Documentary funding can be a bit of a black box. Who gets funding and why certain projects get backed while other apparently strong projects are left by the wayside is a reliable topic for heated discussion whenever any two independent producers meet.
The goal posts always seem to be shifting. Funding decisions are inevitably subjective, often political, and producers must chart a route through a seemingly byzantine application process to grasp what looks like an increasingly slender slice of the funding pie.
So it’s always helpful to get an idea, from the horse’s mouth, of what exactly those holding the purse strings are looking for.
This past Sunday (5th May), a panel of executive producers at the annual DOXA documentary festival in Vancouver, Canada, provided some broad brush strokes on the current funding landscape. Given the hour-and-a-quarter panel was part of the two-day DOXA industry forum, it was skewed to local emerging and mid-career documentary producers in Western Canada. But some of the advice and caveats about pitching your project would apply to producers in general, irrespective of geography.
(Note: to open links in this article in a new window hold down the shift key)
The panel of five women (there were no men) consisted of three Western Canadian executive producers, Sheila Peacock from the CBC, Shirley Vercruysse from the NFB, and Christina Willings from Telus, a telecoms company that has moved in recent years into content development.
Christine Chiu, an analyst from Creative BC, provided information about how her government agency provides additional “trigger funding” for projects that already have some financing in place.
The event was chaired by Cari Green, a documentary producer of many years (she worked on The Corporation and Scared Sacred).
Willings talked first about Telus Originals, which are broadcast to over 1 million plus Telus Optik customers, on the web, and other outlets. She said that she commissions work from filmmakers with an established track record and often those who have been through the Telus Storyhive funding process once or twice.
Telus launched its quasi crowd-sourced online model Storyhive in 2013, and has since funded hundreds of short films in 17 rounds or what it calls “editions” of documentaries, web series, animation, music videos, and immersive content.
BC and Albertan emerging producers are currently competing to win one of thirty $50,000 grants for the 2019 Storyhive documentary edition. It closes for pitches today (the winners from 2018 are here). Documentaries are from 20 to 60 minutes long and require the producer satisfying a list of pre-requisites to qualify for funding, from production team make-up and the right materials for the online pitch through to where you live in Alberta and BC.
This year, half the projects are commissioned based on the amount of user votes received during the pitch showcase stage of the competition and the other half of projects are chosen by jury.
Willings described Storyhive as “a soft entry into broadcast”.
She emphasised that Telus originals can’t have other Canadian broadcasters on board initially, although Telus does like the co-production model for attracting international funding partners (she cited, as an example, the Chicago Media Fund). It means Telus's bigger budget, longer-form documentaries are being made with budgets upwards of $400,000 with some now moving up to the $1 million mark.
Importantly, the filmmaker retains IP and can sell the second window on project delivery.
NFB is "not a funder"
Shirley Vercruysse pointed out that while she is also on the look-out for strong BC and Yukon documentary and animation projects, the NFB is not a funder but a public producer and distributor. The NFB may take on the sole role of producer or work on a co-production basis with outside production companies.
She cited a current production the Whale and the Raven which is a co-pro between the NFB, BC filmmakers Andrew Meyer and Henrik Meyer, and a German company Busse & Halberschmidt.
The closest the government agency gets to distributing funding is in the form of the Filmmaker Assistance Programme (FAP) which provides $4,000 or $5,000 in support services to five projects to help projects over the production finish line.
Naturally, the NFB producer's website is a good starting point for any application. All the details are there, explaining the format of initial project proposals, and you can get a good sense of what the NFB is looking for and what is currently in production.
Vercruysse pointed out that the NFB has seen a big growth in the genre tab so check it out.
Vercruysse said the process of making a film with the NFB typically takes two to three years starting with an “investigate” where you are given a small amount of funding to develop the idea and to see if it has legs. If it’s deemed to be promising it moves on to a development stage and then on to production stage.
Because the NFB production timeline is quite long Vercruysse said they are looking for projects that cover areas or themes that are not out there already.
Sheila Peacock also suggested the first port of call for those seeking funding is the CBC’s producer’s website.
There is a wide range of content from short-form to longer documentaries, multimedia (photo-essays) and podcasts that the CBC is looking for from indie producers.
The key documentary component that Peacock handles is as the Executive Producer for Absolutely Canadian in BC and Alberta. She commissions six 45 min (TV-hour) documentary, music, and comedy programs with funding ranging from $5-15k. for “non-news, regional/local programming that is entertaining and innovative”.
Of course, there’s not much you can do with $5,000 or even $15,000.
That’s where Christine Chiu of Creative BC comes in.
Creative BC doesn’t commission specific projects, the government agency matches funding from other sources, such as the CBC or Telus with its Project Development Fund.
The criteria for qualifying BC film projects is outlined in detail on the Creative BC web site, but the main thing is that the funding is “market triggered”, meaning that you have to have another funder on board first (Creative BC calls them “triggering agents”).
The various Triggering Agents are described as such:
- "An arm’s length bona fide distribution entity (Canadian and international distributors)
- National Film Board of Canada (NFB co-productions only; 100% owned and controlled NFB productions are not eligible)
- A licensed public or private broadcaster (Canadian and international broadcasters)
- Over the top (OTT) subscription based services (Netflix, CraveTV, Amazon, Hulu, Youtube Red originals, VimeoOn-Demand originals)
- The Harold Greenberg Fund
- Telus Originals
- Telefilm Canada Feature Film Fund (CFFF) Development Program"
Creative BC provides a non-recoupable development advance that is 50% of the budget, up to $10,000 for individual projects (e.g. $7,500 for a $15,000 budget). Funding is allocated to qualifying projects on a first come first served basis til the funding pot is empty. Funding for television series uses the same formula with a $20,000 cap.
The agency also runs various other related funding programs. For example, it provides funds of $1,000 and $2,000 for filmmakers to travel and sell their completed projects to film festivals where there is a marketplace (for example, Realscreen West, MIFA) through its Passport to Markets program.
The panel finished with a discussion about what makes a good pitch. There’s been plenty of words, even whole books, written about this but ultimately it comes down to the strength of the project and, if you plan on producing it, your ability to show that you are the person to tell the story.
Willings said she likes “a succinct pitch” that answers three questions: Why this story? Why now? Why you? The pitch should include an outline budget.
Each organisation's web site has full details about the format and materials they require.
Willings stressed the importance of the project having an authentic voice. Somebody who has lived in the community and can speak for that community.
There are some things that commissioning editors will never fund - for example, an aboriginal project that doesn’t have an aboriginal filmmaker in a key position.
The Telus stream is less concerned about overtly commercial fare. “We don’t have to deliver eyeballs,” said Willings. “I like to call this NFB-lite. There’s a lot more freedom for creativity.”
Should you budget for 4k? Willings said all projects should be shot on 4k, particularly as 4k delivery is an essential selling point of the Telus's TV package.
Vercruysse advised going 4k to “future-proof” your film, but if 4k is not possible, HD is still acceptable for the NFB. It’s the story that counts, she reiterated.
It was interesting to note that email still matters. In the past, I’ve heard executive producers talk about how they never get round to answering their emails and it seemed anything sent by email would just evaporate into the ether. Not so, we heard. No doubt due to the overwhelming nature of social media interactions and improvements in spam control on email over the years, concise and clear emails are in favour (at least, with this panel).
An explanatory email is a good start said Sheila Peacock. She advised against a rambling telephone message.
Emails may not get a fast response (at busy times it may take weeks rather than days) but Peacock stressed she does respond to her emails.
Then if she is interested in the project, “we’ll have a conversation". It could be meeting for coffee (if you’re nearby) or a telephone/video-conference call. "It’s not a pitch,” she added. This early stage seems to be really sounding out whether the funder can work with the producer and getting to grips with the specifics of the project - what you are asking for and what you need.
Peacock pointed out that it’s vital that the producer is open and honest at all times with her.
“Do not lie to me. Do not hide anything from me.”
Got a piece of footage that’s not rights cleared? Then she needs to know about it, she said, and not 24 hours before the show airs on CBC.
She reminded the audience that the CBC has teams of highly detailed-orientated people who can help spot and solve potential problems such as legal and rights issues.
Willings added that when you have that initial meeting with that executive producer don’t come with five or six projects because it just seems like you are throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. Come with one project that you feel strongly about.
Above all, the whole panel stressed, do some research into the organisation you are pitching beforehand. You can find information about projects the CBC, NFB and Telus have funded and projects that they are looking for with a quick web search.
“Please have an understanding of what we do,” pleaded Willings.