Investing in filmmakers: Arts and Media

Los Angeles, CA. Paramount Pictures Studios. Palm trees and documentary film making.

For me, this was not the usual hotel-based or convention center constructed opening to an annual arts conference. While the remainder of the week’s events will be held at the historic downtown Millennium Biltmore Hotel, the preconferences were held off-site in more relevant-to-topic venues.

The preconference session Investing in Filmmakers: Arts and Media drew primarily funders from across the nation to discuss, as framed by Janet Brown in her opening statement: how can we move forward in a way that advances filmmakers as individual artists?

Participants from organizations and foundations where opportunities for filmmakers are minimal to embedded in general artist-funding programs were eager to discuss and find ways to more intentionally invest in these artists. This included ideas for cross-sector work, such as film and community development, and supporting current grantees to engage storytelling thru film making. Those with more established artist funding and development programs in media spoke to the benefits of film making beyond an advocacy and communications focus to one of tangible social impact, followed by comments on artist access to power and decision-making in these processes.

A handful of funders posed critical questions on industry access for filmmakers of color and young people to share their stories. What partners are foundations and other funding agencies working with to authentically engage artists of color? What is the pipeline to fertile ground for young people to develop these skills, and to tell their own stories thru film?

A major highlight of the day was screening segments from two very different, but no less powerful documentary films, and hearing from the artists on the challenges they face and their suggestions for the philanthropic field.

Notions of social impact versus artful documentary – a false, yet persistent dichotomy that can force artists into binaries, came up throughout the discourse. This can have deep implications for an artist’s access to resources when funder priorities miss the potential impact of artful documentaries, or pigeon hole social impact films as somewhat outside of the artistic realm.

It was mentioned that this latter notion also shows up in how filmmakers perceive themselves, in part due to institutional barriers in grant making. Some may feel either disconnected from other artists or a lack of identity as an artist, perhaps even more so for those who produce more mainstream or commercial projects. How is the philanthropic sector perpetuating or contributing to this narrative? And, what are the implications for supporting artists working in commercial media?

Documentary filmmakers pursue diverse support, pulling together resources from many supporters, as the level of funding needed to bring projects to fruition is greater than any one grant they may be able to garner (notwithstanding the already limited funding for film from the philanthropic field). Additionally, budgeting and timing for projects vary. Cori Shepherd Stern, producer of Bend the Arc – which centers on global health equity and was eleven years in the making (five just to secure the rights) – puts it this way, “Some stories can happen quickly. Some are about a deep personal relationship over time, which takes more time to develop and bring to fruition.” Cara Mertes (Ford Foundation, JustFilms) posed this response to the funders in the room, “What are the places where you can leverage effectiveness at various points across an endeavor vis a vis this process of storytelling, when it can take years to complete a project?”

The conversation with leading film funders that followed the film screening revealed a focus on the role of “transformative narrative, creative intervention, and independent storytelling” and thoughts on how funders can move the needle towards real systemic impact.

There were suggestions for structural changes, including the creation of common applications and reporting practices to simplify processes to save artists valuable time, and encouragement for composite impact, as a practice of foundations and organizations working in tandem to increase artist opportunities.

One idea in particular, expanded on the role of teaching artists in education or youth spaces to the role of artists and filmmakers in communities. “How do we go beyond film as project – think of artists as community leaders, bringing in skills and resources, and supporting communities to draw that up?” Tabitha Jackson (Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program) framed it within notions of power, “…film as bearing witness, and filmmakers as catalysts for hard conversations. What is the particular possibility of film to shed light?”

There were so many elements covered during the session, which really feels like a jumping off point for deeper possibilities. From challenges of film distribution and emerging media, such as virtual reality, to re-engineering a transformative practice of funders, there is every opportunity for grant making to set its focus on expanding support for filmmakers as individual artists. This can only happen in authentic partnership with artists, creativity and equity at the center.

I’m looking forward to GIA’s continued support in evolving the conversation.