Kathryn McCawley
March 3, 2022

Documentary Grants: Building a Proposal & How to Apply

Quick Find

In today’s media and entertainment landscape, documentary films remain a steadfast medium to explore the unique experiences of everyday people. But creative freedom sometimes comes with financing challenges. Navigating how to get funding for a documentary is a question many doc filmmakers face. Luckily, documentary grants have become more widely available. 

While funding is hard for any project, we’ve got the intel on documentary funding resources and navigating documentary film grant applications. We’ll walk you through the steps of how to find documentary grants, what you’ll need to apply for these grants, and how to choose the right one for you.

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Why pursue documentary grants?

The benefit of pursuing grants when you’re navigating how to get funding for a documentary is that film grants provide funding that does not need to be repaid. Though some grants have limitations based on what stage of the production they are funding, film grants typically have the least amount of restrictions on how you spend that funding.

Due to the proliferation of independent nonfiction filmmaking, documentary film grants have become a key element of how to get funding for a documentary. Because of their intimate connection to real world stories, organizations are particularly interested in funding documentary grants because they can give voice to their interests.

There is a broad landscape of documentary film grants, and when applying to these grants, it comes down to choosing what grants you qualify for, what organizations you want to associate with, and what will best serve the scope of your project.

Applying to documentary grants

When investigating film grants for documentaries or fiction projects, there’s always the process of parsing which grants you qualify for. In the world of documentary funding this is vital.

Documentary films share the stories of real people and often have specificity around their location, historic context, or mission they are supporting. Organizations that support these documentary film grants, even more so than fiction films, will want to support grants for these filmmakers who are sharing stories, perspectives, or an identity that they similarly espouse.

And this relationship goes both ways.

When you’re pursuing these independent documentary film grants, you’ll also want to consider what relationship you’ll want to have with these organizations. What mission do they support? What positions do they hold? The answers to these questions are just as important when figuring out how to get a grant for a documentary.

Because of this, there are a couple of considerations you’ll want to keep in mind when applying and when you’re figuring out your qualifications.

1. Geographic qualifications

When investigating independent documentary grants, you’ll find that many organizations are looking for filmmakers and projects set in a particular locality. 

California Humanities’ California Documentary Film Projects Grant is an example of these location-specific documentary funding grants. This organization provides grants for documentary filmmakers exploring the different communities, cultures, and stories within California. 

There are plenty of American documentary funds out there, but many organizations cater to more international filmmakers and projects filmed in more global reaches.

Almost every location where you may produce a film will have organizations funding independent documentary grants for projects set in their location. When researching which documentary grants to pursue, remember that documentary funding resources could also come from more local organizations that are supporting creative projects within that locality and may not fall under the strict title of “documentary film grants.”

2. Subject matter

Many organizations focus their grants for documentary filmmakers who are pursuing particular topics relevant to their organization. 

These independent documentary grants may be solely devoted to a certain subject matter. However, some organizations change the qualifications for documentary funding grants according to topical issues. 

For example, The Pare Lorentz Documentary Fund provides annual grants for documentaries, but each year, they choose a pressing topic within the United States to be addressed by the applying filmmakers. For 2021, their independent documentary grants supported projects that sought to challenge white supremacy.

Organizations are interested in awarding grants to filmmakers tackling subjects that are relevant and interesting to them. So when building your proposal, think about the questions, issues, and perspectives you’re presenting. Do you have a focus you can pursue that’s more specific o how you’ll be supporting the organization’s cause?

3. Community engagement

When pursuing grant money for documentary films, you’ll also come across organizations supporting film labs and fellowships or grant programs that also include some sort of community engagement. 

Community engagement can mean several things. Some organizations ask for filmmakers to give back to the community. Others provide a mentorship relationship with the filmmakers. 

Film Independent’s Documentary Lab provides a series of meetings and workshops to help support documentary filmmakers and their projects. Through these meetings, they connect filmmakers with industry professionals to help them along every stage of the project. 

With each program or funding opportunity you pursue, be sure to see what relationship and expectations the recipients require.

4. Career stage

Grants for documentary filmmakers often cater to filmmakers at a particular career stage. 

Many organizations specify who they are hoping to support. If you’re a new filmmaker, don’t let this intimidate you. Many organizations provide their grants for documentary filmmakers who are early in their careers.

When looking at these larger organizations, be sure to check if they have several independent documentary film grants. Oftentimes, they have grants for documentary filmmakers at the beginning of their career and ones for more established filmmakers. 

Chicken & Egg Productions provides film grants for documentaries created by women and provides several different opportunities for filmmakers at each stage of their career.

5. Diversity in film

Documentary funding resources are now finally addressing the lack of representation in the film industry and actively supporting filmmakers who represent women, the LGBTQ+ community, and POC.

The Astrea Lesbian Foundation for Justice provides several funds supporting queer women in film. They provide several different grants, including those that support more international filmmakers.

The Diversity Development Fund provides film grants for documentaries created by producers of color. Funding from these independent film grants goes to the research and development stage and supports projects with no limitations to its subject or focus. 

Sourcing grant money for documentary films is always a point of stress for any production, especially if you feel as if your voice isn’t one that hasn’t been traditionally supported. Luckily, more documentary grants are catering to diverse voices and giving filmmakers the needed resources and platform.

What to prepare for documentary film grant applications

Each application will come along with its own unique specifications, but there is a general outline of the requirements you’ll need for applying to these grants. 

The larger requirement of any documentary film grant application will be your documentary proposal. 

Within your proposal you will outline these key elements:

  • The Abstract 
  • Film Treatment
  • Audience
  • Film Style/Approach
  • Principal participants, communities, and advisors
  • Production outline
  • Budget Breakdown

Most grant applications will also require an artist statement. 

Artist statements introduce the funders to your project by way of showing them who you are.  In this statement, be sure to introduce yourself, your background, and why you're the one who should be doing this project.

Many independent documentary film grants will also ask for letters of recommendation. 

Letters of recommendation are almost always helpful when applying to anything because they solidify your credibility. If possible, your letter of recommendation should come from an established member of the nonfiction film world. The more connected they are, the more credibility you’ll have to your project.

Once you hammer out your film proposal and get your recommendation letters, many of these pieces can be reused or reworked for the many grants you'll pursue to raise money for your project.

Step-by-Step: How to Put a Documentary Proposal Together

Your documentary proposal will be a key element to your project’s success when you’re navigating how to get funding for a documentary. Each application may only ask for elements of the proposal, but it’s an integral document to have and to perfect for your funding opportunities.

Here’s a breakdown of each part of a documentary proposal: 

1. The Abstract

Abstracts are a one-page summary of your film that serves as the first introduction to your project. They are shorter than a film treatment, but should still give a look at the story, plot, and mood.

2. Film Treatment

Film treatments are an integral part of receiving funding or selling your film. They're a persuasive summary used to market your film. Pitch the outline of your project, in 1-2 pages. This should include your doc's plot, story beats, and key sequences. Here is also a good place to share the tone of your documentary.

Film treatments are one of the most important elements of any film grant application, so be sure to nail this.

3. Audience

The audience portion of your proposal explains the engagement that your film is intended to create. It explains who your film is hoping to target, what perspectives they may have seen on your film’s topic, and how you expect to change that narrative with your film. 

4. Film Style/Approach

This part of the proposal can take a couple of different forms. It can be as simple as a written document describing the stylistic elements of the film: will it include interviews or photographs? Will the subjects acknowledge the camera? 

Depending on the grant application, you may also be asked to include a mood board, which is a series of images and films you are inspired by, so as to get a more clear visual representation of the film. The application may also ask for a proof of concept, which is a short clip that captures the mood, editing, and/or subject of your project.

5. Principal Participants, Communities, and Advisors

Since documentary films come from the stories of real people and communities, documentary proposals should give a clear outline of who you will be working with. This should provide brief bios of your main subjects and what their role will be in the story.

6. Production Outline

Your production outline should explain each step of your production. This part should start from early research, to pre-production planning, to rough shooting schedule, and ending with your final post-production editing process. All of this info may not be fully known yet, but do your best to outline what you do know to show that you’ll be realistic with the next point…

7. Budget Breakdown

Laying out your production budget will be a huge reason why you are or aren't awarded a grant for a documentary. These organizations want to support powerful stories, but they also want to ensure that their money is going to a responsible person.

With your budgeting sheet, you should include above-the-line costs, production and post costs. The more outlined your budget is, the more likely you'll garner trust in the eyes of these committees.

Each grant application will be different. Luckily, many provide a sample documentary proposal template that outlines how they want your application composed. But for most applications, you should have a proposal that outlines each of these steps, with an emphasis on the film treatment and budget.

Wrapping Up

Figuring out how to get a grant for a documentary may feel like a daunting process. But fortunately, film grants for documentaries are pretty common. And with such a broad landscape of funding, there likely will be a grant that caters to the scope and subject of your project. For more on grants and their upcoming deadlines, check out our article, A Producer's Guide to Securing Film Grants.

Disclaimer

At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice.  You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.

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About the Author

Kathryn McCawley

Kathryn is a Los Angeles-based artist-designer passionate about everything entertainment. As both an illustrator and writer, she is interested in how the two worlds meet through animation. You can frequently find her either at your local plant shop or zipping around on roller skates.

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