Answering the funding question (?)

Big sigh as I approach this question…how does the funding work and how does the documentary get made.

The answer is bittersweet.

Bitter because it has been a relatively long road and the number of things that need to come together in order to get funding for a documentary in the current climate in this country are substantial.

Sweet because we live in a country (right now) that DOES provide funding for documentaries, there are avenues, and even though it takes a long time if all those aforementioned variables do come together then a project can get made and people can get paid for their hard work.

The one-off documentary does offer its own unique challenges. CTV isn’t doing them anymore. CBC has cut programs like The Lens and The Passionate Eye is doing more acquisitions than production.

This project is produced with Documentary as the broadcast partner.

From what I can tell this is what’s required to get a one-off documentary funded. 1) A great idea with great characters and a great story arc. 2) This great idea and great story usually can’t be imminent, but should have elements or characters you can shoot now so you can make a great trailer. 3) A story that actually starts and can be followed starting 12-18 months from when you first start to pitch it. 4) International/audience appeal.

Of course there are exceptions to this, but I think these are good elements to start with (even better if you can make it into a series)

So, we first spoke to Todd Reichert back in early April 2009 on the recommendation of Dr. James DeLaurier (Dr. D). Todd was considering maybe making a film himself and after a lengthy phone conversation I agreed to meet with him at the University of Toronto and film a little bit of the packing up process. I also agreed to provide him with my small Canon HV20 camera so he could do some shooting too AND I agreed (against my better judgment to never start following things that don’t have funding attached) to rope in Robin and Jason (DP and sound recordist) to come up to the barn for one day to do some initial shooting.

And there it began…

It was clear that what Todd, Cameron and the HPO team were doing was pretty cool and their enthusiasm was pretty infectious and for some reason I agreed to return one more time. I also agreed to start to see if there was any way to make a film about this human-powered ornithopter and the team behind it.

That year at Hotdocs I was part of a mentorship program and I had to submit project ideas to Bob Culbert (who is now at CBC’s The Nature of Things, but then was flying solo after his post at CTV went away). Bob took to this idea and offered to come on as Executive Producer of the project if we could get a broadcaster interested. Ironically, we met with The Nature of Things who said it wasn’t for them. We approached Discovery’s Daily Planet but it was no-go too – the timing was off. Eventually, Bruce Cowley at Documentary agreed to provide a small development budget.

With the development money we did some shooting and put together a 4 minute trailer (way too long for a traditional trailer but good to give Documentary a sense of what we want to do). Then the process began of trying to get Bruce to agree to coming on board for production. One of the big obstacles in his decision-making was that we didn’t know whether the ornithopter would actually fly, and if it didn’t the end to our film wasn’t all that spectacular.

We came up with some alternate ending solutions and Bruce came on board.

Now, this IS exciting, but it’s the middle step in an 18 month process to secure the remainder of the funding. Documentary comes on with a license fee for a percentage of the approved budget. They also agree to put in money from their CMF (Canadian Media Fund) envelope. Then I have to track down the rest. 90% of my labour and production (federal and provincial) tax credits have to be in the budget. This is fantastic, but this money won’t actually turn up until a year or more after the films finished, so that money has to be interim financed for now. I applied to Rogers Documentary Fund, Rogers Cable Network Fund and Shaw/Hotdocs. I was rejected by all three in Spring 2010 round of funding.

This left me in a bit of a pickle. Able and obligated to make A film, but not the film I had in my head.

In Fall 2010 I reapproached Shaw-Hotdocs and they came through – yay and thank you!

I am almost there…well, I’m technically “fully” funded, but nearly 25% of that funding is producer contribution and tax credits and, since tax credit amounts aren’t guaranteed, this could mean 3 years of work with no paycheque to speak of.

I’ve re-applied for Rogers Documentary Fund and I’m hopeful that it will come through and that I’ll know before June when I have to apply for Rogers Cable Network Fund.

We’re so fortunate to have some funding bodies who support documentary in Canada. What’s unfortunate is that we’re losing places for the films to play.

At the end of the day I feel very lucky to be making a film, but I also can’t help but wonder what happens in 4 month when this one is done. The reality is I can ‘afford’ time and energy-wise to make one film at a time myself before I employ a team of people, but once I employ a team of people I need to have 3 or 4 times the work.

Time will tell.

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