individuals in action around this issue.  Moving beyond individual awareness and engagement we think about a project’s ability to strengthen a social movement. All of these dimensions, in our view, are critical building blocks for sustainable positive social change and we have identified some indicators that can be used to measure impact along each dimension. We share this measurement system up front with our grantees and the general public with a paper outlining the framework on our website and have integrated it into our application and reporting processes.  This makes it very clear that we think the social impact of creative media can be assessed and how we plan to work with grantees to assess it.  It helps to ensure that everyone is on the same page from the beginning!

Click here to leave a comment

GEO Proposes: Lessons from the Change Agent Project

Monday, July 20, 2009
Courtney Bourns, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO)

Courtney Bourns is the director of programs at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations. She oversees the development and implementation of programs as the organization continues to expand its work facilitating change in grantmaker practices that support nonprofit results. She has worked with community groups, nonprofit organizations and foundation-nonprofit collaboratives committed to social change, and has led training, facilitation and consulting initiatives in organizational development, strategic planning, and leadership development. Visit

GEO took on something called the Change Agent Project. Why?

The Change Agent Project, which is described in our publication, Listen, Learn, Lead, is very interested in the power dynamic between funders and grantees, and in the broader, untapped potential for creating lasting change as a result of this dynamic. We wanted an approach that would engage grantmakers and nonprofits, recognizing them as both sides of a system, and to ask them, “What are the things that grantmakers could be doing that would make the biggest difference?” And we wanted to hear from the funders as well as the grantees.  We call them change agents in philanthropy – the people who are actually doing their work in genuine partnership. And if you watch what they do, they recognize that philanthropy has this really catalytic potential, and that, if you reach outside your own walls, and you engage and listen to the people who are most affected by the work, then you can be making investments that make a huge difference.

The deeper issue is what we’re calling “stakeholder engagement,” which is really about the way that funders engage their grantees and other stakeholders in helping them determine both their practice and their strategy. The funding process is at risk of being done in isolation. A group of funders can get together and say, “What we are really interested in is ending homelessness.  And we think the best way to go about that would be to fund homeless shelters.” Well, if you make that decision without actually engaging homeless people, and people working with homeless people, and policy makers who can inform your decision, you might be making a decision in a vacuum.  If you engage those folks, you might discover an even more profound way to impact the root causes of homelessness.

I’d like to talk more about this notion of “engaged philanthropy.”  What does that mean to you?

Two things come to mind.  One, it’s about foundations that have their own strategies. There’s a kind of responsive philanthropy that exists, that says, “We have a set of program areas, and we respond to the requests that come in that are in our program areas, and we fund them.” But there’s now a move toward a more strategic kind of philanthropy. Foundations are not just responsive to what strategies their grantees set in a given area, but they’re saying, “We ourselves have a certain set of goals we want to achieve, and we’re going to select grantees who help advance those goals.”

Related to that is that foundations are recognizing that they can’t work in isolation; that, to be effective, they need to engage with those outside their walls, whether it’s their peers in other foundations, their grantees or their potential grantees, to help advise and direct where they’re going. And I think there is a commitment on the part of a lot of funders to try as best they can to level out the power dynamic. There is an increase in more engaged philanthropy, and probably some of that is influenced by the introduction of venture philanthropy to the field in the last 15 years or so. The venture philanthropy model, which draws from the venture capital model, has the investor much more involved in the work of the grantee and in some cases even sitting on the board of the nonprofit that they’ve invested in or helping to develop the strategy that the nonprofit’s going to use. 

With engaged philanthropy, do you observe pitfalls?  Do you have a sense of what needs attention?

There is a risk that the foundation starts to take over, get too operational.  And I think some nonprofits feel uncomfortable with that kind of relationship. Having somebody from their funding institution sitting on their board feels like an invasion, somehow, or they fear that they will kowtow too much to their funder if they’re actually that deeply engaged in a strategy setting. The grantee worries that because of the power dynamic, the funder will have a stronger voice than others. 

But I think it can be responsibly done. If there’s a good relationship built, and there are some clear prenups in place, it can work well, because the engagement demonstrates a real depth of commitment on the part of the funder.

And there’s a whole spectrum of funder participation, of ways the funder can engage with the project.

There is a real spectrum. And I think it requires a level of consciousness on the part of the funder to select the most appropriate level of engagement. This includes being aware of the power dynamic.  I think the funder is the one who has to keep raising the issue.

Is that common?

I think the enlightened grantmaker does do that, yes.  I don’t know about “common.”

So is engagement emerging as something that’s embraced by the field?

Yes, and I think that GEO has the opportunity to provide some spearheading because within our community are some of the innovative grantmakers who model these practices.  We talk to them, we hear what they’re saying, and we then try to amplify, to turn them into a little bit more of a tidal wave.

Most of our readers work with film, and we know from our interviews that many have experienced more “engaged” grantmaking. I’m wondering what you might advise both parties in those situations to do before they, as we say, tie the knot.

Well, I think what the Prenups have outlined is exactly the way to go.  I think you have to have a set of conversations to explicitly discuss expectations, and then also be willing to check back in throughout the process in a proactive way, to see how it’s going and how things are developing.

I think that the filmmaker does need to be clear that the funder is a stakeholder, and they do have a right to an opinion as well, although they shouldn’t be able to direct the whole thing.  They really need to honor the knowledge and wisdom of the person who’s leading it. But I think that the filmmaker is smart to keep the funder engaged and aware of how things are evolving, and to give them some discreet opportunities for input. That way they can avoid getting to the end of the project and hearing the funder say, “What did you do?  We’re taking back our money.”

It happens.

It does happen. It’s very awkward, particularly where issues of personal expression are concerned.  But no program officer that I can imagine wants to say, “Yes, we funded this, but the message isn’t what we want, and now we’re really unhappy, and we don’t want anybody to see this.  We want to take our name off of it.” It can sound like censorship.  It can sound like too much control.  It’s really a conundrum. So that’s why bringing issues up in a safe, proactive, and anticipatory way is useful.

If you’re working with a funder who hasn’t funded this kind of project before, I think that would probably be the riskiest terrain, because they don’t know what they’re getting into and they don’t know where the pitfalls can be. I would say there has to be willingness on the part of the filmmaker in that case to take the initiative to say, “Look, here’s what I’ve seen happen to other filmmakers who have collaborated with funders.” 

And that’s where I think your project is really helpful because it can say, “This is how this works at its best.  This is what this relationship could ideally look like.  Here’s how I will be.  Here’s how you can be.  If you want it to look different than that, this is a good time for us to talk about that or to not get married.” If you’re going to need that much control, and I’m a filmmaker who can’t work under those conditions – I don’t want that kind of relationship, I need more creative rein – then I should probably marry somebody else.

I would love for filmmakers to say what you just said. But because of the power dynamic, it’s not easy.

That’s right. But if you can really understand the interests of the person funding the project, then you can at least have an honest conversation about whether or not you can meet those interests.

Is there anything else that occurs to you about this relationship or how we could apply some of GEO’s learning to the filmmaker/funder community?

I’m struck by the similarity between the kinds of conversations we have and what you are up to with the Prenups. The goal is for the funder and the person doing the work – whether it’s a filmmaker or a nonprofit leader – to really see themselves as being on the same side of the table. We talk about that a lot in the GEO community: You’re on the same side of the table focused on achieving something together. And if both people are clear about their roles and clear about the thing they’re trying to achieve, then there’s an element of staying out of each other’s way and letting each partner do their piece to move toward that vision. It feels like we would be able to accomplish so much more if we could shift in that way.
And I do think people are more inspired by, “Here’s a vision of what’s possible.  Here’s the way this could look if people play their roles effectively.” That tends to be more motivating than, “Don’t do this.  And don’t do that. And your filmmaker will hate you if you do that.” I think you’ve done a really nice job with the Prenups initiative of setting out the vision.

Do you hear of increasing interest in media from your members?

I think culturally, especially with YouTube and everything else, that we are so attracted now to that medium for getting a message across.  And I think funders are definitely getting on board with that. 

Click here to leave a comment

Cinema for Change - On egos, agendas and impact

Monday, July 13, 2009
Jeremy Kagan, The Change Making Media Lab (CMML)

Jeremy Kagan is an international and Emmy award winning director, writer and producer of feature films and television. He teaches narrative directing at the graduate School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California and is the founder of the Change Making Media Lab, whose mandate is research into effective cinematic techniques to help organizations use the cinematic arts to achieve health, sustainability, and social justice. He produced and directed the 10-part series the ACLU Freedom Files in 2006. His feature films include The Chosen, winner of the Grand Prix Montreal Festival and Christopher Award, the box-office hit Heroes, the political thriller The Big Fix, The Journey of Natty Gann, winner of the Gold Prize at the Moscow Film Festival, the comedy Big Man on Campus and the 2007 hybrid feature Golda's Balcony.  He has an Emmy for his television directing and among the numerous TV movies he wrote, produced and directed are Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8, which won a Cable Ace Award, and his TV movie Crown Heights, which won the Humanitas Award and NACCP Award in 2004. Visit

How did you get started working in film, and what was your driving interest?

My interest initially was to investigate how film could be used to make a constructive difference in the world. I was an idealist then and in many ways I still am.  But I thought I first needed to know how to make a movie, in order to be able to study how to use it. And as I began making film from animation to documentaries and experimental dramatic shorts I found that I was good at it and loved the process. And I’ve been making movies ever since. I’ve been lucky that a lot of the fiction films I’ve made under the Hollywood system have been about both political and social issues. I’ve been able to have a career that, even within the mainstream, deals with challenging issues to see if the media can indeed effect changes in people’s consciousness.

So, where does the Change Making Media Lab fit in?

The Change Making Media Lab is an evolution of this interest in film as service and it is devoted to researching the effects of specific cinematic elements on specific audiences. One of the issues that I find true with a lot of advocacy filmmaking is that everybody out there is reinventing the wheel. Or they’re copying a square wheel, rather than looking in depth at what the actual effects are of specific cinematic tools on specific audiences. The lab is trying to help filmmakers be able to really understand and analyze their tools – story approaches, casting, shooting styles, editing techniques, music usage – so that when they go out to create various pieces, they are making them with at least a qualifiable if not a quantifiable analysis of the cinematic elements they’re using.

Can you give an example of something CMML is researching?

Issues of authenticity. Who do you believe when someone tells you something in a film, whether the film is factual or dramatic?  Do you believe the experts, the celebrities, the dramatic actors, the person on the street, a comic, a cartoon character?  And why do you believe them? And what will be the different effect if you have the same message being presented by 5 or 6 different types of “authority” figures – which are the ones that are effective with various audiences? These are the kinds of questions that need to be studied. We are making a series of short pieces about the same subject using different testimony approaches and then evaluating their effects. This is one of our projects.

You’ve said that a social scientist can tell you the kind of film that will reach people, but only the audience can tell you if your method is working.

Know your audience.  I think the issue of who are you reaching and how you’re reaching them is essential. And because of the variety of ways people get information now, these different contexts need to be taken into account. For example, if I’m going to watch something on my computer, at my time, in my space, what’s the difference in terms of its effect versus watching it on TV or in a theater? What are the aspects of having a captive audience versus an audience that is out of our control? I don’t think anyone honestly has definitive answers on this, it really is new. The turmoil of the web and its effectiveness as a distribution network is literally up in the air.

What’s your strategy for keeping in touch with what the audience wants? Does the audience ever complicate the funder-filmmaker relationship?

Knowing up front who you are talking to is absolutely important for the funder-filmmaker relationship.  And being able to evaluate their response is essential to knowing the effectiveness of what we do. The problem is that we are often making one piece about the subject and this means we get the audience once and then everybody moves on.  You expose an audience to something potentially new and significant and for a moment they are affected, but an hour later, watching something else, they may have forgotten what you just showed them.  And after seeing your film, are people actually doing things because of it?

You’re not going to know how your audience is going to respond until you’ve actually made the piece. That’s the nature of filmmaking, it’s evolutionary. Where you start and think you’re going to finish is certainly not where you often do finish. Knowing this then requires building trust and I think that’s one of the ideas that’s in the Prenups– trust between funder and filmmaker.  You have to start from here. Each accepting the skills and knowledge of the other. To try to then add your assumption of how your audience is going to respond and shift your work accordingly certainly makes the work more difficult.

Too many cooks in the kitchen?

Yes, at that point it’s no longer film by committee, it’s film by a city, and at that point I’m not sure you’re going to get anything but a traffic jam.

What do funders and filmmakers need to be mindful of as the film evolves?

The funder knows all about the issues. They’ve spent years on this particular problem. Now the filmmaker joins in and uses her artistry to create something; and the funder then looks at it and somehow it doesn’t affect them. But it may not affect them because they’re too close to it. They don’t have the perspective of somebody who’s never seen anything about the subject or certainly far less than the funder. But the funder from his point of view looks at the film and is not touched by it and then thinks: “Oh, this doesn’t work.” Yet they may be quite wrong. It may very well move and inspire the people they want to reach. The funder’s familiarity with the subject matter may give them a prejudice toward the way they are going to see the final product.

That’s an interesting consideration – the funder’s visceral, emotional expectations.

It’s reminding the funder, “you know everything about this – I’m not going to surprise you.” They know all the facts, so it’s not new for them. They may not realize it’s working because they’re not seeing it with fresh eyes. We need to acknowledge that possibility.

And, the funder’s needs are sometimes going to change in the filmmaking process. I think it’s important for the filmmakers to know that can happen as well. The funders may want to put out a different message once they see what they initially asked for.

So it’s important to recognize that the process is dynamic on both sides?

Exactly. And if you do recognize the malleabilityof the process, and your ego isn’t enormously tied into it, and you appreciate that it’s a living process, then I think you can do fine. But I also think you do really need to respect each other’s purviews. The funder should be respected for the message that they want to get out. The filmmaker should be respected for their storytelling abilities and not second-guessed by the funder. That’s the problem most of us end up in agony over: the funder second-guesses the filmmaker, she doesn’t really trust the filmmaker’s artistry, and thinks, “I can do this, too.” And that’s the part that’s always going to be the potentially prickly place. Unless the funder says to the filmmaker, you have final cut, you have final authority to get our message out. If that’s the agreement, then you’re okay. But on the other hand, the filmmaker who has final cut should be really respectful of the input that the funder may give them after they’ve shown their work. The funder may say, you just didn’t get the message across. And sometimes the filmmaker doesn’t get the message across. They get lost in their filmmaking and forget it has a purpose of service.

You started your career in Hollywood. Does Hollywood use prenups?

The Hollywood system has an order to it, sometimes. There is constant dialogue going on between the funder – in this case the studio, the producing organization – and the filmmaker. And power is pretty well defined in terms of roles. For example, from the script phase forward there will be this conversation that goes back and forth between filmmaker and funder, and then there will be an agreement: this is what we’re going to shoot. The production process is usually more in the hands of the filmmaker unless the filmmaker goes over budget. But because of the increasing fear and money issues in Hollywood, a lot more control has been going back to the financiers.

Now that you’ve moved into more advocacy work, can you give an example of how the process is different?

Right now, I’m editing a piece for an organization that I believe in. I asked if I could help them by using cinema. They had no money so I raised money independently and made some short pieces for them. After the pieces were made, because they were such sticklers for the way they wanted the information to come out, they wanted lots of changes. And I spent time in dialogue with them trying to remind them that their audience was going to be first-timers to this material. In some cases I was able to convince them of it. It was a fascinating exchange because I was so impressed with the work that they were doing that I wanted to be of service; at the same time, I was trying to get them to understand that my service was utilizing the skills of emotional filmmaking, if you will, to distinguish from just making a factual reflection of rather complex ideas. So it was a negotiation in which, in this case, I had more control because I had funded it. But at the same time it was their issue and since I was trying to really help them, I needed to listen to them and I made changes suggested by them.

What did you learn in Hollywood that you’ve been able to apply to advocacy and NGO production work?

I think the most important thing is to have honest conversations with everybody to know what everybody’s agenda is. And to do this,  I think the Prenups are an excellent guide before you actually go into production. It can help defuse hidden agendas. And that’s very important to look at, because often there are hidden agendas. I’ve noticed repeatedly that when I’ve had these conversations early on I’ve been able to be far more effective in defusing what could have been really problematic.

The one thing that I do keep pushing is the recognition of everybody’s egos. What’s fascinating to me is the process of “who’s right?” – that’s the challenge, for the funder, for the filmmaker, even for the audience. The Prenups talks a little bit about this but I think it needs to be talked about more. Because a lot of the dialogue is not about the effectiveness of what you’re making, but about who’s right. So we need to develop a different conversation – “let’s try to step outside our own egos, let’s try to be as objective as we can” – and this can lead to a conversation where we may both find ways to help each other get what we both agree is our intended goal. I think it’s really important to understand that a lot of this is personal psychology, as distinguished from professional exchange.

You’re a professor at USC. As you look to this generation of young filmmakers, what’s the most important message you want to convey to your students?

What I would like to convey to my students now is that there is an alternative way to use the training they’re getting. My students, particularly at USC, come here because it is a gateway to the business. And what I’m most interested in their getting is: there is another way to use the skills to benefit the world we live in. That’s one of the reasons why I established the Change Making Media Lab at USC specifically. As we move ahead, I am looking forward to CMML becoming a training place for filmmakers to do this kind of advocacy work. Dramatic as well as documentary.

Do you feel like more and more funders are there to back those kinds of projects?

The truth is, I don’t know. That’s something that we’re about to discover. Ask me in 6 months!

Click here to leave a comment

Getting Engaged - What funders and filmmakers see in long term commitments

Monday, July 6, 2009
Kevin Bolduc, Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP)

Kevin Bolduc is the Vice President of Assessment Tools at the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP). CEP’s mission is to provide data and create insight so philanthropic funders can better define, assess, and improve their effectiveness and impact. Visit


How did you get involved in the Center for Effective Philanthropy?

I’ve been with CEP since its founding in 2001. For me, CEP raised a fascinating conundrum, which is how does a funding organization determine whether it’s effective—considering that it exists outside of any sort of competitive dynamic, there hasn’t been a lot of research done, there are big power dynamics between grantmakers and grant-seekers, and there isn’t any formalized funding market. So we help funders define, assess and improve their work. We provide data and insight to aid them in answering the simple—but difficult—question, “How are we doing?”

How do you do that? It sounds pretty scientific.

Our theory of change is that, in order to be effective funders need clear goals, coherent and well-implemented strategies, and relevant performance indicators. We bring quantitative metrics and theories to philanthropy, but it is still an art. There are aspects of grantmaking that are all about relationships, trust, fairness, faith, and communication beyond what is explicitly written down. That’s how I think the Prenups can help—they create a structure for funders and filmmakers to communicate about these more slippery issues. By communicating, funders can meet their social impact goals, and filmmakers can meet their artistic goals.

I suspect that a lot of filmmakers would want funders to hand over the money and let them have their independence.

Our research suggests otherwise. We’ve surveyed tens of thousands of grantees who have received money from of all kinds of funders in every field, all around the country. They want engaged relationships with funders. According to our research, the top three indicators of grantee satisfaction are that the funder has expertise in the field, has high-quality relations with grantees—they’re responsive and approachable—and that there’s a clarity and consistency of communications. There are limits to the kind of involvement grantees want from funders, of course. But the more clearly you as a grantee understand what the funder wants to accomplish and how you fit into that, the less they have to “manage” you. It makes for a more fair and honest interaction with the grantmaker.

One of the main ways that grantees communicate with funders is through interim or final reports. What does your research say about reporting?

Our data suggest that the vast amount of reporting on a grant—no matter the size of the grant—takes an average of about 10 hours per year. It may be different with filmmakers, I don’t know. Granted, that adds up if you’re supported by numerous funders. Grantees tell us that the real pain that’s associated with reporting is that it’s boring and mundane. And one reason why reports are so frustrating for grant recipients is that it’s often unclear how they reports are used—it’s like they’re sent off into the void! The most powerful thing a funder can do is to have a conversation with the grantee about what they said in their report—so the funder can help the grantee with strategic planning, referrals or other resources to deal with the challenges they’re facing.

You said that grantmakers can help filmmaker grantees. Can filmmakers help grantmakers?

Certainly. If more foundations worked with filmmakers, they might learn how better to communicate about what their other grantees are doing, and about their own programs, goals, and strategies. Grantees are the folks doing the work, but foundations learn in the process. They can identify big issues and look across a field and think through new strategies and solutions. So we as a society benefit from learning what foundations do. But the fact is, most foundations have not been very good at communicating about their work. Most people can’t even name a single foundation, let alone describe examples of contributions foundations have made to society. Successful filmmakers are media professionals, they know how to touch a core with a film audience. And so foundations have a lot to learn from them about how to communicate. If the Prenups can help foster those kind of relationships, then all the better.

Click here to leave a comment
1  2  

Download the Prenups
Top Questions to Ask

Featured Posts

Hybrids, Relationships and Staying on Message: Thoughts from a Communications Expert

Trust Issues: Staying True to Your Story Without Burning Bridges

The Rise of Relevance: On Participatory Funding and Ethnic Media

From Prenups to “Postnups”: Where a Funding Guru Sees Opportunity in an Era of Engagement

It Takes Two (at least): Participant Media’s Director of Documentary Production on Creativity and Communications

Cinema for Change - On egos, agendas and impact

GEO Proposes: Lessons from the Change Agent Project

Risk, Passion and Impact: What a Business Scholar Sees in Filmmaking

Relationships in a Time of Flux

Getting Engaged - What funders and filmmakers see in long term commitments

Reel Relationships - On risks, respect, and really getting to know your funder/filmmaker partners

The "Other" Conversation - Candor and straight talk between grantmakers and grantees in love

Beyond "Cool" - Multimedia planning for funders and filmmakers

Dearly Beloved...


Ellen Schneider, Active Voice

Wendy Levy, Bay Area Video Coalition

Jan Jaffe, GrantCraft

Tina DiFeliciantonio, Naked Eye Productions Ltd.

Claire Aguilar, Independent Television Service (ITVS)

Kevin Bolduc, Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP)

Jeremy Kagan, The Change Making Media Lab (CMML)

Courtney Bourns, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO)

Diana Barrett, The Fledgling Fund

Jack Walsh, National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture (NAMAC)

Luis Ortiz, Latino Public Broadcasting (NPB)

Morrie Warshawski, Arts Consultant/Writer

Courtney Sexton, Participant Media

Bruce S. Trachtenberg (Communications Network)

Alyce Myatt, Grantmakers in Film + Electronic Media (GFEM)


September - 2009
August - 2009
July - 2009
June - 2009
    © Copyright 2009.   Contact Us   Disclaimer    Login.