Last Wednesday at the Sydney Opera House, a group of filmmakers presented their social impact documentaries to an audience of philanthropists, industry professionals, activists and campaigners, policy-makers, broadcasters, distributors, educators and foundations as part of Good Pitch 2, a program that “connects the world’s best social justice films with new allies and partners”. The filmmakers each had seven minutes to pitch their film and its accompanying outreach strategy to those present, followed by a discussion of the project and, crucially, the commitment of funds and support to the films and their outreach programs.
Overall the program raised over $2 million for the films during the 8 hour event, which included Aaron Petersen’s Zach’s Ceremony, following the struggles of an Aboriginal boy, Maya Newell’s Gayby Baby, concerning children adopted by same-sex couples, Sophie Weisner’s domestic violence documentary Call Me Dad, the anti-sugar documentary That Sugar Film from Damon Gameau, Sudanese refugee film Constance On The Edge from Belinda Mason, coal seam gas documentary Frackman from Richard Todd and Hollie Fifer’s The Opposition about human rights in Papua New Guinea in the face of Australian development.
Good Pitch comes from BritDoc, a non-profit foundation in the UK founded by Channel 4 to support and facilitate new documentaries that “enrich the lives of individuals”, and the Sundance Institute Documentary Film. It is “generously” supported by the Ford Foundation, a philanthropy fund with a social change focus, supporting “visionary leaders and organisations on the frontlines of social change worldwide”. Good Pitch began in 2005, and has held events in New York, Chicago, Argentina, Mumbai, Taipei, Buenos Aires, London, San Francisco, The Hague, Johannesburg and more. According to their website, more than 2200 organisations have attended a Good Pitch event since 2008, and the participating films have included 2012’s Academy Award nominated The Invisible War, which chronicled sexual abuse in the American military, and 2011’s Bully, which garnered distribution and support from The Weinstein Company.
The films involved in Good Pitch are at various stages of production – some have completed principal photography and are looking for more money to get them through their edit; others are just getting started. As such the support offered by attendees can also differ – some films are offered in-kind post production support, others are offered funding purely for their outreach programs. Films are often offered cold hard cash or distribution, or more abstract “support” when it comes to marketing and screening the film.
Good Pitch is a fascinating new model for film funding that, while it does feature a social impact-specific focus, is indicative of a problem facing the film industry as a whole – with less government money and support on offer, everyone is looking for new avenues to source their films and philanthropy is the new buzz word.
This year’s contentious federal budget saw extraordinary cuts to arts funding – the Australia Council lost $10 million from its budget for this year alone, and a total of $30 million over the next four years. As a result the Australia Council have drastically revised their funding model. Screen Australia will lose $38 million in the next four years, and were forced to cut their staff by 10%, reducing its maximum investment in projects. They also reduced their “print and advertising” spend, which would usually help films in their cinema release, and completely cut industry training and funding organisations like Metro Screen in Sydney, Open Channel in Melbourne and the Media Resource Centre in Adelaide.
With less money available from government sources, application processes for that money will be more competitive than ever. As a result, filmmakers and screen professionals are looking for other ways to fund their films.
One of the most obvious alternatives in crowd-funding, the latest craze that has proved its staying power through sites such as Kickstarter, Pozible, and Indiegogo. These sites take a percentage cut of the funds raised, in the form of a “processing fee”. Crowd-funding offers filmmakers not only the opportunity to raise cash for their projects, but also to build an audience from the ground up, investing a group of people early on in the project who can go on to be their own walking-talking marketing opportunity. The vertical integration of cinemagoers was one of the main reasons behind the crowd-funding of the Veronica Mars Movie – while the crowd-funding campaign raised far more than it asked for, it was much more about proving that an audience for the teenage lady-detective drama still existed six years after the cancellation of the show. In this way, fans of the show were able to vote with their wallets, more than proving their interest in a film.1
Crowd-funding is a tricky example however – for every high profile success, such as Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here, which raised over $3 million for the requested $2 million campaign, there are plenty of campaigns that fall by the wayside, lacking the publicity potential or novelty value. Furthermore, there’s an argument to be made, which has been made very loudly, about personalities such as Braff using Kickstarter, when they are in a far better position to seek funds from traditional sources and leave the crowd-funding avenue to those who really need it. Braff faced serious backlash for his campaign, although he argued that he was driving new people to Kickstarter and helping to support the funding model. Braff also said that traditional funding models weren’t necessarily available to him, although he is certainly more likely to get funding from a studio or pre-sale from a distributor than an unknown filmmaker.
Without significant PR pull, crowd-funding often comes down to one’s friends and families chipping in – this is a perfectly reasonable and time-honoured way to fund a film, formalised by Kickstarter. Rian Johnson famously funded his debut feature Brick from his family, who work in construction. However, this is not exactly a financially sustainable practice, and can perhaps lead to exhausting one’s audience and investors, rather than engaging them.
Thus philanthropy comes into its own. The Documentary Australian Foundation is a leader in this field, granting $6.5 million to projects in its history, running sessions for filmmakers on how to secure philanthropic funding, and chipping in on several projects at last week’s Good Pitch 2 event. The Berkeley FILM Foundation in that States has awarded almost $800 000 to close to 90 film projects since its inception in 2008, focusing “exclusively on social, historical and innovative documentary and dramatic works”.
However, Good Pitch’s social impact focus means it can tap into those previously existing funds and groups with money to spend on social issues. If your film doesn’t tie into an outreach campaign or social cause, you may find it harder to leverage funds. Furthermore, many philanthropy groups that offer funding to films do so exclusively for documentaries. So if you want to make that feature about Nazis living on the moon, such as 2012’s crowd-funded Iron Sky, you may struggle a little with the philanthropic angle.
Philanthropy is certainly not the answer for all filmmakers, but as last week’s Good Pitch 2 demonstrated, for the right project, there’s a lot to give. Even more so, it reflects the dire state of film financing currently, and the need for filmmakers to get creative.