How To

Party Like a Doc Star

Filmmakers increasingly need to seek funds from as many sources as possible. A fundraising party may seem like a fun way to raise
much-needed dough, but they are a lot of work.  Still, securing the right host, making a personal connection to the guests, and laying the groundwork for future “asks” can have
pay-offs far beyond the money raised at the event. Parties can build the community your film needs to get to the next step. 

I recently talked to fundraising expert Morrie Warshawski, whose
book

The Fundraising Houseparty: How to Party With a Purpose and Raise Money for
Your Cause
, is now out in its second edition and includes new
sample invitations, new tips on making use of the Internet for the party,
and a brainstorming worksheet to help filmmakers identify potential new
partners and hosts.  Warshawski is also the author of Shaking
The Money Tree: How To Get Grants And Donations For Film
And
Video — 2nd Edition
and speaks regularly about fundraising and career issues for independent
filmmakers.

I also spoke with filmmakers Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar
who successfully raised funds through parties for their 2007 film,

Made in L.A.
about the labor struggles of immigrant garment
workers in Los Angeles.  The film screened on the PBS series P.O.V., is continuing to play festival and community screenings around the world, and has been nominated for an Emmy.  Also providing insights fresh from the experience of his first
fundraising houseparty is first-time producer/director Christopher Wong.
He is in the process of raising funds for his film

Whatever It Takes
about a year in the life of an urban high
school whose staff is determined to protect their kids from falling through
the cracks.

At what point in the process of making a film should one
consider holding fundraising parties?  Do you need to already have a
trailer?  A fiscal sponsor?  Money
raised from other sources?

Morrie Warshawski: I would consider it as soon as I have an idea
for a film.  You can throw a party at any point along the process from
idea, through production, post-production, and even during the distribution
phase. 

Almudena Carracedo: You almost definitely need a respected fiscal
sponsor. People prefer to be able to make tax-deductible donations, and they
will feel more secure donating to a fiscal sponsor that guarantees that the
funds will be spent in the project in a professional manner.  We were
honored to be able to work with

Women Make Movies
on Made in L.A.

Morrie Warshawski: You don’t absolutely need to have a trailer,
but these parties work much better if you can show a strong, engaging
trailer that is a portion of the film you plan to make. 

Robert Bahar: I suppose some filmmakers might be able to hold an
event without a trailer, but we always felt that a trailer was essential.
 Screening and discussing the trailer gives the event a focal point; it
helps the audience connect emotionally to the film, and it demonstrates that
you really are doing what you say you are doing.

Morrie Warshawski: If you’re throwing the party early in your
process, you might be trying to raise enough funds to shoot your trailer. 
In this case, you’ll need to be creative and present something else —
slides, clips from previous work, subjects of the film who come in to give
personal testimonials, or do a script reading. 

Almudena Carracedo: Even though it always helps to have previously
raised some funds, it is probably not a necessity in a fundraiser. People
are going to support you because they believe in your cause, that you’re
making something valuable, and that you have the capacity to finish it. The
more you can use the event to make the case that "this film needs to be
made" and "this film is important, urgent, and new" the more persuasive
you’ll be. 

Morrie Warshawski: It always helps to be able to say that other
people have already given you some support, but this is not a requirement. 
Remember that some people want to be known as the risk-takers who jumped on
the wagon first.  But it does help a party if you can have someone
commit to matching gifts that night.

How would you compare fundraising through parties to fundraising
through grants?  Are the potential rewards worth the effort?

Morrie Warshawski: Oh my — this is a big question!  There is
a world of difference between these two avenues of fundraising — in
fact, they are two opposite ends of the
fundraising spectrum.  Fundraising through grants involves an intensive
period of research, followed by making contact with a funder, then the
creation of an extensive written proposal that might be supplemented with
ancillary materials.  The whole process of researching, applying for
and then hearing about a grant can take many months.  And, because the
competition for grant dollars is so intense, the odds are stacked against
you, so you receive many more rejections than awards.  When you do get
a grant, however, you’re likely to land something in the mid to high five-figure range of support. 

[Editor’s note: Many filmmakers are supported by grants of $10,000 or less by private foundations, such as the LEF Foundation or state/regional arts councils, such as NYSCA .]

Robert Bahar: In comparison to applying for a comparably sized
grant, in this case you have control of how much money you’ll raise,
and there is virtually zero chance that you’ll end up empty handed. With a
grant, the odds are probably 80 or 90 percent that you’ll be rejected. Of course,
sometimes small grants open doors to bigger grants from the same funder, and
there’s no one right choice. Most projects will use a number of fundraising
methods across their lifespan. 

Christopher Wong: Raising money through a houseparty is such a
different feel from going through a foundation or a film organization. 
The level of personal interaction is so much more crucial with a houseparty. 
In addition, the appeal one makes is much more raw, and less
reasoned that with a written proposal.  The other major difference is
that one gets the money immediately at a fundraiser, instead of having to go
through four to six months of deliberation. 

Morrie Warshawski: With a houseparty, everything is much faster. 
You only need about six weeks lead time.  It’s much more personal. 
You work with a group of people.  There is little research involved. 
You don’t have to write a proposal.  And, if you do it right, you can
pretty much guarantee you will get money that night, though the amounts will
be more modest.  
Whether the rewards are worth the effort depends very much on the nature of
the project, how fast and how much money is needed, and the personality of
the filmmaker.

So take me a little bit through the process.  Let’s say I
wanted to have a fundraising party for my film.  Should I put together
a big public soiree or can I really raise funds with just a small home-based
event? 

Almudena Carracedo: We’ve had several fundraisers. One was a concert.
The other ones were houseparties. All of our events brought in the same
level of donors, but they were in different communities, either
geographically, or in different networks around Los Angeles. I think you
want to create an event where people feel that have been invited to
something special. Even if 100 people show up, you don’t want it to feel
"public" per se. Rather, you want people to feel
that they received a special invitation and that the event is being hosted
by people that they respect in their community.

Morrie Warshawski: I am a big fan of the smaller houseparty as
opposed to the large, public fundraising special event.  With a large
special event, it is possible to make some money, but it is highly likely
that you might actually lose money in one of two ways.  One obvious way
is that the event actually costs you more than you paid for it.  But a
more insidious and invisible way you lose money is that you don’t get as
much from each person as you could or should.  For instance, if you
charge a $50 admission to a benefit screening, the donor feels they’ve made
their contribution and you can’t ask them for more money that evening
(unless you’re conducting an auction where they feel they are “buying”
something).  But if that same donor was worth and could afford a $500
donation, you just lost $450!  The beauty of the houseparty is
that when people make a donation it’s at the level they’re most comfortable
with, and that’s usually quite a bit more than the price of a special event
admission fee.

Is it typical to have only one party for a film or to hold
several parties at different stages of production or with different types of funders (such as one for people who could afford to donate $50 or $100
separate from one for people who could afford to donate in the four- or five-
figures)?

Morrie Warshawski: It is very unusual to hold only one party for a
film.  Usually you are holding a number of parties, sometimes in a
number of different cities.  Part of the strategy for a houseparty is
to keep the invitees homogeneous and not heterogeneous — you want to invite
donors of modest means to one party, major donors to a separate party and
not mix the two up.  This makes a big difference in how much you will
ask for and get at each event.  Talk to the host and set a goal that is
reasonable — or a slight stretch — for the worth of the people being invited
and for the number you hope will attend.  This means your realistic
goal will be different for every party you throw.  It’s pretty common
for modest parties to bring in $3,000-$7,000.  I’ve received notes
from filmmakers in the past six months that said their parties netted
anywhere from $12,000-$23,000 in one night.  I also know of parties
that have brought in as much as $120,000 and as little as a few hundred
dollars. 

Christopher Wong: I just had my first fundraising party in New
York and plan to have at least two other fundraising parties in the near
future — one in Los Angeles and one in Boston.

So what is a realistic goal for most films to make from a
fundraising party? 

Robert Bahar: A houseparty is worthwhile if you set a fundraising
goal that you are happy with, and if you really put in the forethought and
effort to achieve that goal. In our experience, successful events yielded at
least $8,000-$10,000, given the audience that we were fundraising from. It
really depends on the community that you’re reaching out to. Since Made
in L.A.
is about immigrant labor issues in Los Angeles, it was natural
for us to reach out to labor, social justice and activist communities in
L.A. And in reality, we were already working with those communities in the
making of the film so it wasn’t hard to find them! 

Christopher Wong: I thought I would be able to raise $10,000 at
the New York fundraiser.  That night we only raised $4,000.  But
there were some potential donors who couldn’t make it at the last minute. 
I stayed in New York for a few additional days and met with some who had
been invited, but couldn’t make it that night.  Since these were people
with whom I had a prior friendship or acquaintance, I took advantage of the
opportunity to invite them to lunch or coffee.  Because they had
already received the invitation, most people were open to just meeting
one-on-one.  I managed to raise another $4,000-$5,000 from these
follow-up meetings. 

You bring up an important point about people already
receiving the invitation, so there were no surprises that you would be
asking them to donate.  But for the party itself, what is the most
diplomatic but direct way of conveying this in a written invitation, so
guests are not surprised when they are being hit up for money?

Morrie Warshawski: You have to make it very clear that people are
going to be asked for money at the houseparty.  This is very important. 
You never ever want to blindside invitees who think they are coming to a
“party” and then find out they are being asked for money.  Your
invitation will always include an RSVP card, and that card allows people to
make a donation even if they can’t come, so that is
signal
enough that the event is about fundraising.  You could
say things like “You are invited to a celebration and fundraising event….”
or “Please join us for a benefit for….”  I even saw an invite once that
said “… and don’t forget to bring your checkbook and/or credit card!” 
My book has other examples. 

Realize that being upfront about the fundraising purpose of the party is
going to discourage lots of people from attending, which is why you must
invite three or four times as many people as you would like to show up.  But,
that is one of the wonderful “self correcting” aspects of the houseparty. 
Many people will say “no thanks,” but the rest that do show up know what
they are in for and come to the party ready to be asked and to make a
donation.

Almudena Carracedo: It’s very important that the invitation be
clear that the event is a fundraiser. We suggest including phrases like
these in the invitation: