Nice Money If You Can Get It: Sundance's Documentary Film Fund

Filmmakers famously dream about getting into the Sundance Film Festival and hobnobbing with the likes of Matt Damon in Park City. But there's another Sundance fantasy: Landing one of the $70,000 grants that the Sundance Documentary Film Fund gives out for promising projects. These grants of up to $70,000 to filmmakers help cover the costs in all stages of film production, including development and audience engagement (See Sundance Institute: Grants for Film). The grant money can be an enormous assist for filmmakers who want to get their message out to audiences around the world. Film is a powerful tool and one of the most accessible forms of media out there. A documentary made with the support of a name like Sundance makes it all that more powerful.

The Soros Documentary Film Fund partnered with Robert Redford's Sundance Institute in 2002 with a $4.6 million grant from George Soros' Open Society Foundations. This partnership formed the Sundance Documentary Film Fund and at the time, many were worried that politics would be a pervasive subject for the documentary film grantees. Both George Soros and Robert Redford are outspoken in regard to their personal political beliefs, so the worry seemed a natural reaction and maybe even warranted at the time.

However, exploring the current documentary film grantees and the subject matter of their films, it may be time for concerned parties to breathe a small sigh of relief (read executive director Keri Putnam's IP profile). That isn't to say that many grantees aren't making politically driven documentaries — which they are — but that makes sense since the Documentary Film Fund's focus is on films with a "broad range of contemporary social issues." Many contemporary social issues are in fact highly political.

Overall there's still an interesting balance of subject matter for the current grantee filmmakers, like:

  • 99% - An Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film: A film about the movement told by different people's perspectives.
  • Stargazing: A film about a Muslim girl who dreams of becoming an astronaut.
  • Untitled Gay Retiree Project: A film that explores LGBT issues for individuals in their retirement years.

A mixed bag of subjects indeed, but in a good way. And it's pretty competitive for those who apply. The Fund reviews between 1,400 and 2,000 proposals ever year and chooses 35 to 50 films to support. The Fund supports projects that are in development, in production, or post-production.

All in all, nice money and prestigious, too — if you can get it.