Film Funding | Reports

Show Me the Money

1 Dec , 2002  

Written by Emily Jansen | Posted by:

As a downward-sloping economy and recent budget cuts have made filmmakers increasingly anxious about film funding, consults financing expert Morrie Warshawski for some advice in tough times.

If only money grew on trees. Unfortunately, as we all know, it does not. And unless you are Ken Burns or one of a select few filmmakers, chances are nobody has been throwing money your way to enable you to make your film. Of course, most independent filmmakers already know that fundraising is an important, if not essential, part of the business. Yet a downward-sloping economy and recent budget cuts for organizations that have traditionally funded film and video have left many filmmakers increasingly anxious about where they will get the funds they need to make their film. For that reason, turned to Morrie Warshawski — a consultant, facilitator, and writer with over 25 years experience in the nonprofit arts sector — for some advice on fundraising.

To call Morrie Warshawski a financing guru is not an exaggeration. His list of clients includes well-known entities such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Independent Feature Project, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, as well as regional nonprofits including the California Arts Council, the St. Louis Art Museum, and the New Orleans Video Access Center. He also provides individual consultations with film and video makers focusing either on long range career planning or on a specific project. The advice he offers comes from years of hard-earned experience in the fundraising world. After serving as Managing Director for the Portland [Oregon] Dance Theater, and as Executive Director for the Northwest Media Project and later the Bay Area Video Coalition, Warshawski soon realized that being called a "Director" was in fact a misnomer. In reality, he was a fundraiser.

"I learned most of what I now know from running these organizations," he explained. "I really learned the hard way — making lots of mistakes myself. My biggest mistake was that I thought the key to fundraising was writing a dynamite proposal… What it took me a long time to learn is that the proposal is the tip of the iceberg."

Warshawski believes that while much revolves around a solid proposal, more revolves around one’s interpersonal skills and self-presentation. In his estimation, successful fundraising is accomplished by those who know themselves and know their project; it is accomplished by those who not only write a great proposal but who also develop personal relationships with the person or organization from whom they are hoping to get funding. Ultimately, "people give to people" may sound trite, but Warshawski believes that it is inevitably true.

"Comportment. It’s your comportment that will win or lose you most grants. So much of what happens is that people meet you and they decide very quickly whether they are interested in you and your project," Warshawski said. "Do I believe this person? Do I trust this person? Do I want to give money to this person? If they have a negative feeling about you, forget it."

"Comportment" is the word most frequently uttered by Warshawski, and it seems to encapsulate his philosophy on fundraising. But how does one achieve "comportment"? To begin with, a filmmaker must have a very clear understanding of exactly why s/he is making the film. Warshawski asks that every filmmaker he consults first communicate in writing his/her own one sentence personal mission statement. According to Warshawski, a personal mission statement "goes to the heart of comportment" by articulating for the filmmaker and for the world why your film is important to you as a person. From a funder’s perspective, this sense of mission is a desirable trait. Because fundraising is so incredibly difficult, "funders look for someone who is deeply committed… How do you overcome the difficulties [of fundraising] and stay in the game? I think it is a sense of mission," he said.

Once the filmmaker’s mission has been codified, Warshawski then encourages filmmakers to take a closer look at their project. Though it seems too simple and too obvious, Warshawski emphasizes these words: understand your project before you ask anyone for money.

"Understand your project inside and out as thoroughly as you can so that you can articulate why you are doing your project, why the world needs it, who [the film] is being made for, and so that you can prove that that audience wants it and needs it." Even more, one needs to have thought beyond getting the film made when looking to potential funders. "Also have some kind of distribution and community outreach plan in mind, and how you will do it. More and more funders want these issues addressed before they will give money out."

Once a filmmaker has satisfactorily answered these questions and addressed their own personal motivations, s/he is ready to fundraise. Yet, for independent filmmakers in particular, there can be major obstacles to overcome. Fundraising for a film/video is vastly different than other types of fundraising which is why Warshawski felt that he had to write Shaking the Money Tree: How to Get Grants and Donations for Film and Video Projects. For starters, Warshawski believes that filmmakers have to overcome "myths and prejudices" that other grant-seekers do not. He explained that, because "most money comes from places that are topic-oriented and not specifically funders for film and video," potential funders often do not understand film and video.

"It’s a different language — a whole different medium. The proposal looks different and your support materials are going to look different," Warshawski stated. It is thus up to the filmmaker to educate the funder when applying for a grant, providing them with as much relevant supplementary information and material as possible when applying.

Another area in which Warshawski believes that additional explanation is always helpful is the budget. Some filmmakers are hesitant to include notes with the budget, but Warshawski describes this as one of the biggest mistakes that an independent filmmaker can make. Based on his experience, he believes that "a funder will live with almost anything if you explain it." Other big mistakes filmmakers make when calculating the budget include not paying themselves and including contingencies, which he says "most funders hate and don’t understand." Warshawski suggests that a filmmaker figure out contingencies and build them into each line item rather than separating them out.

One other important word of advice about the budget: "make sure you are asking for the right amount." Warshawski said that if a filmmaker sends him a full proposal it would not be unusual for him to go straight to the budget. If he sees anything that is inappropriate in any way or if he notices something lacking from the budget, he knows he is dealing with someone who is green. For instance, if there are no budget items for production stills, press kits, and/or VHS tapes to send to festivals, then it is clear that the filmmaker probably has not thought through a plan for publicity and distribution.

Ultimately, though, asking for the right amount of money and asking the right person or organization for the money depends on one thing: research. Thoughtful research is a key component to fundraising. Researching the potential funder is a must, but all too often filmmakers do not do their homework. "They don’t do research or they don’t do it deep enough," said Warshawski. "This is a key skill for every venue of fundraising." Be it a government organization, a corporate entity, or an individual, do your research and find out if it is worth your time and energy to be applying.

Once you have decided upon an appropriate source for funding, the next step is crucial: personalize your approach. "Most filmmakers resist making personal contact, but you have to make personal contact to be successful." In short, "you must call before you write." And here is where your comportment comes into play. Knowing yourself, your goals, and your project translates into good comportment and a positive impression upon those who may fund you. If you have done your research and submitted a quality proposal, your chances of getting money improve even more.

Still, Warshawski acknowledges that in the last six months he has definitely seen a drop in the amount of support coming from foundations and government organizations. However, he believes that due to the boom in the economy during the 1990s there is still more money to be found for film/video projects relative to where things stood 10 years ago. He believes that what is partially contributing to the difficulty in securing funding is simply the fact that there are more independent filmmakers now than ever before. "There has always been a great deal of interest in film and video, but now the point of entry is so much more accessible. Equipment and training are much easier to get so more people are [making films]."

In the end, more people struggling to get their projects funded means less money to go around. So if you are getting ready to fundraise, take a look at yourself and your project, do your research, and get going.

More information about the author and an extensive listing of fundraising resources can be found online at  His book "Shaking the Money Tree: How to Get Grants and Donations for Film and Video Projects" and "The Fundraising Houseparty: How to Get Charitable Donations from Individuals in a Houseparty Setting" can be purchased at

More information about the author and an extensive listing of fundraising resources can be found online at  His book 'Shaking the Money Tree: How to Get Grants and Donations for Film and Video Projects' and 'The Fundraising Houseparty: How to Get Charitable Donations from Individuals in a Houseparty Setting' can be purchased at