The responsibility of documentary funding often falls on the filmmaker with a story to tell. Unless you’re Michael Moore or Ken Burns, you may find that getting documentary film funding for your project can itself be a project demanding considerable time and energy.
How to raise money for a documentary is a question with multiple answers, though. If you have more than one doc idea in your sights, you may find that how to get funding for a documentary film will change from project to project.
So where to begin?
Wrapbook chatted with several documentarians about their documentary film funding experiences. Filmmakers David Alvarado, Jason Charnick, and Heidi Hornbacher discussed what’s been successful for them regarding how to raise money for a documentary.
We also compiled a wide range of documentary funding ideas that you may not have yet considered in your quest for that project financing. Between the interviewees’ insights and our comprehensive breakdown, you’ll see that how to get funding for a documentary film is more possible than it seems.
David Alvarado likes to say that
"Every film wants to be funded in a certain way."
For many filmmakers, how to get funding for a documentary film often begins with grants. From for-profit corporations to national organizations and beyond, multiple businesses and associations offer funding for documentaries.
How to raise money for a documentary through grants often means having a film with a particular message – frequently a social impact one. Why is that? Because many of the organizations offering grants want to fund docs that align with their own message or mission. For example, maybe it’s a film that promotes conservation or education. Or it highlights a town or country to encourage tourism.
If your project fits that criteria, grants can be a great first place to go regarding how to get funding for a documentary film. They can also be valuable in supplementing a doc budget that needs a bit of financial help to make it through the filmmaking home stretch.
Though Hornbacher began production on two feature-length docs with no outside monetary support, she is currently in semifinal contention for the finishing funds via a grant on one of them. Should she receive them, it’ll enable her to hire an editor.
Hornbacher notes that while she often wears many hats while making her projects, it’s important to know when to look outward for funding for documentaries. The time and energy that she would spend on the editing process would be better put towards other filmmaking tasks. Hence, her seeking grant funds for it.
We mentioned Ken Burns who has become widely known for his documentary series The Civil War (1990), Jazz (2001), Baseball (1994-2010), and The Vietnam War (2017). Burns has long had a relationship with PBS, which largely provides his funding for documentaries. Do your interests similarly fit the Ken Burns or PBS aesthetic?
While Burns has become nearly synonymous with public television documentaries, he’s not the only filmmaker with an eye for PBS-friendly projects. If your own film ideas align with that outlet and its audiences, consider reaching out when researching how to raise money for a documentary.
Or they might reach out to you! Case in point is Alvarado who has been contracted to produce documentaries such as Blood Sugar Rising (2020) for PBS. While Burns is well-known for his projects that dive into American history, Alvarado leans into the scientific space, which is similarly popular for public media outlets.
From global powerhouses YouTube and TikTok to emerging content services Wondrium and Nebula and everything in between, new media brings with it opportunities for doc funding. The goal here is to find new media companies in need of content.
You may be able to pitch doc ideas that you think align with the mission and messaging of a particular new media company or online channel. But funding can also come when you are hired for a project initiated by a particular new media outlet.
Whether you already have a doc idea in mind or you’re brought on board for a documentary film or series launched by a new media company or channel, it’s an avenue to consider among your documentary funding ideas.
When considering how to raise money for a documentary, some filmmakers might overlook the options that exist in the corporate documentary film funding space.
We briefly mentioned it above, but some businesses may provide funding for documentaries that either align with their own corporate values or in some way promote their goods and services. No doubt, though, you’re threading a very narrow needle finding that kind of fit for your project.
It's exactly what Alvarado did for his project We Are As Gods (2021). Because the film focuses on the convergence of science and technology, he and his producing partner, Jason Sussberg, could partner with the online credit card platform Stripe.
Alvarado notes that at the time Stripe wanted to expand its culture and had created the publishing house Stripe Press, which republishes books. Given that the subject of We Are As Gods is writer Stewart Brand, the creator of the Whole Earth Catalog among other works, it was an excellent match between the filmmakers and company.
So when considering how to raise money for a documentary, don’t rule out options that may initially seem unlikely. Even a credit card company or other corporate brands. Pending the subject matter of your doc, you may find it to be a mutually beneficial partnership.
The world of crowdfunding has greatly expanded in the last several years and has considerably opened opportunities regarding how to get funding for a documentary film.
Both Charnick and Hornbacher have relied on crowdfunding as their means for how to raise money for a documentary, and it has been successful for both. Charnick crowdfunded through both Kickstarter and Indiegogo for his feature doc Getting Over (2018) and Hornbacher used Seed&Spark for her short documentary funding needs on the film Arrow (2021).
Crowdfunding is currently a popular way to get funding for documentaries – especially short documentary funding. Filmmakers should keep in mind that it’s not a guaranteed way to attain financial backing for their projects.
When he first crowdfunded back in 2012, Charnick noted that the timing was perfect for it.
This fundraising option was more novel, which worked to his advantage in terms of a curious audience eager to support him. Nowadays, the market is more saturated, which Charnick believes has led to supporter fatigue.
There’s also selecting the appropriate amount to raise regarding how to get funding for a documentary film. Depending on the platform, if you don’t hit a minimal amount, you forfeit what you have raised. For example, Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing crowdfunding platform where your fundraising goal must be achieved or you receive no funding at all.
Should filmmakers use crowdfunding for how to raise money for a documentary, Hornbacher adds that “you can’t just set it and forget it.” To set themselves up for success, crowdfunders must devise a month-long strategy of engaging people and “telling a really great story 30 different ways.” They must parse out who their audience is and how to connect with them.
All to say, just like researching for grant, public media, new media, or corporate documentary funding, it is a commitment of time and energy to pull off a successful crowdfunding campaign.
Multiple crowdfunding options exist for how to raise money for a documentary. However, keep in mind that there are several distinctions among them.
These include the time allowed to raise funds, percentage requirements to be met to receive those funds, and amount retained by the platform for its usage vary among them.
Some of the more popular platforms include:
However, filmmakers should do their due diligence to determine which one is right for them – if it is right at all. Remember, funding for documentaries via a crowdfunding platform is a fulltime albeit temporary job that demands attention and consistency from filmmakers to be successful.
When researching how to get funding for a documentary film, producers may want to consider a fiscal sponsorship that can provide legal and tax-exempt benefits. In particular, it may incentivize individuals to contribute to documentary film funding, as their donations can be written off during tax season.
A fiscal sponsor is typically a nonprofit organization with 501(c)(3) status. In addition to the perks it offers to anyone donating funds to a project, it also affords filmmakers substantial financial and administrative benefits. With a fiscal sponsorship, filmmakers can sidestep the necessary steps of incorporating as a nonprofit, undergoing an annual review, and other potentially time-consuming and expensive measures.
When Charnick kicked off his second crowdfunding campaign in 2015, he used From the Heart Productions as a fiscal sponsor. Though From the Heart collected a nominal fee for its services, Charnick believes it was well worth it for what he got in return.
So while a nonprofit may not be able to directly supply you with any funding for documentaries, you can certainly take advantage of its sponsorship perks if fundraising on your own. Again, consider it among your documentary funding ideas.
How to get funding for a documentary film can come in many forms, and oftentimes filmmakers overlook equity investments.
How to raise money for a documentary can be challenging because these projects are usually a labor of love. Filmmakers become protective of these projects, which may keep them from considering partial outside ownership of them.
But if your other documentary funding ideas are not proving successful, you may want to mull this one over. How to get funding for a documentary film this way can happen via any number of scenarios. Maybe a friend or family member can contribute financially, but they also want to have a more substantial stake in the project. Perhaps it’s a small business or organization with the same interest.
Even if a project is “your baby,” there won’t be a baby at all if there’s no documentary funding, so don’t rule out equity investments among your documentary funding ideas.
This is another ignored aspect of how to raise money for a documentary. In many instances, people and organizations want to help, but they simply cannot give a pledge or write a check. So then what?
Funding for documentaries doesn’t necessarily have to come in cold hard cash. It can also be:
Especially if your project focuses on or appeals to a certain demographic, reach out for support outside of money. Sure, how to get funding for a documentary film may still be a necessary concern, but you can make significant cuts to your budget with in-kind donations.
Truth time. When it comes to how to raise money for a documentary, many filmmakers have to look in the mirror. Both Charnick and Hornbacher have had to make up gaps in their project budgets with self-funding – even in addition to other documentary funding ideas.
Even as a means for short documentary funding, this avenue can be costly, so it’s a consideration not to be taken lightly. But as both filmmakers have stated, self-funding for documentaries is common because otherwise projects just won’t happen. For them, it was worth the investment.
We don’t bring this option up as a go-to for documentary funding ideas. Being a business-savvy filmmaker is key in this business, and breaking your bank isn’t recommended for the sake of your art.
But is it a matter of needing a little push over that filmmaking finish line? And you’ve exhausted all other documentary funding ideas? Then it’s an avenue worth considering so long as it doesn’t compromise your financial wellbeing.
Just producing a film often feels like a Herculean task. Adding to that mix how to raise money for a documentary can dissuade even the most passionate of filmmakers. But it’s possible. More than possible, how to get funding for a documentary film is probable as long as you’re versed in the options available to you.
As Alvarado, Charnick, and Hornbacher have shown through their own work, you can find those funds in a myriad of ways. As Alvarado explains, it takes a little – or a lot – of elbow grease and patience to figure out “what does this film want?”
In addition to the many resources out there for how to raise money for a documentary, Wrapbook has multiple tools and services available to make your filmmaking goals easier. From creating that doc budget to finding film festivals for it, we can help you with your filmmaking needs.
Scouting production locations? We’re breaking down 10 states with considerable film tax breaks so you can get the most bang for your budget buck.
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