by Erica Ginsberg, Docs In Progress® Executive Director

Even as we focus our discussions at Docs in Progress screenings on the creative side of making a film, one of the questions we ask every filmmaker is to think about who his/her audience is. We ask this not only because it is key to structuring the film, but also to plan for fundraising and outreach. If you read our January 2007 article “How to Find Funding for Your Documentary,” you gained a few tips on where to look for funding. We wanted to follow-up that article by talking to a few people who work for institutions that fund media projects to help demystify the process of fundraising. We are starting by talking with Trinh Duong, who is the Director of Grantmaking at the Funding Exchange.

Q: Sometimes Funding Exchange (FEX) and the Paul Robeson Fund for Independent Media are referred to interchangeably. But the Robeson Fund is actually just one component of FEX. Is it the only funding source of FEX to support film and video projects or are there other initiatives?

While the Paul Robeson Fund exclusively focuses on creating and distributing film, video and radio projects, the Funding Exchange has also funded media through our issue-based grantmaking programs. These programs include theEmergency FundCriminal Justice InitiativeSaguaro Fund for organizing in communities of color, and OUT Fund. TheFEX Media Justice Fund supports projects that organize people to increase media accountability, build infrastructure and affect policy.

Q: What kind of film and video projects are appropriate for the Paul Robeson Fund?

The Paul Robeson Fund funds video, film and radio projects of all genres. We are most likely to fund artistically compelling projects that deal with contemporary social issues. The focus of the Paul Robeson Fund is on pre-production and distribution phases only

Q: Why do you specifically focus on these two stages of production?

The Funding Exchange is a public foundation that raises the funds that we give away in grants. Since our funds are limited, it is important for us to be strategic in our grantmaking. We fund pre-production to help filmmakers develop their projects to the point where they are substantial enough to go to another funder for additional support. We fund distribution because we feel that media has tremendous potential to catalyze community change when communities have the opportunity to view the work. The work of our grantees is important and needs to be visible. Distribution is often an afterthought; we’d like to change that.

Q: Many filmmakers are mystified by the grants process. Can you shed some light on what actually goes on once a film reaches your office by the funding cycle deadline? How is it reviewed? What criteria is used?

The initial applications are reviewed by staff, sometimes in coordination with an outside reviewer. We read each proposal and view submitted sample work. The staff recommends approximately 60-80 applications to the Robeson grantmaking panel. The panel consists of six media makers or media activists who represent diverse constituencies across the country. The Panel reads proposals and comes together to view submitted sample work. At this meeting, the panel selects the grant recipients and allocates the funds available for grantmaking. We evaluate applications on many different levels:

  •  Talent, vision and potential of filmmaker, especially for new or emerging artists
  • Social and political relevance of the subject matter
  • Strength of the sample work
  • Fundraising plan and ability to bring the proposed project to completion
  • Innovative and thought-out distribution strategy (even for pre-production applicants)
  • Realistic budgeting

Q: How many project submissions do you typically receive in a year? How many get funded?

We receive anywhere between 200-400 applications a year and fund approximately 20-30 projects.


Q: Is there any disadvantage to being a first-time filmmaker?

The Robeson Fund has always been willing to take risks, funding new and emerging filmmakers with fresh perspectives and innovative ideas.

Q: For your grant, is it a help or a hindrance to already have a broadcaster on board or interested?

Whether or not an applicant has a broadcaster on board has not played much of a role in the evaluation process.

Q: Once a project receives funding, how involved do you get with the filmmaker in terms of the creative aspects of the film?

We do not get involved in the creative aspects of the film, and really don’t need/want to be controlling. We view the main thrust of our work as organizing resources to support grantees.
Q: What do you wish more filmmakers thought about before submitting their grant proposal?

Their distribution strategy-this is key for us.
Q: Some funding sources like ITVS encourage filmmakers to resubmit a project if they do not get funded the first time? Is this also true for FEX grants?

We encourage some filmmakers to resubmit.
Q: With only so much funding to go around, many worthwhile films have difficulty getting funded. What is your advice to filmmakers who are having challenges raising funds for their films?

If the funder is willing to share (and some are), I would seek feedback and find out why my film was not getting funded. I would also read guidelines carefully and only go after funding sources for which my project would be a good fit.

To see a list of media projects funded most recently through Funding Exchange’s Paul Robeson Fund, click here. To read an article about Docs in Progress alum, Catherine Pancake, who received a Robeson Fund grant for her 2006 film Black Diamonds: Mountaintop Removal and the Fight for Coalfield Justiceclick here..


© July 2007, Docs In Progress®.
This article may not be reprinted without permission.