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The How-Tos of Grant

Writing: A Manifesto of Sorts

The Invisible War

by Joy Dietrich
in Filmmaking,Financing, Issues,Line Items
on Jan 17, 2014

grant writing, Kathy Im, WINTER 2014

The instructions are easy enough: Communicate your project idea in three pages. I
think, “Great, I can bang this out in a day or two.” I sit at my desk and wait for the words
to pour forth. And this is when my brain likes to take vacation.

As 2014 rolls in and I am applying for grants for my new documentary project, I wish I
could tell you that it gets easier to pen grant proposals each time I do it. Let me be
honest: grant writing is tedious. It’s as much fun as writing a manual on video codecs. It
also takes days, even weeks to polish up. But I’m also being honest when I say that it is
well worth the effort.
Several years ago when I applied for funding for my debut feature, Tie a Yellow Ribbon,
a social-issue drama about Asian-American young women, I thought the process a bit of
a hustle and tons of paperwork, but at the end, it paid off when I received enough funds
to film it.
Grant writing is essential in independent filmmaking. It’s a game that we — from the
Oscar-winner to the emerging filmmaker — all engage in at one time or another to raise
money for those challenging, social-issue, human rights-oriented, character-driven
personal projects that would probably be given little consideration by risk-averse
traditional networks and private investors.

Besides the obvious tangible benefit of winning funds for your dream film, should your
project get chosen, and no financial obligations to repay the money, the great intangible
reward is that grant writing helps you to articulate your story idea for future use,
including your vision for how the story will be translated in film, from the style to its
structure. Later when it comes time to edit, you will have a kind of manifesto. Making a
film is a test of endurance, sometimes lasting a decade. If at any point you lose your
way, clarity and purpose is found in that grant proposal.

I spoke with the managers of some of the most important funding institutions in the U.S.
for film. These are the Sundance Institute, Tribeca Institute, Creative Capital,
Cinereach, MacArthur Foundation and Independent Television Service. ITVS does not
give out “grants,” per se, but dispenses production funds in exchange for domestic
television rights. I’ve included this PBS-funded organization because the process for its
Open Call and Diversity Development Fund, as well as its overall mission, are very
much like that of grant-making institutions, and it can fund in amounts that can make the
others look like small fry. Though some of these institutions fund fiction films, I’ve
narrowed my research to documentaries.

The following is a how-to guide for writing grant proposals that I’ve culled from these
interviews, as well as conversations with recipients and panelists.

Before you apply, you first must ask yourself: Is my project a good match for the
There are literally hundreds of grants out there, from local, state and regional to
international, from special interest to diversity grants, from governmental to private
foundations. An exhaustive list is available on the International Documentary
Association website. Funders’ websites are also invaluable sources of information.

It is vital to do thorough research on the mission of the organization and find the one
that best matches your project. For example, while MacArthur tends to fund
underreported social-issue projects in a journalistic style, it does not necessarily support
the sort of personal journey documentaries favored by ITVS.

“Frequently, we receive proposals for films that don’t fit — films that primarily focus on
historical topics or biographies of individuals,” said Kathy Im, director of media, culture
and special initiatives at the MacArthur Foundation. “But because we only fund films on
contemporary issues, we’re not able to consider them.”

Creative Capital, on the other hand, has a fine arts bent. It rewards innovation and
artistic rigor (up to $50,000 cash per project), according to Ruby Lerner, its executive
director. The staff then advises the artist on their continued professional development,
which makes it a unique funder, like Sundance with its Filmmaker Labs can be.
“Because our award is also a career award, we also care about the long-term
sustainability of the artist,” Lerner said.

If you think the decisions of granting organizations are heavily weighted to Oscar and
Emmy winners or industry insiders, then the following may come as a surprise. The
application process is “wildly competitive, but it’s also wildly democratic,” said Rahdi
Taylor, the film fund director of Sundance Institute’s documentary film program. “We
award people from all over the world. We award first-time filmmakers. We award
projects with no money. We award projects whether or not they have a five-star
producer attached.”
Sundance awards typically range from $10,000 to $50,000 per project, though if you hit
the jackpot in all categories (from development, production, postproduction and
audience engagement), the amount can go up to $90,000, Taylor said.

Similarly, Tribeca Institute prides itself on being “a platform of discovery for the
industry,” said Tamir Muhammad, director of feature programming at Tribeca. Fifty
percent of its grant monies go to first-time filmmakers.

Tribeca is a bit of a strange animal in the sense that the range in award amounts is
huge. They are mostly between $10,000 and $100,000, though just this past October,
Tribeca announced a grant partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation that pushed
the upper limit to $500,000. This grant will fully fund a documentary project from its
development stage to outreach programs.

Cinereach is currently undergoing some restructuring, though they will maintain the
award amount of $5,000 to up to $50,000 per feature fiction and nonfiction films at any
stage of production.
When hundreds of thousands of dollars are at play, funders such as MacArthur (which
can give up to $200,000 per project) and ITVS (up to $350,000 per project), are much
more cautious. “Because the Open Call is so competitive, the likelihood of a panel
recommending a project helmed by a filmmaker who has yet to demonstrate the ability
to tell a story in the long form is not strong,” admitted Karim Ahmad, a senior
programming manager at ITVS.

To improve the chances of funding, Ahmad recommends that the first-time filmmaker
ally herself or himself with a seasoned producer or a strong support team of editors,
advisors and consultants. This is what I did several years ago when I received funds
from ITVS for Tie a Yellow Ribbon. I met the folks at Gigantic Pictures and convinced a
producer there to come on board as a consulting producer. If this isn’t possible, then
applying for ITVS funds or a MacArthur grant, as Im put it bluntly, “might not be the best
use of your time.”
Most organizations use a mix of internal and external panels to review proposals to
safeguard against any favoritism. However, even though an external panel made up of
people from different backgrounds can recommend a project, it can still land on the
cutting room floor, such as what happened to one of my past projects. An external
panelist for a state-run grant told me that she was part of the group that met to
recommend projects. She said that my project made it through and that the
announcement would be made soon. But then the date came, and I heard nothing,
which gave me key insight. Decisions are ultimately finalized from within the
organization, despite external panel reviews.

You might also ask yourself: “Is my project even right for grants?” Though Allison Berg’s
documentary Witches in Exilereceived several grants, including the Soros Documentary
Fund, which later became part of Sundance, she decided against applying for grants on
her next film The Dog, which screened at the New York Film Festival last fall. “Try
getting a grant for a film about an unapologetic, sex-crazed bank robber — it’s just not
going to happen.”
Writing the Treatment
Grant writing is like any other literary exercise, an art. There really isn’t a systemic
approach like the logic model templates that academics use for their research
proposals. But generally, this is how it goes.

In the first paragraph, give a short synopsis, between one to four sentences, or a logline
of the entire film. It should indicate the following: What is the topic? Who is the main
character or characters that the film will be following? What activity will that character be
doing and during what time period? What question are you, the filmmaker, exploring
and in what style?

I know it sounds like a lot to cover, but sometimes one word can address a point, for
example, its filmmaking style. Is it “observational?” Is it an “intimate portrait” or “personal
journey?” Is the film in the form of an “essay” or “investigative” or “vérité?”

Director Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War received Sundance funding in 2011 and 2012,
and its description in the Sundance press releases indicates its “investigative” method.
The Invisible War is an investigative and powerfully emotional documentary about the
under-reported epidemic of sexual assault in our U.S. military, and its startling and
profound personal and social consequences.
Funders also love the idea that they are supporting an original voice; therefore the
paragraph should indicate a point of view or perspective. “The filmmaker’s ‘contagious
passion,’ are what makes a project stand out,” said Adella Ladjevardir, grants manager
at Cinereach.

This “contagious passion” from directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel,
who received a Cinereach grant in 2011, can be felt in the dramatic description
for Leviathan found on the funder’s site:
Leviathan is a feature-length film about men at sea and fish on boats. It offers an
appreciation for the sensory experience, labor, and political and ecological stakes of
one of the oldest endeavors that has been an important part of human history since the
Paleolithic. Shot off the coast of the mythic city of Moby Dick, with eleven cameras
swapping hands between the filmmakers and fishermen, in an effort to create a form of
collective experimentation that gives free reign to the perspectives of both fishermen
and their catch, the film seeks to capture the many ways in which human, animal, and
machine; beauty and horror; and life and death all merge in uncanny ways in the world
of contemporary commercial fishing.
The other important detail to describe is access. The grant process is incredibly
competitive. Typically, only 1 to 4 percent of applicants receive anything (Tribeca is at
an unusual 10 percent). What distinguishes each project from the other, especially if it’s
on the same topic, is access. Are you the person with exclusive permission to the
subject, story or footage?
“There’s going to be multiple people with passion about that same topic who are
sending in proposals,” said Sundance’s Taylor. “It’s going to boil down to: What’s the
story that you want to tell, why now, and why are you the person to tell it?

Director Penny Lane of Our Nixon obtained remarkable access to home movies by
Nixon’s aides, access highlighted by its synopsis on the Cinereach site:
Newly uncovered Super 8 home movies filmed by Richard Nixon’s closest aides — and
fellow Watergate conspirators — offer an intimate and surprising new glimpse into his

The last point is to consider connecting the micro versus the macro. You might be telling
a story of one individual’s struggle but how does this focused story relate to a larger
contemporary issue?

“I want to see that you’ve got access to the smallest detail,” said Chi-hui Yang, a curator
for MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight and a frequent grant panelist. “You know the
nuances of the story but at the other end of the spectrum, 100 miles out, that you
understand the big picture.”

This description for Lee Hirsch’s 2011 documentary Bully shows this connection
between the small (five kids and their families) to the big (society and its overall
handling of bullying). From the Sundance Documentary Fund site:
Over 13 million American kids are bullied each year, making it the most common form of
violence experienced by young people. Bully brings human scale to this startling
statistic, offering an intimate, unflinching look at how bullying has touched five kids and
their families. The film documents the responses of teachers and administrators to
aggressive behaviors that defy “kids will be kids” cliché, and captures a growing
movement among parents and youths to change how bullying is handled in schools, in
communities and in society as a whole.
The body of the treatment should expand on the brief synopsis in the opening
paragraph, giving more details about the main characters, the topic, the historical or
contemporary context and the actual storyline itself.

Also important to mention is the story structure and why you chose that kind of
structure. Is it the traditional three-part structure of a beginning, middle and end? Is the
film split into five chapters to represent five decades of following a person’s life? Is the
story told in a stream of consciousness with a first-person voice-over narration, such as
in The Kid Stays in the Picture andTyson?
It is also in the detailed section of the treatment that you explain how you plan to
translate the story visually. Will you use current-day and/or rare archival footage? Will
you tell your story using all b-roll? Will you use reenactments, stills, graphics, music and
animation and what will your interview set-up be? You can mention other artistic
elements, such as the choice of camera.
A word of caution: A common mistake cited by the funders is that a filmmaker can write
so much about the topic or style and method, that he neglects to lay out the actual

“Sometimes emerging filmmakers conflate style with story,” Taylor said. “Tell me about
the story and they say, I’m going to shoot handheld or I’m going to shoot on the RED or
the Canon 5D or I’m going to give you animation and this and that. This is good in the
detailed treatment but it doesn’t completely tell the sense of a story of a person, a
community, an idea that is at a pivotal moment, a sense of conflict or journey.”

You might ask: How do I describe the story arc when I haven’t finished shooting? Grant
readers don’t expect you to know everything, especially if you’re at the beginning of
production. What they do expect you to do is to ask the right questions regarding the
possible outcomes and their impact on the story.

“Freedom Fighters, directed by Jamie Meltzer, was only midway through production
when they came to us, which is a tricky time to apply for funding because you may not
be sure where your story ends up,” ITVS’s Ahmad said. “We look for evidence that the
filmmaker knows the possibilities of the journey, even if it’s not completed yet — its
narrative arc, its themes and takeaways for the audience. It’s not an easy thing, but as a
filmmaker, you have to know your subject matter, your characters and your story’s
structure inside and out. Jamie and his team did a great job of conveying those possible
resolutions in their proposal.”
For this reason, films in mid-to-late production often fare better than those that are just
beginning to shoot because this information is clearer. If you’re still figuring this out,
according to MacArthur’s Im, then it’s just too soon to apply for production grants. Your
application will not be competitive.

The last few paragraphs for most program descriptions should deal with target
audience, community engagement and any distribution strategy, as well as how the
funds will be used. If you don’t have a well-thought-out audience and distribution plan,
then I would not stress too much about it. If funders are looking closely at these
paragraphs, then you’ve come far into the process.

That being said, for the mission-minded organizations such as Sundance and ITVS,
thinking about your audience is a consideration. “This is an optional paragraph, just like
our interactive elements,” Taylor said. “I don’t expect them to have it all worked out, but
if you have an idea, we want to know. We want to have you start thinking about it.”
Our Nixon
Forget the Kickstarter trailer
Though most of my focus has been on the written treatment, I should say a few words
about the work-in-progress tape. Most funders say that the visual sample and written
treatment are of equal importance. However, “poor work samples have sabotaged many
an interesting proposal,” Creative Capital’s Lerner said.

Yang, a frequent Creative Capital panelist, agrees. “A strong sample will cover up
deficiencies in the written material but not vice versa,” he said.

Also, if you think you can spruce up that zippy Kickstarter trailer as a work-in-progress
tape, I would think twice. Most of these funders said that trailers don’t work well in the
grants arena. Tapes that show scenes expressing your storytelling abilities and reflect
what you outlined in the treatment are more appropriate.

And lastly, samples should also show production value — this includes sound quality,
which is often neglected in low-budget filmmaking.
Some Parting Wisdom
When it comes to the fixing the budget and the request amount, I always feared I was
asking too much when I put the maximum, but surprisingly almost everyone I spoke with
said request amount was the least determining factor. The budget should, however,
reasonably reflect the film you’re trying to make. Otherwise, your credibility will be at

Second, that adage of “if at first you don’t succeed, then try, try again” applies to grant
applications. Sometimes projects don’t get funded until their second or third time
applying. But each time you apply, you must show some progress. Funders track the
development of a project each time the filmmaker submits to see how she or he has
progressed and also to test commitment.

Lastly, grants can take six months from the time you apply to the time you’ll have a
check in hand, so I wouldn’t give up that day job any time soon. Cinereach’s Ladjevardir
put it best, “We advise you to hope for the best but plan for the worst.”