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Fundraising for First-time Filmmakers

October 31, 2011 | By | Add a Comment

Megan E. Doherty

This article is part of a regularly published column by local writer Megan E. Doherty, in which she reports from “sets” she’s working on.  You can receive updates on additions to the series by following her tumblr feed, and you can read part one of the series here.

What follows is a Q & A with local filmmaker Dinesh Sabu (Unbroken Glass), in which he shares some tips on funding your film – including what not to do.

MED: What was one of the biggest mistakes you made funding your film?

DS: I thought I needed to fundraise like it was going to be a big time production.  The biggest mistake I made was focusing all my energy on fundraising, and basically putting the film down.  [It was only] last May where I said, “Let’s stop writing all these grants, I’m just going to focus on getting a really good demo, putting together a really good proposal, and clarifying for myself the film I wanted to make, and then seeking funding.”

MED: What happened that gave you that realization?

DS: What got me started [on the film again] was a grant opportunity – there was an open call for proposals for the Center for Asian American Media.  The idea of sending them a demo and a proposal really motivated me to put this together.  We made it to the second round of that funding call, so that was very heartening.  What we got out of it was a proposal and a demo, and I spent the next year polishing the demo, intermittently, and rewriting the proposal.

MED: What else should new filmmakers try to avoid?

DS: Two mistakes I made:  A, at some point I realized I stopped making the movie and I was only fundraising.  B, I realized that I was spending a lot of time filling out grant applications with material that wasn’t its best.  I was using my time, rather than polish up the material, just chasing these grants.

MED: Anything else?

DS: [Another] big mistake I made was, when I did get some interest from Kartemquin, I started looking at their budgets, and [I had] this kid in the candy store mentality.  I want to do X, Y and Z.  I revisited that budget and started asking myself, “What do I really need to do to make this movie?”  I learned how to be pragmatic, the hard way.

MED: Sounds like you were spending some money on something nonessential.

DS: About six months in, I got a bit of money.  [Another mistake I made was that] I started paying my associate producer, and the idea was well, I will be spending money in order to make money.  But we didn’t have nearly enough to pay her, and at that point we were just spending money for the sake of spending money.  It’s about priorities.  It’s easy to procrastinate on the film by doing these other things [building a website, a Facebook page, etc.].

MED: So what should a filmmaker do, instead?

DS: Maybe the solution is to make it scalable.  Right now, I have three different budgets.  The bare minimum I need to make this movie, what I need to make a pretty good movie, and then the wish-list budget, if fundraising was not an issue.  Start the film in such a way that you can scale it up or scale it down, as the situation may be.

MED: What’s one of the best things you spent money on?

DS: One thing I did spend money on, which was a great thing to do, was that I paid for some consultation at Kartemquin.  I paid for [a professional editor] to edit the film for two days. Myself and my editor, we had been chipping away at it for several months and not really getting anywhere.  We weren’t nearly as experienced.  If you can’t get people to donate services, and you do have some resources, approaching people about consultation, especially early on in the project, is really important to keep you from making monstrous mistakes.

MED: What if you don’t have the resources to keep on filming while you fundraise?

DS: A lot of people don’t have the resources to [fundraise and film] at the same time.  Really take advantage of your network – both for fundraising and making the movie.  I may not have a lot of rich friends, but a lot of my friends are filmmakers.  When it came to actually making the movie, I could save a lot of cost by getting my friends to donate services or work for a deferred fee.  You’ll find that there’s a lot of good will out there in the industry.

MED: Any game changers?  What about Kickstarter?

DS: I think fundraising for filmmaking in general, and documentary in particular, has changed quite a bit in the last few years.  Filmmaking takes a lot of money, and I think Kickstarter is more about – if you have a personal network of people that could donate, then you could run a successful Kickstarter campaign.  Perhaps the trick is how to build a community that can donate.

MED: Anything to be aware of when it comes to Kickstarter, or IndieGoGo for that matter?

DS: If you work out the fee structure, a successful Kickstarter campaign is slightly more expensive than a successful IndieGoGo campaign.  Kickstarter takes 5% of what you raise, and you’re directly obligated to use Amazon payments, which takes 3-5% as well.  With IndieGoGo, you get all of the funds regardless of whether you’ve met your target [unlike Kickstarter, where you only get the money if you raise your target amount].  But IndieGoGo has a sliding scale fee structure, depending on the amount you raise.  If you raise less than [your target], the fee is slightly raised.  When it comes down to it, name recognition is a big thing is well.  People recognize Kickstarter, people talk about it.

MED: What else might someone new to filmmaking not be aware of, but really need to know when it comes to fundraising?

DS: Fiscal sponsorship – this is an important part of fundraising.  Oftentimes when you’re getting grants, they often won’t give it to an individual, but they’ll give it to a nonprofit.  An organization will lend its nonprofit status to your project, and then you would use that organization to fundraise.  What usually happens is they will take a little bit of a fee as well, to use their 501c status.  It’s important to be savvy about that fee.  But there’s a way to do your own individual donor campaign; you can set something up with PayPal.  Obviously, it doesn’t have the same kind of high visibility that Kickstarter does.  The brand is huge, [and] will open doors.

MED: How do you get fiscal sponsorship?

DS: There are plenty of organizations out there whose goal it is to provide fiscal sponsorship for young filmmakers, [such as] Chicago Filmmakers.  Likewise, IFP Chicago.  But a lot of community organizations [will, too].  For some organizations, fiscal sponsorship will be part of their funding.

MED: What’s the deal with “funding angels”?

DS: This is either a good thing or a horrible thing that’s happening to filmmaking.  A lot of the language of venture capital is bleeding over into filmmaking.  Investors are looking at some films as an investment opportunity.  They can put in money and get a return on their investment.  I’ll give you 50% of your budget up front, but once it goes into distribution, I get 50% of the profit first, before anyone else gets paid.

MED: So to sum up, what would you spend money on if you got a do-over?

DS: I would spend more energy putting together a really great demo and a really good proposal, and less energy on meeting grant deadlines as they come up.  Because you know what?  Next year, those same deadlines are going to come up.  Focus on the film.

To learn more about Unbroken Glass, check out the following links:!/unbrokenglass

A Chicago-based independent writer, Megan E. Doherty wrote a dissertation on some crazy stuff, and is happy to have re-joined society – complete with a bunny, a banjo, and a lotta books.  You can catch a few laughs at her off-beat humor blog,, and you can learn more about her projects at and


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