Nuts, bolts, hot tips, and road-tested information from Holly Million for indie filmmakers raising money

Tag Archives: film

Next on The Money Couch: Events for Indie Films

Coming up Monday, June 8, at 7:00 PM Pacific Time on my Internet radio show, The Money Couch: Indie Film Edition, I’ll be interviewing film fundraising and house-party guru Morrie Warshawski. We will be talking about “Successful Fundraising Events for Indie Filmmakers.” Sure, you’ve wanted to raise money through an event, but do you know what it will take to make the event a success? Morrie knows.

Morrie Warshawski is a consultant, facilitator and writer who has spent 30 years specializing in the nonprofit sector. His work is characterized by a commitment to the core values of creativity, thoughtfulness, tolerance and transparency. Warshawski works with nonprofits that are having difficulty achieving their goals. He helps them reach their dreams through strategic planning.

Morrie is also the author of Shaking the Money Tree: How To Get Grants and Donations for Film and Video, 2nd Edition and The Fundraising Houseparty: How to Party with a Purpose and Raise Money for Your Cause – 2nd Edition.

The Money Couch: Film Edition is hosted on Talkshoe.com, the site for live Internet radio. You can also stream past episodes of The Money Couch: Film Edition and The Money Couch: Nonprofit Edition online or download free MP3s of past episodes to listen to on your iPod, PDA, or computer.

Come join us on The Money Couch.

Six Degrees of Bringin’ Home the Bacon!


Here’s a question I get asked all the time in endless variations. “Holly, there is this guy in town I think might be interested in my film. How do I ask him for money?” In response, without even knowing who Mr. Potential Donor is, let me tell you what I would do.

My first step in planning a major-donor solicitation or “ask” is playing my own version of the well-known game, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” Legend says actor Kevin Bacon has been in so many films that every other actor is connected to him, somehow, through these films. My personal version of the game is “Six Degrees of Bringing Home the Bacon.” First, I search my brain to figure out who I already know who has a connection to the potential donor. Within my network of friends, family, colleagues, and passing acquaintances, there has got to be somebody who knows him directly or who knows somebody who knows him. I guarantee the same is true for you. Put the word out among your friends, your LinkedIn connections, everyone you meet. For example, a friend wanted to interview Richard Branson for her film and wondered if I knew how to get a hold of him. Flattering. I didn’t, but a few days later, I met another filmmaker who had interviewed Branson and could give me his contact information. That same week, at a party, I also met a woman who turned out to be Branson’s personal assistant! Just like that, my friend was only two degrees away from the bearded billionaire!

Six Degrees of Bringing Home the Bacon is fun and profitable. Try this at home. You’ll see.

Follow Me to the SXSW Film Festival

I produced the documentary film, It Came From Kuchar, directed by Jennifer Kroot, which is having its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival in March. While at the festival, I am going to be blogging for SF360.org, the film website and blogs of the San Francisco Film Society, where I write a column called “Fear Free Fundraising.” My husband, DP Chris Million, who shot It Came From Kuchar is also attending the festival and working on assignment as a vlogger for SF360.org. Chris is directing his own documentary, Jack London: Twentieth Century Man, which has received grant funding from the California Council for the Humanities.

Chris and I plan to post content from our festival explorations on SF360.org, but also on this blog. Stay tuned for interviews with Jennifer Kroot, George Kuchar, and other luminaries from SXSW. I hope to run into Kari Nevil, Jennifer Steinman, and Erin Essenmacher, three Bay Area filmmakers I know who are also having films premiere at the festival.

Since I am writing a new book, A Helluva Guide to Indie Film Fundraising, I will also be on the prowl for interviews with filmmakers who are willing to share their tales from the trenches on how they secured money for their indie films. If you are an indie filmmaker who plans to attend SXSW, please drop me a line. You may end up in my blog posts, Chris’s video diaries, or in my book, where your exalted tales of fundraising victory will inspire generations of filmmakers to come!

“The Money Couch” Offers Filmmakers Online, Downloadable Fundraising Tips

Are you looking for bite-sized tips and real examples of fundraising knowledge in action? Then tune in to The Money Couch: Film Edition on Talkshoe.com. I launched The Money Couch to address filmmakers’ need for fundraising insights and information in short soundbites that can be listened to online or downloaded to a computer for future reference. Some of the recent topics covered on The Money Couch: Film Edition have included “What’s in a Winning Proposal,” “Hella Hot Tips for Individual Donor Fundraising,” “Donor Cultivation for Filmmakers,” and more. Future episodes of the show will feature interesting, knowledgeable guests including those representing funders, sponsors, investors, and filmmakers who are veterans of the fundraising process. If you have a suggested topic for us to cover on The Money Couch: Film Edition, please email me at holly@hollymillion.com. So tune in, turn on, and raise funds!

What You Have in Common with David Lynch

Sometimes you may feel alone as a filmmaker pursuing your dream, making your dark but brilliant narrative short or shooting your social-issue documentary or developing your comic-genius narrative feature. Then take some comfort in knowing you are not alone. You may especially feel alone when faced with your budget and the daunting task of raising the funds to make your sweetest vision come true. That computer screen looks like the frozen tundra when you sit down to write your grant proposal or donor appeal letter. And the only person calling on the phone is your mother, wondering if you are still pursuing that “film thing” or if you have found a real job yet. Sigh. It is lonely.

Don’t get down. All filmmakers feel this way, even the ones with the big names, the accolades, the credits. Even somebody like writer and director David Lynch, the creator of Mulholland Drive, Wild at Heart, and Blue Velvet. If you want to draw some inspiration and some comfort from a man whose films may be outre or chilling but who has a very real and warm heart, then check out his book, Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity. David Lynch is one of my film heroes and role models. His film, Eraserhead, touched my life in a remarkable, therapeutic way just when I needed that kind of life-preserver tossed my way. So I was surprised to read in his book his admission that “When I was making Eraserhead, which took five years to complete, I thought I was dead…I told myself, ‘Here I am, locked in this thing. I can’t finish it. The world is leaving me behind….At one time, I actually thought of building a small figure of the character Henry…and just stop-motioning him through and finishing it. That was the only way I could figure doing it, because I didn’t have any money.” Just think. David Lynch in despair about finishing his film because he had no money.

He continues, “Then, one night, my younger brother and my father sat me down in a kind of dark living room. My brother is very responsible, as is my father. They had a little chat with me. It almost broke my heart, because they said I should get a job and forget Eraserhead. I had a little girl, and I should be responsible and get a job.”

Thank God he didn’t do the responsible thing. Instead, he found a way to complete Eraserhead, and his career was launched. Thank God he finished that film, because Eraserhead saved my life.

Don’t ever forget that in the dark times when you’re not sure where the money is coming from. Just focus on the film and have faith that you will find a way.

Cozy Up With Nonprofits!

If you have been wondering whether building friendships with nonprofit organizations might enhance your chances for success with you film, let me help you decide. Get on it now! Forming partnerships with nonprofits is one of the smartest things an indie filmmaker can do right now to get a leg up on funding, finding good interview subjects, creating innovative screening opportunities, and much, much more.

Let me tell you about a partnership I have formed with the East Meets West Foundation in Oakland, CA. Contrary to what the name suggest, East Meets West (EMW) is not a grant-making institution. Instead, EMW is a nonprofit that provides access to healthcare, clean water, and education for people in Southeast Asia, specifically Viet Nam. As I was plotting my course for my film, A Permanent Mark: Agent Orange in America and Viet Nam, earlier this year, I did some research and compiled a list of nonprofits that work in Viet Nam. My goal was to secure letters of support, suggestions on Agent Orange experts to interview in Viet Nam, and also to score a real partner with whom I could apply for grants, including the Creative Work Fund. I wrote letters and made follow-up calls to over a dozen nonprofits, but it was EMW, located right in my backyard, that welcomed me with open arms. After meeting the staff, getting to know them, discussing their own video projects, having lunch with them, asking them for advice on Vietnamese restaurants in the area, and taking them shopping at my favorite second-hand store, I now can safely say that I not only have a nonprofit partner, I have some friends.

In October, I traveled to Viet Nam and spent one full day working exclusively with EMW’s Viet Nam staff. They set up two interviews with children who are affected with cerebral palsy connected with Agent Orange exposure. We traveled together to both homes in two separate remote villages in Quang Ngai province. Their staff helped with translation, preparation, securing permits, and interfacing with local officials. The footage I secured at these interviews was beyond my expectations, and some of the most important to tell the story I envision for my film.

My original intent was fundraising-based, however, and that’s where I have more news to share. I am completing a letter of intent to the Creative Work Fund, a joint initiative of several foundations based in San Francisco that fund the arts. Every four years, the fund gives grants for film. I helped secure a $35,000 grant for a friend’s film, It Came From Kuchar, in 2006. Now, with the help of EMW, I am now applying for A Permanent Mark.

Finding the right nonprofit, forging a relationship with them, and nurturing that relationship have taken time and effort. Was it worth it? Yes, it sure was! And one key was that I thought not just about what I would get out of it, but I seriously considered what EMW would need and how I could help them. Giving and receiving. It is the key. I urge you to reach out and touch someone today at a nonprofit that shares the same goals and mission as your own film. MMMMMmmmm, cozy!

Take My Class at SF Film Society

Want to get hands-on experience asking people for money for your film? Sign up for my fundraising class offered through the San Francisco Film Society. Information on the class follows, along with sign up instructions. Hope to see you there!

How to Ask People for Money
Taught by Holly Million
Tuesday, December 2; Wednesday,
December 3; 7:00–10:00 pm
San Francisco Film Centre, Conference Room
39 Mesa Street, The Presidio
San Francisco CA 94129
Enrollment limited to 16; $180 for SFFS members/$200 for non-members

Class description: The universe of foundations that support films rarely changes, except that it is shrinking. At the same time, new filmmakers emerge every day, and all of them are applying to exactly the same places. That is why you must do individual fundraising. Individual fundraising gives you more control, easier access and more solid long-term relationships that keep paying off in the future. This class features a lively, hands-on process to help filmmakers craft the messages and tools they need to approach individual donors. You will put this information to work during the class and become prepared to take your show on the road. The second night of the class includes a mock pitch session with a panel representing potential funders.

Enroll and pay class fees online at sffs.org. For further information, contact Filmmaker Education Manager Michael A. Behrens, at filmmakeredu@sffs.org, or call at 415.561.5000.

A Helluva Guide to Indie Film Fundraising Is on Its Way!

I’m pleased as punch to announce that I have begun work on a new fundraising book entitled A Helluva Guide to Indie Film Fundraising. In this book, I draw a detailed road map of film-fundraising Hell, noting the hazards and marking escape routes. Traditional fundraising tactics no longer cut it, especially in this hyper-competitive digital age where abundant, cheap technology has made it impossible to swing a dead cat without hitting another new filmmaker. A Helluva Guide to Indie Film Fundraising covers the universe of fundraising sources, from individuals to foundations to corporations to government funders. It also gives an in-depth look at all the tools in a filmmaker’s arsenal, from letters to the Internet to viral marketing to written proposals to kick-ass events. A Helluva Guide is a fun, straightforward, practical, yet radical guide to indie film fundraising geared to both up-and-coming filmmakers as well as veterans who are finding that their old bag of tricks is no longer producing results.

A Helluva Guide features several components that make it user-friendly and engaging. First, A Helluva Guide to Indie Film Fundraising is sprinkled throughout with “Hella Hot Tips,” useful tidbits of information that give advice in tight “sound bites” that readers can put to use immediately. Second, throughout the book are real examples of appeal letters, grant proposals, event fliers, and other useful road-tested tools that give readers a model to follow. Third, each chapter includes one “Baptized by Fire” interview with a successful filmmaker who has proven fundraising advice to share. In other words, A Helluva Guide to Indie Film Fundraising is fully loaded and ready to drive out of the showroom and directly onto the fundraising freeway.

Stay tuned for more information about A Helluva Guide to Indie Film Fundraising. The expected publication date is Fall 2009.

Follow the Birth of “Nominated”

I recently signed up as the producer for a new indie feature called Nominated. Written and directed by Dan Pavlik, Nominated tells the story of washed-up former child star Mickey Monroe who’s been “on the outs” for one long, hard skid. Now Mickey finds himself nominated for an Oscar. It could be his shot at redemption. Or — more likely — another round of stupendous self-destruction. His agent, Blake, tries to fend off disaster by tricking Mickey into staying at Blake’s remote mountain cabin for a week so Blake can manage the press and keep Mickey out of trouble. Unfortunately, trouble has a way of finding Mickey, no matter where he goes.

Dan Pavlik and David Baptist co-wrote an excellent screenplay. So excellent that I agreed to come on board to help raise the funds to make the film. This one will definitely be a learning experience for me. Our budget is $2 million on the high end, or about $500,000 on the low end. We will be attempting to secure equity financing for the film, although such funding is hard to come by, and there are few equity investors in the Bay Area, where we and the film are based.

The good news is that we have signed on casting director Nina Henninger, an experienced hand at casting major commercial features in the Bay Area. We’ve also signed on Carl Lumbly, a veteran actor of television and film, to play the plum role of Ray, the blind, African-American neighbor of Blake’s cabin getaway. And, best of all, an A-list Hollywood actor is now reading the script. We are keeping our fingers crossed that the screenplay “sings” to him, because if he signs on, then we really do have a shot at getting some real money.

Stay tuned as I give periodic updates to our process of running down the dough for this indie feature. If you want to see behind the scenes on an indie feature’s fundraising process, this is the place to do it.

Cracking “Film-Hating” Foundations

If you’re a healthy, normal filmmaker, your plans surely include applying to foundations. After all, that’s what we’ve been taught. Filmmakers get grants, then they make films. Sucker. The unfortunate truth is that the number of foundations explicitly funding films is shrinking while the number of filmmakers applying for grants is expanding. Think giant mosh pit. If you’re going to rely on these same, “usual suspects” for grants, expect a long, hard film row to hoe.

If you want to make a noncommercial film — narrative, documentary, experimental, or some exotic hybrid — then you must seek money from new sources. That money should include individual contributions, a subject we’ll delve into in posts. But, it should also include grants from foundations that “do not fund films.” That’s right. You need to walk right up and knock on the doors of these film-phobic funders. The fact is, they “don’t fund film” — until they do.

Who Fouled My Watering-Hole?
Fewer and fewer funders are supporting film. What happened? Why is this so damned hard? Sadly, somebody was there before you, and they fouled the watering hole. Many funders have become gun-shy of funding films because filmmakers failed to deliver on their past promises. Sure, grants were made, but not the mother-scratchin’ film. Or, the film was made, but not well. The program officer got her head bitten off by an irate board. She won’t be funding film again. Even if the foundation has no prejudices against film, they’re not primed to be receptive. They don’t understand film. They don’t understand how media impacts the world. Or, they’re just not imaginative. If they can’t see it, they can’t imagine it. If they can’t measure it, they can’t fund it.

Who Are These People?
There are approximately 70,000 private foundations in the United States, and untold legions of family foundations. Foundations exist as a mechanism to shelter money from taxes while at the same time encouraging charitable giving. By law, foundations must give away 5% of their assets each year in order to keep their tax-free status. That’s right. They must give away money. It’s the law! And you’re here to help.

In the foundation realm, program officers are gatekeepers, and board members are decision makers. Program officers employ a solid CYA strategy. They’ve learned what their boards like, and they plan to keep serving it up. If you fit what they’re looking for, you’re golden. If not, you’ve got your work cut out. This is why, with foundations that fund film, as well as other sources of funding, veteran filmmakers have an easier time getting grants. The vets are a known quantity. They’re low risk, unlike those greenhorns trying to crash the gate. As in other areas of life, so in grants: “The rich get richer.”

Tips for Success
All right, now that I’ve taken all the wind out of your sails, let me puff them back up. You don’t need no stinking film-funding foundations. That’s right. Because, while there are a couple hundred foundations that fund film with any regularity and which don’t bar the door and grab a rifle when they see a filmmaker approaching, there are just under 70,000 other private foundations out there. You can get grants from them if you know how to improve your odds.

Here are tips for increasing your chances of success. First, take the long view — look to develop a personal relationship with program officers. This is labor intensive but pays off. Go to “meet the funder” events hosted by local nonprofits such as the Foundation Center (which has offices in New York, San Francisco, and around the country). Second, read the foundation’s guidelines, and figure out how your film serves the foundation’s mission and objectives. Call the program officer and talk about your film. Describe its “mission,” how you expect it will impact the world, who it will impact, and how. If possible, talk to another filmmaker who has gotten a grant. Ask for insights into the process. Although it should go without saying, write a clear, concise, compelling proposal. Put a strong team around you that includes people who have skills you don’t, or more experience than you do. Write a clear plan for distribution and fundraising as well as a reasonable budget you translate to the foundation’s terms. I urge you to create partnerships with nonprofit organizations who can join your advisory board, help recruit interview subjects, help distribute or screen your film, and help give foundations that warm, fuzzy feeling of familiarity. Finally, note that they’re more likely to fund distribution and outreach than any other part of the process.

It works. I recently secured a $60,000 grant from an art-loving foundation that “does not fund film.” Until they funded mine.