(Banker White is a multi-disciplinary artist and award-winning filmmaker.)
1. How did your career in documentary film
get started and how did you support that first film?
I moved to San Francisco to go to grad school in 1998 (MFA CCA 2000) and worked as a painter, sculptor, and video artist prior to becoming a documentary filmmaker. I started my first documentary project in 2001: Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars. The film tells the uplifting story of a group of six Sierra Leonean musicians who came together to form a band while living as refugees in the Republic of Guinea. A brutal civil war (1991-2002) forced them from their homes in Sierra Leone. Despite the unimaginable horrors, they were saved through their music. The project had a profound effect on my creative process and my life. I loved how social the creative process was throughout the life of a project.
We found a lot of support for the project. The film was broadcast on POV (PBS) in North America, HBO Latin America and NHK in Japan and received grants from The Sundance Institute Documentary Fund (2004, 2005), the Pacific Pioneer Fund (2005), New Lambda Fund (2005), The Rex Foundation (2005), LEF Foundation (2005) and was supported by major donors including Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Angelina Jolie, Ice Cube and Shangri-La Entertainment. The film was released theatrically by Red Envelope Entertainment and was co-presented by ninemillion.org. In 2006, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars was nominated by the IDA (International Documentary Association) for best feature, won grand jury awards at AFI Fest, Full Frame Film Festival and the Human Rights Watch film festival, and earned audience awards at SXSW and Miami International Film Festival.
2. How did you build on that first successful experience?
In 2008 I launched a collaborative film/video collective called WeOwnTV (which roughly translates to “Our Own TV”) in Sierra Leonean Krio. In 2010 we opened a media center in Freetown, Sierra Leone and today we continue to support and collaborate with a group of talented young African filmmakers.
The project has been supported by grants from the Bay Area Video Coalition (Media Maker Award, 2008), Creative Capital (2008-2010), Arts Action (2010), Freedom to Create (2011) and The Bertha Foundation (2011, 2012).
WeOwnTV was founded on the belief that artistic expression and independent media can serve as an important tool for building a peaceful future. The collective is made up of men and women from diverse backgrounds: media professionals and students, ex-combatants and street kids. In just a few years we have built a filmmaking collective from the ground up that is now one of the most respected media groups in Sierra Leone. The local filmmakers are producing narrative shorts, music video, and compelling documentary content. They have done freelance work for international NGOs, ad agencies, and have worked as correspondents for Reuters and BBC. Our independent films have been screened at film festivals internationally in the US, UK, Spain, Denmark and Japan.
3. Can you tell us about your current projects?
In 2009 I started working on a very different project. Just after my mother Pam White was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s I moved home to help my family. I began filming conversations with my mother that would eventually become my most recent project, The Genius of Marian. The film chronicles the progress of my mother’s disease over three years and the ways my family has had to adjust to the new realities of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s.
The film is currently screening in film festivals. It premiered at the Tribeca film festival in April. Since then, the film has been invited to more than a dozen film festivals worldwide, including AFI Docs in Washington DC, the Moscow International Film Festival in Russia and the EBS International Documentary Festival in Seoul, South Korea. Click HERE for a list of upcoming screenings.
The project has received support from the Sundance Institute, Tribeca Film Institute, Impact Partners, Catapult Film Fund, LEF Foundation, The Fledgling Fund, GoodPitch, Working Films, and Creative Capital, The Fleishhacker Foundation, Influence Film Fund, The San Francisco Film Society, and The Center for Independent Documentary.
4. You have built an impressive list of
funders and supporters. How did you gain momentum for supporting your projects?
It took time to find support. Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars was a first film for both me and my co-director Zach Niles. We contacted the UN Refugee agency and wound up receiving quite a bit of in-kind support for the trip which kept our cost very low. Having strong material from that first trip really helped us find support from both foundations and individuals. Momentum can’t be created in a vacuum; it’s about getting the footage out there. And we were not always asking for support, but advice and feedback and making connections that all help create momentum and awareness of the project.
5. How has your fundraising experience
with WeOwnTV informed the funding of your personal films? How has it differed?
When we are seeking support for the WeOwnTV program our efforts primarily focused on finding annual support from foundations. We also have built a list of individuals who donate to a single annual fundraising drive. WeOwnTV manages a mailing list of supporters for the program and have had annual support from a few foundations to cover program overhead. We have taken a more creative, more campaign-driven approach to funding individual films. We also run individual fundraising campaigns, separate from our annual fundraising campaigns, for films WeOwnTV filmmakers produce. For example, this narrative short we raised funds for last year using Kickstarter.
The biggest thing I learned is just to put yourself out there – be bold, be confident, and be proactive. For both my film projects and for the WeOwnTV media center programs we have raised funds from foundations, individuals and via social campaigns including Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and Causes.
6. At what stage should your film be in
when you begin to apply to foundations for funding? Can you receive funding for
a project at different stages?
Finding support during the early stages is best. There are a few funds out there that support the early stages and development. We have a great one based right here in San Francisco called The Catapult Film Fund . In their words, their mission “is to enable filmmakers to develop their film projects to the next level at a moment where funding is hard to find. We support powerful stories, and moving storytelling, across a broad spectrum of issues and perspectives.” Catapult funded The Genius of Marian early on and really helped us out.
It is true that to be competitive in development it helps to have some footage that represents your project. AND when applying for production funds you are often expected to have strong sequences already shot and edited. BUT don’t let this discourage you. Applying for grant funding should be approached like an important part of the creative process. My strategy is to apply for foundation funding early and often. I really believe working to articulate your thoughts and communicate creative vision is a part of the process of making the film. It helps push the project forward whether or not your project gets support. Meeting deadlines also helps create a different type of needed structure.
Also, do your research: Apply to grants at the appropriate stage and for projects that match what the funder is looking for. Most grantmakers have thorough FAQs and guidelines on their websites.
7. What are some of the tools you have
used to fundraise for your documentaries? Which method or source is your
I have used a multitude: crowd sourcing, grant funding, investment funding, email campaigns. I have also just pitched to individuals over lunch. It is hard to say which is my favorite.
Crowd sourcing is exciting and exhausting. We have used Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and Causes. I could write a whole blog just on strategy, but my basic advice would be to launch your campaign when you are ready to give it a lot of energy. The connections and network you build through your efforts will be as valuable in the future as the funds you raise. It also helps to set a realistic goal. Reach out to potential supporters directly before you launch. Discuss your goals and strategy with them. It makes them feel like a part of the team and gives you a better sense of what you can realistically hope to raise.
8. Have you ever experienced a budget
shortfall for a project that you had already partially funded? If so, how did
you handle it?
I think we have had a budget shortfall on every project I have worked on J. When you have a great project that people believe in you can often get in-kind support from talented folks to help finish the project. I think also being flexible is helpful. In a way, what is exciting about documentary is how your ideas change. At times your original idea becomes more complicated and at others it is crystallized by actually spending time with your characters and the people you work with. So being flexible is just a part of the game.
9. What is the toughest lesson to learn
when it comes to fundraising for film?
You can’t go back in time. Many grant deadlines are once a year and decisions sometimes take up to six months, so plan well. Missing deadlines is painful. And, I said this before – Don’t be shy. Get out there and confidently start telling people about your project and ask for what you need. Stressing and worrying also uses a lot of energy and time. Try and use this energy to make a plan you believe in and get out there.