Dream to Screen | Film Funding | How To's | Television

Dream to Screen

1 May , 2002  

Written by Stephanie Scott | Posted by:

One of the major funders of independent media today, the Independent Television Service offers advice on how to earn one of their coveted grants.

Remember that annoying phrase your parents would say right after you lost a big game or the lead role in the school play? "If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again?"

Well, it’s back. But this time you’ll be happy to hear it, because it’s coming from the lips of Lois Vossen, director of broadcast distribution and communication at The Independent Television Service (ITVS).

ITVS has money to spend, and if you play your cards right, it could be on you. Not only is ITVS one of the largest financiers of independent television programming, they are the only organization that will mentor producers from proposal to post-production, find a home for their work on public TV, and provide an all-out media blitz when it comes time for their debut.

Of course, landing ITVS funding is as competitive as becoming a sought-after celeb, which is why Vossen says, "We tell everybody to apply again and again and again."

Here’s the good news: according to Vossen, ITVS gives production license agreements from $10,000 to $1.4 million. The non-profit has a $7.7 million budget, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and as of September 2001, they have led a total of 272 shows from dream to screen. Currently, 88 open contracts are in the works.

Since springing to life via a Congressional mandate in 1988, ITVS has been positively tireless when it comes to supporting independently produced programs that take creative risks and showcase underrepresented issues and communities. It’s media democracy for the people by the people — on TV.

If you’re cooking up an idea you think no one will fund, chances are it’s perfect for ITVS.

"We’re trying to bring new things to [the medium] that aren’t traditional and aren’t what you would expect to see on public television," says Vossen. "We look for shows that are innovative in terms of style and storytelling. And yet, we do have to get them on public TV, so there’s a very healthy tension between having a show be innovative, risky, fresh and challenging, and also making sure we can broadcast it."

Anything already covered by commercial media is out, so stories about nature won’t do. Music documentaries are a no-go. But write a riveting, passionate proposal for an animated documentary that talks about political disenfranchisement and you’re right on track.

Projects also have to be suited to the format of TV. "The real strength of ITVS is that we have this built-in distribution platform," Vossen explains.

Most shows that ITVS invests in fit neatly into half hour and one hour time blocks. With the exception of some longer TV pieces, independent filmmakers looking to fund feature length shows to flaunt at festivals and in theaters just don’t fit the mission.

But with these guidelines in mind, anybody who is an independent producer (not currently a student or on staff somewhere) is encouraged to apply — again and again and again.

Through its twice-yearly Open Call, ITVS invites proposals for work in all genres. "There’s no cap on how much producers can ask for," Vossen explains.

People submit everything from outlandish ideas to works in progress, and a panel of readers from the independent media and public television communities evaluate them. Forty to 50 finalists are chosen out of over 600 submissions, and in the end, a slender two percent, or eight to 10 proposals are funded.

When a project is picked, the producer attends an orientation, negotiates a contract and is assigned an ITVS production manager. Although the staff provides filmmakers with feedback on creative and financial issues, the producer retains artistic control to the end.

Other funding initiatives include LInCS, (Local Independents Collaborating with Stations), which is designed to invigorate production partnerships between indies and local public television stations. The program requires that ITVS funding be matched with in-kind services or cash from the station.

Competition aside, ITVS is the head cheerleader for programming that addresses the needs of underserved audiences. They want shows to evoke passion and compassion, and "expand civic participation by bringing new voices and expressiveness into public discourse."

Marlo Poras, a first-time filmmaker from Framingham, MA, received $200,000 to complete her documentary feature, "Mai’s America." She shot for eight months before applying for funding to prove she was capable of bringing her story to life.

The show is an "intimate portrait film," explains Poras, "about a high school exchange student from Hanoi, Vietnam, who comes to the States for her senior year and is placed in rural Mississippi." "Mai’s America" will be broadcast on P.O.V. this August 6.

"I was overjoyed to receive funding and surprised too because I am a first-time filmmaker," says Poras. "I really appreciated that they went out on a limb for me. It’s really worth taking a chance. They’re the best funders out there."
Poras and Vossen agree on a few critical pieces of advice.

"When I was first interested in ITVS, I went to a get-together and pitched my project to an ITVS rep," Poras relays. "I did a horrible job, and he said, ‘My advice to you is to write a proposal that jumps off the page.’"

From that moment forward, Poras worked hard on her treatment, enlisting the help of her well-written friends, and honing it as much as she could. "I know from ITVS’s feedback that my proposal had a lot to do with why I was funded," she says.

Vossen concurs and doesn’t sugarcoat. "Read the guidelines carefully. Spend time on your application. Write a proposal that’s competitive," she says. "It has to be riveting. It has to get the reader excited."

And equally as important, ITVS seeks producers from underrepresented communities, such as ethnic minorities and filmmakers living in geographically diverse areas (basically anywhere outside the celluloid centers of NY and LA).
"We’re here to help them," Vossen says. "We really want to reach those producers."

The 2002 Open Call deadline is August 15, 2002. Guidelines and applications are available online at www.itvs.org/producers/funding.html. For more information about ITVS in general, visit their Web site at www.itvs.org.

The 2002 Open Call deadline is August 15, 2002. Guidelines and applications are available online at www.itvs.org/producers/funding.html. For more information about ITVS in general, visit their Web site at www.itvs.org.