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Independent Film Grants Explained

Original publish date: October 29, 2021

Film grants provide you with an opportunity to fill in the gaps of your independent movie’s financial package. A compelling project with a niche appeal could be a good fit for one or more grants from interest-based non-profits, foundations, corporations and governments. 

Organizations that write film grants are looking for something in return – often a heightened profile, an ability to advertise its support of a certain social cause or niche through your project, and increased donations to its cause. 

We’ll go through some of the most important points you need to know about film grants in general, the grant application process, as well as explain some best practices when creating a proposal. 

How can a grant help finance or finish a film? 

Grants can help fill in the gaps of your film’s budget. While one or multiple grants may not be enough to fund an entire project, an organization’s financial support and expertise can go a long way in helping your independent film get to the big screen.

Many organizations specify what the money must be used for, while others allow free reign. Grants run the gamut, from development support to production funds and entire programs established to help niche artists finish projects.

Free money from film grants  

Free money means just that: it’s free. In these cases, organizations are interested in you, your story and the project you’re attempting to mount. They’re not trying to burden you by requiring you to pay back the funds. This makes a film grant an exceptionally flexible and pressure-free option for padding your project’s financial package with much needed cash. 

Even though grants are great for enhancing your independent film’s finances or helping you out of a tight financial situation, they’re not usually large enough to finance an entire project. They shouldn’t be relied on to do so.  

However, the ability to successfully pitch your project to private investors or banks, after landing a well known and trusted sponsor, could become simpler.

If you have already completed production on the movie but ran out of money for post-production, including a sizzle reel in your grant application could heighten your project’s profile tenfold. Strong footage will give your project an edge and can help you score a grant for finishing your film or getting financial assistance for distribution. 

In-kind donations and expertise

Some grants come as a hybrid of assistance, providing cash with restrictions as well as providing free “in-kind” services in the total price tag of the funds.

In-kind services can include post-production services, equipment rentals, marketing materials and more. While you won’t receive cash for these items, they will have a dollar amount attached to them and should be included in your budget. By including in-kind donations in your budget, you are able to show the actual worth of the project, even if it didn’t cost an investor a penny.  

In addition to financial assistance, some organizations will go a step further and provide development, production or distribution expertise. Explore past projects the organization has helped to determine whether their techniques will bring your particular project success.

When should you apply for a film grant?  

When you apply for a film grant depends on the stage of production you are currently in, what your independent film’s financial package looks like and whether you can satisfy the grant application requirements. Organizations are looking to fund projects that are feasible. It helps to have early investments to show them. If principal photography is already complete, having strong footage is the gold standard for scoring a grant.  

Developing a detailed, compelling and professional proposal takes time and resources. The sooner you create a proposal and apply, the better. 

With various application and notification dates to track, start researching grants for your project up to a year or more in advance of production start. This gives you ample time to plan ahead, write a thorough proposal and hear back on the status of an application before the money is an absolute necessity.

Many grants have limitations on how the money can be used. Be sure to factor in how grant money will affect your budget. It’s better for grants with restrictions to complement each other rather than provide too much cash for one phase of the project than another.    

Create a timeline of due dates and notification dates to help organize your applications and insure you don’t miss out on any potential cash. Planning ahead enables you to see the shortfalls in your budget and gives you time to fill in those financial gaps.   

If you’re well into production, and run out of money in post-production, a grant is an exceptional option to get your project across the finish line. It isn’t recommended to wait for any reason; If you’re going over budget in principal photography and a shortfall is looming, start applying for finishing funds before post-production starts. 

It’s important to have a well thought out plan when investigating and applying to grants. With the right timing, you may be able to leverage your gains to convince other parties of your project’s validity, thus raising more money, either by equity or debt financing.

What is the difference between a non-profit, foundation, corporate and government grant for films? 

The differences between non-profit organizations, foundations, corporate and government grants for film projects are subtle. Each form of money from any of these organizations will have their own set of application requirements, rules for use and guiding principles for issuing the funds in the first place. It’s important to thoroughly research the grant you are applying for, ask questions and decide whether the grant is right for you and your budget.   

A non-profit organization writes grants that align with their mission, divvying up monies to initiatives that further their goals of awareness or change. Non-profits get their money from donations, foundations, and corporate sponsorships. In this way, non-profits fund niches that are relevant to their purpose and may dip into the same pools of money you may be able to apply to directly.  

Private foundations are typically funded by a family trust for the purpose of supporting causes that matter to them. Foundations most often offer grants to non-profit organizations that align with their values and goals. On other occasions, they may offer grants directly to artists. Be aware of where money is flowing from and how accessible that money is. Some foundations are interested in direct funding, whereas others will require you to apply through a non-profit to receive a grant.  

A corporate grant is money that comes out of a corporation’s community outreach budget or executive discretionary fund. If there is a corporation with interests that align with your film project, it is worth investigating whether they have money available for independent films within your niche.    

Government grants are given by the federal government’s National Endowment for the Humanities, state governments, and local governments. They typically don’t have any strings attached, though there are sometimes restrictions on the use of the money.

If you’re using state or local grant money to pay for a project, you will most likely be required to use that money in that locality. You must also find fiscal sponsorship before applying to most government grants. In this case a non-profit will vouch for your project by sponsoring it as an extension of their not-for-profit status. This allows the project to remain a for-profit venture, while giving you the financial benefits of a non-profit and the ability to apply for government grants.

Which grant is right for your film project? 

When applying for grants, identify the type and length of project you’re creating, which stage of production you need money for and which niche you best fit into. There are a number of contributing factors that determine your particular qualification for a grant. Research each grant you wish to apply for. Read up on the organization offering the money. Make certain the grant and organization is a good fit for you and your project. 

A non-profit will run the same checks when reviewing your application, reading your pitch and viewing visual aids to decide whether you and your project are a worthwhile cause for their institution. They want projects that raise their profile, as much as you want a respected organization to raise your profile.   

Organizations are interested in you as a person, as a filmmaker and an artist. They want to fund you. You could fit into a niche and get funding, even if the project necessarily doesn’t.  

On the other hand, many organizations want to back a project that furthers a specific cause. If you are passionate about a subject matter they are passionate about, that could be a good fit, and it may be worth applying. 

Every single grant is different.

Some have restrictions and some others allow free reign over funds. Common restrictions include the following: 

Because funds in niches are highly competitive, receiving a plethora of applications depending on their reach and scope, it is recommended you apply to several grants in your selected category or niche. This increases your chances of finding success.  

The following are common niches that film grant programs are supporting: 

Communities

Special Interest 

Project Type 

What do organizations usually require to apply for a film grant? 

Every organization has different parameters for their applications. Carefully review every grant you are considering for differing requirements.  

Many requirements overlap between grants, so it is worthwhile to create a proposal with common elements that you can easily swap in and out. Here are some common asks within an application and a proposal:   

6 Tips for Writing an Effective Film Grant Proposal 

An effective proposal can be the difference between winning a grant for your film project and not getting the cash you need. Your proposal needs to be concise yet passionate as well as thoroughly analytical and executable.

The goal is to persuade the organization you’re applying to that your movie is worth the time, effort, and money it will take to become a reality. To convince them that that reality will bear fruit for you as a filmmaker as well as bolster the reputation of their organization.   

Every application will require you to include different filmic elements, so pay attention to specific asks from one application to another. The following steps cover common requirements you should assemble as part of your proposal. Keep your proposal flexible by organizing it in easily identifiable blocks. Added versatility will go a long way when applying to a large number of grants. 

1. Open your grant proposal with a strong introduction 

Start your grant proposal with an appeal to the reader of the application. Yours will be one of many, and the cover page should pique the interest of the reader and convince them to keep reading. Give the reader a taste of who you are, what your project is, and why it’s important right now.  

It is imperative to use these first few paragraphs to capture the attention and imagination of the reader. Allow them to see what you see. Pitch a relevant project they can’t bear to miss out on. Much like a screenplay needs to hook its audience in the first ten pages, your introduction should hook in the grant reader in one page.  

2. Pitch your film’s story with a logline and synopsis

Once the reader is captivated, it’s time to offer specific details about the film. Applications may ask for a logline, synopsis, list of characters, and an explanation of other story elements.  

The logline should be short and compelling. It must embody your entire film in a matter of one or two sentences. 

A synopsis should cover the main story elements of your film. Include major plot points, introduce characters and their arcs, and important story elements. The synopsis allows you a little more leeway to express the full scope of the film’s characters and their world. It also provides the opportunity to start planting the seeds of relevance. Include elements from your story that would be compelling to the organization’s mission. This piece can be one to two pages long. 

3. Present a personal connection and artistic vision for your film

A personal statement gives you, the filmmaker, the opportunity to introduce yourself and your personal connection to the work at hand. Some organizations are just as interested in the creator of the project as they are in the material itself. Be sure to fill out your backstory, how you came be involved with this project and your personal connection to it.  

In another section, include a statement breaking down your artistic vision. Why are you the right person to make this film? What makes your style different and memorable? How will you execute the script in a way that is powerful for an audience to view? Ask yourself these questions and give robust answers that show the grant reader that you are the only person that can make this project happen.  

4. Describe the relevance of your independent film project

Organizations and foundations are interested in furthering a mission and sticking to their values. They are interested in making positive social, cultural, or political change and they want to know why your project will help them accomplish their goals.

Write a relevance statement that explains how your project and their organization share the same intentions. Explain how your project is timely and important and how it will help enhance the mission of the granter and the grantee.  

5. Create a practical financial, business and distribution plan

It is important to prove your project is feasible. Most applications will require a number of practical elements that fill out the business side of the story.  

Start by discussing your financial package thus far. Create a detailed breakdown of how much money you already have and where that money came from. Include investor commitments, other pending grants, fundraising efforts and any other money you expect to have and how much.  

Break down how those funds will be used into a full detailed budget. Include every cost and line item you expect to incur or have already incurred.  

Write a business plan that discusses corporate structure, fiscal sponsorships, and a layout of how the film will be developed, produced, and distributed. Include how investors and banks will get paid back. Include every detail you have planned that will make your film a success on the market. 

Make sure to mention any distribution pre-sales or broadcast commitments; if you don’t have these, submit a plan for accomplishing distribution. Identify your potential audience, and make sure that audience is sizeable enough to make your project a feasible option. 

Many funds will ask for a schedule at varying levels of detail. For your own sake, create fully executable schedules with varying levels of detail. Be able to provide any level of detail, from a stage-based plan set over many months, to a weekly production schedule that proves production and budget viability.

6. Include attached talent to bolster confidence in your independent film

Your cast and crew are a vital piece of the financial puzzle. Write a section identifying any attached talent or crew that could reassure the grant reader that you should be taken seriously. With the right talent attached, your project could catch the attention of a larger audience, and catapult the project to the top of the pile.  

Film grants fill in the gaps for a good cause 

Grants are excellent tools for meeting your budgetary goals. They provide free money that doesn’t put a strain on your film’s finances when it’s time to screen. Associating your project with a prestigious organization does wonders for raising the profile of your film and your film can help further a non-profit’s mission.

While it’s important to pay close attention to the complexities of each organization and grant you apply to, getting equipped with the right information can help you find success. Whether you are about to make a film or your film needs money to get finished, with the right project and niche, grants are a fantastic source of funding.


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