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Free Money: 5 Cash Grants for Filmmakers

Eric Escobar
By Eric Escobar
By Eric Escobar

There are hundreds of arts organizations providing many different types of support to independent filmmakers. Here are the 5 grants to approach for your next project.

Tens of millions of dollars a year flow from arts institutions and organizations into the pockets of film artists working way outside the mainstream…

So where should you look for film funding?

When I set out to write an article on the “who” of indie film supporters, I ended up with a list that was very, very long. There are so many organizations and supporters in the film arts world nowadays that it made more sense, to me, to cull a list that impacts the largest number of filmmakers seeking support. In order to make the most inclusive list possible, I am writing about grants that 1) provide actual cash money to filmmakers 2) are part of a larger film arts organization and 3) are open to everyone, everywhere.

The fourth criteria was a little more fluid — support longevity. Organizations that have a mission at building long-term relationships with artists are more likely to keep giving you resources over the years. In short, don’t have any one, single film project be the end all and be all of your career.

Cinereach

The largest and most inclusive of supporters, Cinereach is behind a dozen great films on the festival circuit each year.

“Cinereach supports feature-length nonfiction and fiction films that are at the intersection of engaging storytelling, visual artistry, and vital subject matter. Grant amounts can range from $5,000 – $50,000 per project and can be awarded to support any stage of production, including development, production and post-production. Within each cycle, between five and fifteen projects are typically selected to receive support.”

While they are not specific in the subject matter and filmmakers they fund, they are looking to create a kind of Cinereach brand that looks like this:

• Favor story over message, character over agenda, and complexity over duality
• Explore emergent topics, themes or ideas
• Possess an independent spirit
• Depict underrepresented perspectives
• Resonate across international boundaries
• Spark dialogue
• Challenge preconception and bias
• Champion humanity and hope

Like I said, Cinereach is not just about signing a check, they want to keep track of you and build a long term institution-artist relationship:

“In addition to making grants, Cinereach seeks to form lasting and meaningful relationships with the talented, dedicated, and creative people we support. We invite a continuing dialogue, maintain an open-door policy, and help to rally a community in which our grantee films and filmmakers can flourish.”

San Francisco Film Society

San Francisco Film Society

My home film org, the San Francisco Film Society gives close to a half a million dollars a year in direct cash grants to filmmakers. All phases of filmmaking and stages in a filmmakers career are eligible for funding.

The one catch is that the largest chunk of money given each year, the KRF grants, must have a local connection to the Bay Area, and a social justice theme. That local connection can be thematic or physical, and the social justice theme doesn’t mean “activist” or “issue”.

Nicholls Screenwriting Fellowship

Nicholl FellowshipsOn the festival circuit, you always hear about a project that was a “Nicholl’s quarter finalist”, and it means something big. That’s a huge testament that making it to the quarter finals of competition is something you stick on a résumé. Winning a Nicholls is an even bigger accomplishment, and often the launching point of a screenwriting career in Hollywood. The great thing about the Nicholls is that it’s wide open to the writers who have yet to make a mark (or a buck) in Hollywood.

“Up to five $35,000 fellowships are awarded annually. Fellowship recipients are expected to complete at least one original feature film screenplay during the Fellowship year. Fellowship payments are subject to satisfactory progress of the recipient’s work, as judged by the Academy Nicholl Fellowships Committee. Fellowship recipients, selected from approximately ten finalists in the competition, are announced in October. The winners are invited to participate in awards week ceremonies and seminars in November.”

Pare Lorentz Doc Fund (aka IDA)

Pare Lorentz

About $100k a year split among six issue-oriented documentaries on US subjects. This is a doc-only grant, but I include it because it is the yearly grant program of the International Documentary Association (IDA).

If you’re a documentary filmmaker, especially one that does activist filmmaking, this is an organization to get connected to. The IDA is an important resource and an incredible community.

The Sloan Grant Octopus

Alfred Sloan FoundationOne of the largest and most generous organizations for narrative filmmakers is one that many have never heard of — The Alfred P Sloan Foundation. This organization gives out hundreds of thousands of dollars a year (cash grants and prizes) through a dozen different outlets to dozens of projects. The one catch is that in order to get a grant or prize, your film has to be about science. And that’s real science, not science fiction or metaphysical pseudo science. So if you have a story about a scientist as a main character, or some characters engaged in the scientific process or themes that can be connected to actual science, then you can try and get into the Sloan pipeline. The Sloan people are well known for supporting projects with multiple grants and prizes.

“The Foundation has developed a nationwide film program that includes support of film schools, film festivals and screenplay development partners, and film production and distribution platforms. The goals of this program are to influence the next generation of filmmakers to tackle science and technology themes and characters, to increase visibility for feature films that depict this subject matter, and to develop new scripts about science and technology that can be produced and released theatrically. The program has created a film development pipeline of multiple program partners through whom Sloan nurtures and develops individual projects with different grants until they are successfully launched.”

Here some of the specific places where you can apply for Sloan money:

FIND Sloan Producers Grant

Sundance Commissioning Grant

Sundance Fellowship Grant

TFI Sloan Filmmaker Fund

My Only Advice for Applying to Grants

Having written dozens of grant applications at this point in my career, I only have one piece of advice: look at the kinds of films and filmmakers the organization supports and ask yourself if your project is a good fit.

If you are writing mainstream genre stuff, the kind of material that regularly gets made in Hollywood, then you really have to tailor the project to a film arts organization’s sensibility. It’s not true to assume that you won’t get a grant because your project is too “mainstream”. Comedy, sci-fi and action films get grant supports (not many), but the larger project of grant organizations is to fund films and filmmakers that are working on interesting projects that can’t get funding from studios and production companies.

That’s kind of the point. Film is both art and commerce, and if your project is a highly derivative action film, clearly written to get a sale from a studio (aka commerce), odds are you’re not going to get money from a grant organization trying to advance the art of filmmaking. But if your action film is a clever genre wrapping around a larger idea that challenges audiences, then yes, there may be a friendly reception in the film arts funding world. The folks that work in these grant orgs love film just like you do, and they know A LOT about film.