"Artistic Expression Meets Scientific Inquiry." Checking in on the Sloan Foundation's Film Grantmaking

While the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is primarily known for its work in the fields of science, technology, and engineering, it has also emerged as a powerful force in the cinematic arts space.

Launched in 1996, Sloan’s film program encourages filmmakers to “tackle science and technology themes and characters, increase visibility for feature films that depict this subject matter, and develop new work.” To date, the program has given out roughly $180 million.

Over the past 15 years, Sloan has partnered with six of the top film schools in the U.S. and supported screenplay development at Sundance, the Tribeca Film Institute, Film Independent, and SFFILM (formerly the San Francisco Film Society).

Sloan’s work here is part of its larger Public Understanding of Science, Technology and Economics program, whose aim is to “build bridges between the two cultures of science and the humanities and to develop a common language so that they can better understand and speak to one another.” The program also encompasses books, new media, radio, theater and television.

Sloan’s work in this niche has been quietly path-breaking and, lately, other funders have caught up to the foundation’s vision.

Previously, funders often viewed the arts and science and technology as separate, siloed, and, in some cases, diametrically opposed realms. But a lot has changed since 1996. Technology, of course, is now ubiquitous. At the same time, Americans’ knowledge of basic scientific concepts remains woefully inadequate while businesses can’t find enough qualified candidates for high-paying STEM jobs. In separate developments, many cultural institutions have struggled to find new ways to engage audiences, and colleges have faced growing questions about the relevance of the humanities in a digital age. To adapt to changing times, arts funders are embracing technology to optimize the museum-going experience or draw bigger audiences to the performing arts, while higher ed funders like the Mellon Foundation are making grants to better integrate STEM disciplines with other elements of a liberal arts education.

Conversely, science funders have come to appreciate the arts as a vehicle for boosting interest in science and math. For example, the Simons Foundation recently rolled out Science Sandbox, which tells “science stories” in a way that laymen like yours truly can (hopefully) understand. All the while, the emerging field of STEAM education—that is, Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics—continues, to, well… pick up steam.

Sloan has been working this nexus for years through its film program. What’s it been up to recently with that grantmaking?

Grants in Partnership with Film Independent

Projects eligible for support through Film Independent feature scientific, mathematical or technological themes, or have a lead character that is a scientist, engineer, or mathematician. Science fiction films or documentaries are not eligible for Sloan grants.

In mid-September, Film Independent presented three Sloan-supported grants totaling $60,000 to film and television projects.

  • Jenny Halper and producer Kate Sharp, who netted a $20,000 Fast Track production grant, for their fiction feature film Burning Season.

  • Clay Pruit, who received a $30,000 Producers Grant from his fiction feature Bell.

  • Mirella Christou, who was awarded the second annual Alfred P. Sloan Episodic Lab Grant, a $10,000 development grant, for her pilot Seven Eternities.

Grantees are paired with a science advisor who reviews their project and advises the grantee from a scientific perspective. All Sloan grantees are featured on the Sloan Science and Film website, an online publication presented by the Museum of the Moving Image.

“When artistic expression meets scientific inquiry, what emerges is great storytelling that explores in profound and nuanced ways what it means to be human,” said Jennifer Kushner, Film Independent's director of artist development.

Sloan Science in Cinema Filmmaker Fellowships

Even earlier this year, SFFILM and Sloan selected the recipients of the 2018 Sloan Science in Cinema Filmmaker Fellowships, earmarked for “narrative feature screenplays that explore scientific or technological themes and characters.”

Writer-directors So Young Shelly Yo (The 11th Endeavor) and Erica Liu (The Mushroomers) will receive a $35,000 cash grant and a two-month residency at SFFILM’s FilmHouse residency space that includes free office space with access to consultative services and professional development opportunities.

SFFILM will also connect each fellow to a science advisor with expertise in the scientific or technological subjects at the center of their screenplays, as well as leaders in the Bay Area’s science and technology communities.

Recent Grants to Film Schools

Sloan, as noted, also awards grants to U.S. film schools to support the development and production of science and technology films, television, and new media projects. Here are three recent grants, all of which were awarded in 2018:

  • $345,000 over three years to the American Film Institute to encourage young screenwriters and filmmakers to write and produce compelling, engaging narrative films that explore scientific themes or have scientists, engineers, or mathematicians as major characters.

  • $415,654 over three years to the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts to support student engagement with science as a subject matter in their work and to spur the development and production of science and technology film, television, and new media projects.

  • $361,648 to the University of California Los Angeles for a series of activities, programs, and initiatives designed to encourage UCLA film students to engage with scientific themes in their filmmaking and to produce science-themed films and screenplays.

Partnering with Sundance

Earlier this year, Sloan presented its Feature Film Prize and unveiled new grants at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. The 2018 Sloan Feature Film Prize went to Search, directed by Aneesh Chaganty.

“Telling these humanizing and nuanced stories about how science and technology influence every part of our lives is more important than ever. We are thrilled to honor and support these artists and their critical, timely, and deftly-crafted work,” said Keri Putnam, executive director of the Sundance Institute.

Check out all the grant winners here.

Further Reading

A common ingredient across these grant offerings is Sloan’s commitment to accuracy and scientific rigor, a point further underscored by Doron Weber, who oversees Sloan’s Public Understanding of Science, Technology and Economics program.

Every submitted screenplay, book, play or media proposal crosses Weber’s desk. In an interview with LifeHacker, Weber articulated his methodology accordingly:

By now, I’m my own focus group and I just need to read my internal audience meter for a decision. In some cases, I need to do additional research, and then I consult with relevant scientists, engineers and mathematicians in their fields to ensure accuracy. I have about 20 institutional partners in film and television who send me their semi-finalist choices, and then we deliberate face-to-face or on conference calls with their respective juries and committees.

Weber has been involved with the Science Philanthropy Alliance and its efforts to increase private support for basic research. He has also supported the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and its work with two dozen philanthropic partners to develop a Theory of Foundations.

Commenting on his role at Sloan, Weber told LifeHacker, “It’s kind of a dream job, which I basically redefined to fulfill the foundation’s core mission of research and education in science and technology while addressing society’s need to integrate fundamental advances in science with our common humanist culture.”

Again, Sloan’s work in bridging the “two cultures” of science and the humanities has been ahead of the curve. Arts funders are increasingly integrating science into the “arts experience,” while science funders like Simons laud “the positive effects of infusing the culture with scientific thinking.”