Film Funding | How To's

Ask and You Shall Receive: Money to Make Your Next Film

1 Jan , 2009  

Written by Lynn Tryba | Posted by:

A wealth of tips on how to raise funds for your film from a recent workshop with industry consultant Morrie Warshawski.

Think about the film you’re working on, the one you’d finish if you had the money. Now ask yourself: What am I trying to accomplish with my work? What’s my mission statement as a filmmaker? What kind of films do I want to be making in five years?

You need to know the answers before consultant Morrie Warshawski can even begin to help you. The fundraising guru recently shared his strategies with independent filmmakers in a daylong workshop called “Shaking the Money Tree: How to Get Grants and Donations for Your Film/Video Project,” sponsored by AIMM and the Massachusetts Production Coalition.

First, Know Thyself

Money comes from two sources: individuals and grants. Much of the quest for money is out of a filmmaker’s control. “Most times you will get rejected. You need to grow a rhino’s skin,” said Warshawski, who has more than 30 years experience in the noprofit arts sector.

It’s important to “be proactive about controlling what you can control” and that’s the image you present and the story you tell about your film, Warshawski said. So practice your 20-second pitch—the speech you’d give a millionaire in an elevator—and pay attention to every detail within your control. “Everything is everything,” Warshawski said, from business cards, letterhead, to how you answer the phone.

Before you ask for money, identify the major strengths you offer as a fundraising filmmaker. They may be enthusiasm, persistence, and strong grant writing skills. Then identify your biggest weaknesses. Those could be lack of confidence and discomfort about asking for money. A skill is something you can learn. If your shortcoming is in a talent area—say you are so shy you’re inarticulate—you need to find a workaround, said Warshawski. Find a team member or someone who can join your project who has the talent you lack. It’s not worth the time it takes to develop it yourself, he said.

If you’re looking for more than $100,000, your crew needs credibility. Identify your heroes in the film/media world and try to attach them to your project. Some people will serve as mentors or advisors for a fee.

“There is no difference between marketing and fundraising,” Warshawski said. You need to convince donors that you and your team are the only people to tell this story.

Second, Know Your Film’s Story

It’s essential that you prove there is a need for your film. Find out what other films exist that are like yours. Talk to experts in the field, scour the video store, and search the Internet. Identify the competition, and then differentiate yourself. Do you have access to important individuals? Is there new information to present? Is there a relevant anniversary or special date coming up? Does your film offer more depth? You need to articulate what makes your film different without putting down other filmmakers’ work, Warshawski said.

Once you prove there is a need for your film, define your audience. Consider demographics, such as age, race, economic status, and gender, as well as psychographics, such as people’s attitudes, values, and lifestyles. Defining your audience is essential because you’ll be able to get money either directly from these individuals or from funders who are interested in these subgroups, Warshawski explained.

Hitting Paydirt

Funders never backward fund; the only way you’re going to recoup money you’ve invested is through distribution. One of your first tasks should be finding a potential distributor for your film. (Some possibilities include Zeitgeist Films, Women Make Movies, New Day Films, and Fanlight Productions.) Identify five you want to meet with. PBS can be part of your distribution plan, but it cannot be your whole plan, Warshawski warned. You need to discuss your ideas with distributors early in the process and try to obtain letters from them stating there is an audience for your film. These letters will help with fundraising efforts. “A letter from any distributor is gold, it’s the best you can get,” he said.

Your distribution plan should outline markets for your film, listed in the correct order. Independent film festivals should always come first, Warshawski said. List the top five festivals for your film in their order of importance. Film festivals are a way of building buzz for your project, especially if you win an award.

If you have a shot at theatrical distribution, that should come second. The next step can be PBS or cable. There are plenty of niche markets on TV, including HBO or the History or Discovery channels. Be sure to list them in the order that makes sense.

Consider Netflix, institutions such as universities and museums, and selling DVDs from your Web site. A community engagement plan should also be included as a Web site and blog are ideal ways to interact with your audience and allow them to buy your film. Public access television should be the final piece of the puzzle.

The Budget Tells a Story

Create a couple of budgets for your film—the one you never show anyone and the one you show everyone. The one you never reveal is the barebones budget that will still let you make a quality film. The one you show everyone is your ideal budget. You may also want to create budgets for different running times; once again, these budgets are for your own information.

About 50 percent of a budget often comes from distribution, which includes festival fees, travel, Web design, and DVD production, Warshawski said. Boston-based organizations including Documentary Educational Resources ( and Filmmakers Collaborative ( can provide sample budgets for you to review. You can also find sample budgets in Warshawski’s books, Shaking the Money Tree and The Fundraising Houseparty, which can be ordered online at

The final column in a budget should be “amount asking,” where you request an amount of money from a donor.

Who Gives Money

Typically, 86 to 91 percent of all the money that is donated for all types of nonprofit efforts comes from individuals. The ratio of income from individual donors versus private foundations, corporations, or government agencies, varies from project to project. ‘Filmmakers tend to think all their money will come from grants, but really individuals can be a great source of support,’ said Warshawski, adding that you may want to consider your skill set before deciding which group to focus on.

Individuals tend to be loyal to your project, there’s no paperwork or quarterly ledger statements, and it’s a fast way to raise funds. The downside is that you don’t typically get huge contributions from one source.

Corporate funding is difficult to get if you’re not working with PBS, Warshawski said. You also need a personal connection to get to the right person. If your project is a good fit for a company, funding can come quickly. It’s “enlightened self interest” and a “marketing buy” for the corporation if your film can provide them with visibility in some part of the world they want visibility in, said Warshawki.

You can receive four-, five-, and six-figure amounts from private foundations and government agencies. Many of these—like the National Endowment for the Humanities—require the sponsorship of a nonprofit in order to apply for funds. If you have a noncommercial project, consider working with fiscal sponsors such as Documentary Educational Resources ( or The Center for Independent Documentary ( or the Color of Film Collaborative (, all of which take a small percentage of the funds they obtain. You can use more than one fiscal sponsor, as long as they know about each other, Warshawski said.

If You Want Money, Ask for Advice

Your highest probability for a donation comes from the one-on-one or two-on-one personal ask. “Hands down. There’s nothing more effective,” Warshawski said.

He continued: ‘One of the ways to facilitate a personal ask is by hosting a house party. Invite about 15 to 25 guests. Have a time for a formal presentation during whicy you show a film clip to fuel enthusiasm and then have a peer make a direct ask. Another great way to identify individual funders is to host a 90-minute brainstorming session and ask people for fundraising advice. People will name names, suggest ways of getting in touch with potential donors, and may even tell you what size contribution an individual typically makes. You need to know that magic figure before meeting with a potential donor. Once you do have a one-on-one direct ask set up, think about upping their comfort zone of giving by 10 percent. If you ask for too much, theyʼll be flattered. If you ask for too little, theyʼll be insulted.’

The first thing to do in a one-on-one meeting is break the ice. Then start the ask by looking directly into their eyes, asking for the magic number and explaining what the money will be used for. Then shut up. “The next person who speaks loses,” Warshawski said.

You’ll either get a yes, a no, or a request for more time. If they ask for more time, ask when and how you should get back to them. If they say no, ask why they have a problem funding you. Always send a thank you note, even if they reject you. You may be hitting them up again later! After all, the art of raising money is learning how to “be persistent without being obnoxious,” Warshawski said.

More information about Morrie Warshawski can be found at Learn more about the Mass Production Coalition at

More information about Morrie Warshawski can be found at Learn more about the Mass Production Coalition at