“If you would like to know the value of money,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, “go and try to borrow some.” Never has this observation been more true than in trying to keep the arts afloat – especially filmmaking – in a rapidly sinking economy. Although the trades still tout star salaries in the millions and producers continue to spare no expense in bringing bold, splashy eye-candy to the silver screen, the reality is that if a script can´t promise from the first page to recoup its investment at the box office, a rejection is easier to justify than a gamble.
Just as the downsizing at traditional publishing houses has fostered a proliferation of ebook, small press, and print-on-demand entities, the film industry is witnessing a dramatic increase in do-it-yourself entrepreneurs with a strong enough vision to raise the capital, borrow the equipment, and recruit their family and friends as actors and crew to bring their movie projects to life. Despite what we´ve all heard from childhood that “money doesn´t grow on trees”, author and fundraising expert Morrie Warshawski (http://www.warshawski.com) contends the opposite – that you just have to know which ones to shake vigorously and persistently enough for a positive result.
Shaking the Money Tree taps Morrie´s extensive knowledge on how to not only get total strangers as excited about your script as you are but also open their checkbooks and help it to get made.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: Let´s start out by looking at how you first got started in the fundraising biz and evolved into what many of your clients now label a “financing guru.”
A: I became an expert in fundraising completely by default and out of necessity. I was never really any good with money, and before running my first nonprofit – a modern dance company – I had never done any fundraising or bookkeeping. I was trained as a poet and attended the Graduate Writers´ Workshop at the University of Iowa. I used to go to the bank once a year and have them close out my account and open up a new one just so I could balance my checkbook! I learned about money – counting it, handling it, asking for it – because I needed to make my organizations survive. When I left teaching I became Executive Director of three nonprofit arts organizations – two in Portland, Oregon and one in San Francisco. Each organization had a bigger deficit than the one before when I was hired (which the Boards conveniently failed to mention), and I became known as the guy who could save a place through fundraising. While working in the trenches, I got exceptionally good at grantsmanship – the art of dancing with a funder, seducing them with your project and your personality, and then writing a dynamite grant proposal.
Q: How has the fundraising landscape changed in the past 20 years?
A: OMG – the changes have been dramatic! Technology, the Internet, the economy, generation shifts – these have all played major roles. I remember “back in the day” when an independent documentary filmmaker would bag a couple of grants from private foundations and the government (typically the National Endowment for the Arts or the National Endowment for the Humanities), create a 16mm film (remember those?), and then make a decent living off educational sales to schools who would show the work for years using a projector. Now, you have to cobble together many different sources of support to complete a film. Once it´s done and out into the world, there are many different markets where it can be sold but almost all of them have a very small margin of net return. This means you have to sell hundreds or thousands more copies to receive the same income you used to get from just a few sales 30 years ago. The big shifts have been cable television, videocassettes, then DVDs, then the Internet replete with digital distribution opportunities, social media, and crowdfunding. Meanwhile, the accessibility of technology and lower cost to enter the field have more people creating media than ever before…and all vying for the same funds.
Q: With funding sources for the arts being squeezed dry, applying for grants an exercise in wishful thinking?
A: First, let´s contextualize this a bit. On the foundation front, the last 10 years before the recession saw a tremendous increase both in the number of private foundations and in the total corpus of funds they had available. Even with the economy coming back up, it´s going to take a while for them to recoup their losses. What we need to remember is that their numbers are still better than they were a decade ago. If a filmmaker is heavily dependent on fundraising from foundations and government agencies, his or her efforts are going to take much longer than they normally would because of escalating and tougher competition. Only the smartest filmmakers with the best projects will make it through. Foundations and government agencies, however, aren´t the only routes for support. Savvy indies realize they need a fundraising plan which also includes tapping corporations, small businesses, individuals (through donations at houseparties, direct mail and Internet appeals, one-on-one asks, etc.), and possibly including some investment monies, too. For foundations the best place to look is at a local branch of the Foundation Center which maintains cooperating libraries all over the US (http://foundationcenter.org). Almost every funder has its own website now where you can find guidelines, information on past grantees, and usually an online application form.
Q: Does a film or video project have to have a “social conscience” to better its odds of getting financial support (i.e., a documentary) or can it just be entertaining?
A: If a project is looking for tax-deductible charitable donations, then it has the widest and deepest field of possible support if there´s an underlying social and/or educational message. Keep in mind that donations are a values exchange; people will give money to your project because it represents and amplifies a set of values they hold very dear. One can hope that a project can do this and also be entertaining! Conversely, funders have a misguided notion/assumption that “entertaining” projects are probably commercial enough not to need support. That´s why independent narrative features almost always have to get equity investments instead of charitable donations, even though there are very long odds against their ever going into profit. When a filmmaker brings me a project that looks like it´s simply entertainment and they want to get donations, I ask them to identify the film´s core themes, the values it exemplifies, and its main message, then try to see if there isn´t a way it can be used in educational settings along with a study guide. Voilá! You suddenly have a project that has a better chance at getting donations. Another thing to keep in mind is that a project can have a foot in both worlds – investments and donations. Many of the projects I´ve seen recently have a for-profit and a non-profit component.
Q: What kind of track record does a grants applicant have to have in the eyes of a review committee?
A: There´s a very simple equation I apply to this question: The more money you want and the bigger your project, the more important it is for you and your crew to have a list of major accomplishments and projects that have garnered awards and raised lots of money. The less money you need, the less important these things are. Very few funders like to take a risk and give money to unknowns who have not already proven themselves. That´s one reason there are virtually no grants out there for student filmmakers. That´s why I urge all emerging and young filmmakers to include individuals on their crews who are seasoned and well respected in the field and by funders. At the very least, get a mentor to sign on as an advisor to your project. You´ll increase your chances for funding, and you´ll learn a lot.
Q: How and why does comportment play such a significant role in the career development path of screenwriters and filmmakers?
A: It´s huge! It took me years to learn that having a great project isn´t enough to garner great support. The funder must learn to love and respect you and love the project you are pitching. You and your project – in that order. That´s why the whole first chapter of my book Shaking The Money Tree: The Art of Getting Grants and Donations for Independent Film and Video (Michael Wiese Productions, Publisher) is devoted to that very topic. I make every client I work with create a mission statement, articulate their core values, and think about their vision for the future. These are the very first things we discuss before talking about fundraising and their proposals. Why? Because independent filmmaking is a very tough “business” – much more business than art. If you want to make it through the many rejections that lie ahead, and the years of fundraising for projects, you need to have a serious sense of why you´re doing it. Funders can quickly sense from you comportment whether or not you´re serious and if they feel any wavering or hesitation, they´ve got a long line of other filmmakers standing right behind you that they´d rather work with.
Q: What are some of the biggest mistakes that applicants make in preparing an application and proposal?
A: One huge mistake is the “shotgun” approach where the filmmaker writes one generic proposal and shoots it out to many different funders. You have to rewrite and tailor your proposal to each funder´s particular requirements and needs. Another mistake is to submit a “letter of inquiry” prior to submitting a full proposal. Many funders request you do this but it´s primarily an expedient system for sorting through and eliminating potential applicants from applying in the first place. The problem is that many funders say they don´t fund media but when presented with the right project by the right filmmaker they´re likely to ignore their own guidelines. This will never happen with a letter of inquiry when a secretary has instructions to send an automatic rejection to any letter that mentions film or media of any form. This leads me to another mistake – not talking to the funder first. You can significantly increase your chances of getting a grant by contacting and talking with the funder prior to writing a proposal.
Q: What are your top three tips to aspiring screenwriters and filmmakers for persuading someone to say “yes” and write them a check?
1. Create a dynamic, compelling, passionate, lucid 20-second pitch about your project.
2. When you ask someone for support, look them in the eye, ask directly for a specific amount, and then shut up – the next person who speaks loses!
3. Be authentic.
Q: So how much detail should go into the budget portion of a fundraising proposal?
A: You need to be prepared to give the funder as much detail as they request in the proposal. This means you should always have a complete and very detailed budget on hand in case you´re asked for it as well as a one-page summary budget so people can see the full scope of the project at a glance. I advice having footnotes for any item in the budget that might raise a red flag. And, I like my clients to create a project income budget too.
Q: Is it better to ask for more than you actually want and then settle for an amount that´s closer to the reality of the project or to ask multiple grants sources for smaller amounts and then try to roll them all together?
A: The truth is that there are only a small handful of funders who could fully fund a project (i.e., Independent Television Service, National Endowment for the Humanities, Corporation for Public Broadcasting). You should not ask for too much – these funders know a lot about film budgets. However, it´s just as big a mistake to ask for too little! Don´t assume a funder is more likely to fund you if you lowball items. The most common scenario is that you must hobble together funds from multiple sources before you have all the money you need for a project. With each of these proposals, your budget should be realistic for the activity you propose. I like to have my clients create an “ideal” budget – one that they shop around – and a “worst case scenario” budget they never show to anyone but which outlines the lowest amount they´re willing to live with and still create a project they can be proud of. One simple rule is that when you approach individuals for support you can ask for a bit more than what you think they could give and be okay, but with all other funders you should ask for just the right amount in their comfort zone and not for more or for less.
Q: Let´s talk about your earlier book, The Fundraising Houseparty: How to Party with a Purpose and Raise Money for Your Cause. We´re so socially conditioned not to ask people for money – much less put them on the spot in a public setting –wouldn´t a phone call or a solicitation letter better fit most folks´ comfort zone?
A: In fundraising, the single most effective way to get a donation is to do a one-on-one ask in person. No other form of fundraising comes close to that strategy. After that, my vote is the houseparty – a method that absolutely does work if they´re done right. For one thing, you as the filmmaker aren´t asking for money at the party; this task falls to the host of a peer of the people in attendance. The awkwardness of the ask is also removed because everyone who chooses to attend the party has already been told they´ll be asked for a donation. That´s why you must invite three or four times as many people as you want to have attend. Many people will RSVP “no” but those who do come are already ready to donate. The result is that usually 70 percent of the people who show up end up writing a check.
Q: Any other advice you´d like to impart about fundraising strategies in tough times?
A: Take a long term view. When the economy is down, take that opportunity to sharpen your skills in fundraising, and to deepen relationships you already have and, thus, lay the groundwork for an ask when the time is right. Stop thinking about an “audience” and start creating a “community” of supporters and fans who will be with you for the long haul. Incorporate social media into your regular modus operendus, and create a team around you to help with the ever increasing obligations of being an independent filmmaker. Good luck and keep shaking that money tree!