Does it matter who funds films?

Posted August 19th, 2008 by ingrid

Well, yes of course it does. But this is a sticky, tricky issue that the independent film community is going to have to grapple with as new sources of funding become available and new partnerships are sought. I just finished writing an article for MovieScope Magazine in the UK about the possibilities for outreach around documentaries, focusing on the productive partnerships that Third Sector funding (NGOs, charities, social enterprises, voluntary organizations etc.) can help foster. However a couple of recent Guardian articles (click here and here) have highlighted the ethical issues involved when financial support is given by organizations with a particular agenda. Who has editorial control if a film is funded by Amnesty or Oxfam? The Guardian quotes Chloe Baird-Murray, Amnesty’s director of creative relationships: “If the film-maker wants to tell both sides of the story, they can do that. We support … freedom of expression. Any storytelling is positive for us if it shines a light on what is happening in the world. We get involved to tell our side of the story correctly. Documentaries can be overwhelming if they do not contain a solution to the problems they highlight. NGOs can give that. Al Gore’s film ended with an example of what people can do. People are ripe for that kind of activism.”

The Good Pitch at BRITDOC opened many people’s eyes to the possibilities of Third Sector and commercial funding (see also the work that the Channel 4 Documentary Film Foundation did in bringing the non-profit world together with filmmakers last year at The Media Conference). Just take a look at the list of observers – many will not be folk you would consider “the usual suspects” when it comes to documentary funding:

Fledgling Fund
Sundance Institute
AOL True Stories
Christian Aid
Gucci Fund
The Sunday Telegraph
Hartley Film Foundation
One World Broadcasting Trust
Vice Magazine
Gulbenkian Foundation
Channel 4 (Corporate Affairs)
Oak Foundation
Greenpeace UK
British Beekeepers Association
World Development Movement

There is definitely a need for funding outside of television/government in the UK but filmmakers will have to be alert as they navigate this new landscape. There is a longer tradition of this kind of funding in the US (much of it necessitated by the profound lack of government/public service funding here) but the recent Nike/Beautiful Losers deal on this side of the pond has led to much debate about the ethics and politics of big corporations giving support to independent films. As Spout’s Karina Longworth put it: “Beyond the knee-jerk “corporate=bad” response, what should we think about indie documentaries looking to multinational giants for the kind of support that studios are no longer willing to give?”

Transparency is clearly key in all these instances. I’m inclined to agree with the Frontline Club’s Vaughan Smith who says: “I can’t think of subjective journalism that I have a problem with, if it is marked as subjective and clear. Most journalism is already subjective, even if it is labelled as objective. I am suspicious of all organisations, including news organisations. There always needs to be proper controls to protect editorial integrity.”

Thank you to Mark Rabinowitz/Docsider for the heads up about the Guardian articles.

The team behind Black Gold at The Media Conference in 2007

  1. Janus Avivson

    Nothing is truly objective, everybody has a point of view, however neutral one tries to be. So what can one do in order to be as objective as possible?

    I think that one has to make an attempt to balance views evenly and ask the same questions to people on both sides of the divide, and also – very importantly – specify in credits who paid for making of the film, proportionally.

    I propose to introduce a system where the viewer could see what was the proportion of funding, who gave more and who less, in per-cent figures. Obviously this will help to see how “objective” was the doc. An information that the film about running shoes is financed 80% by Adidas and 20% by Puma will help me to understand why the narration favours the first one. And it will help to be more transparent about sponsors.

  2. Tom Cholmondeley

    Hi Ingrid,
    Great blog and judging by how packed the sweaty hall of Britdoc’s Good Pitch was – very relevant.

    As we left The Good Pitch I heard someone muttering, “Don’t they realise that the BBC rules mean their documentaries could never been shown?”
    So does taking charity cash mean ruling out the BBC?
    This seems a tricky area and one I haven’t been able to pin down. I called editorial policy at the BBC and they said if a film had ANY funding by non broadcasters would make it ‘difficult’ for the BBC to show it.
    I mentioned Jeremy Gilley’s superb Peace One Day which was shown on BBC Storyville and cost £1.4 million in charity donations and sponsorship. The man said ‘that was Storyville’s problem to solve.’
    So not exactly clear…..
    It would help a lot of people if we could get a definitive answer on this. Can anyone help?

  3. Ingrid

    This discussion about funding has been running on the Shooting People UK Documentary Bulletin and I recently posted the following response to a Shooter:

    I think you’re absolutely right about the need to be very clear about editorial control, journalistic ethics and the difference between corporate videos and documentaries but I also think that filmmakers and the Third Sector/commerical brands are going to have to figure out how to work together in a way that makes sense because the cat is out of the bag and it is not going to get back in. There are not enough slices of television/government funding pie available for everyone now that so many people are picking up cameras and making films. And there are tremendous opportunities to be had in seeking new partnerships (as well as potential pitfalls of course). In the US, there is a much longer tradition of this kind of funding because there is hardly any Government funding available and not such a strong tradition of well-funded television documentaries (HBO aside). “Public service” isn’t a priority here unfortunately. The positive side of this is that it has created an inspiring and entrepreneurial American independent documentary industry – and I believe that UK doc filmmakers can learn a lot from the US without throwing out the public service baby with the bathwater!

    But I, like Tom, would also like more information about how this all fits in with broadcaster policy. Please comment here if you have any answers!

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