Eight Worthwhile Labs and Funds for the Documentary Filmmaker

A closer look at some helpful programs and resources available to independent filmmakers nationwide.

Every project has its roadblocks. The idea is locked down, now what to do about funding? The film is done, now how to to people see it?

Over the years many labs and funds have been established to help documentary filmmakers hone the necessary skills and provide access to the resources (money) to navigate such obstacles. The funds and labs highlighted below include some well-known and lesser-well-known programs and include varied assistance with skills.


Independent Filmmaker Labs offers a year-long program open to all first-time feature directors with films in post-production.

Those selected attend workshops in New York City led by a variety of industry experts in topics such as editing and sound design, and marketing and distribution. This also includes summer consultations and ongoing mentorship from an Alumni Mentor.

The program works to provide filmmakers with “the technical, creative and strategic tools necessary to launch their films—and their career,” as stated on its website. Projects should be low-budget (under $1 million), and without distribution in place.

Applicants are expected to hold an active IFP membership and include a rough cut of at least 40 minutes along with their online application and $75 application fee.

In the past, the documentary film lab occurred in May with deadlines for applications hitting early March.


Arising from the Cambden International Film Festival, Points North Institute describes itself as a “launching pad for the next generation of nonfiction storytellers” on its website. The Institute also expands to provide emerging documentary filmmakers year-round career-building programs.

Various artist retreats, residencies, forums, fellowships and workshops form a hub for collaboration, focused mentorship, and creative development held on the coast of Maine.

Program highlights include the Points North Forum, a three-day conference which this year featured seminars like Creative Producing: Conversation with Julie Goldman, The Poetics of Documentary: Editing Masterclass with Joe Bini, and Behind the Camera: Masterclass with Kirsten Johnson. This year the event was held in September.

The Shortform Residency lasts seven days and provides filmmakers the opportunity to edit their short film or episodic documentary under the guidance of mentors. Participants receive a limited stipend to cover travel and car rental to get to the Maine coast, where the residency is held—also in September. Open call begins in early April and ends in early July. Submission fees run $30.


Described by pioneer documentarian William Greaves as “the toughest, most valuable, most stimulating arena in which a filmmaker can present his or her work,” the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar is the longest continuously running film event in North America, having first began in 1955.

Each summer 160 filmmakers, artists, academics, critics and cinephiles come together in New York to view and discuss 21 films over the course of a week. Three films are screened daily followed by lively discussions dissecting and challenging every aspect of the featured film.

Participants share communal meals, additional social hours and special events to continue the discussion and connect with a diversity of creatives and film enthusiasts. While the films are not divulged to the public before the event, a unique theme and objective is designated each year respective of that year’s programmer. Registration is open to the public.


Stowe Story Labs and the Tribeca Film Institute partnered to host the annual DocDay in Vermont for 40 participants to explore the process of creating a documentary from idea to distribution.

The Independent’s Michele Meek attended and wrote “How to Pitch Your Film” based in part on that experience.

The subjects covered in the talk are incredibly varied. It includes formulating, pitching and developing an idea, how to work with talent who are non-actors, producing and shooting a documentary film, funding opportunities and financing techniques, cultivating the story in post-production and strategies for documentary film distribution. The program is a full-day consisting of presentations, interviews and small table discussions with industry mentors.

The day culminates in an optional screening and filmmaker question and answer session. Registration is open to the public and chosen on a first-come, first-serve basis. There’s also a $295 attendance fee, which includes a working lunch.


The Sundance Documentary Fund provides grants to support documentaries worldwide on contemporary themes. Filmmakers can apply for up to $20,000 for project development, up to $50,000 for production or post-production support, or up to $20,000 for strategic audience and community engagement campaigns on previously granted projects.

Beyond the funding itself, grantees can take advantage of a multitude of support opportunities designed to continue advancing the filmmakers skills and career. Grantees become a part of the global Sundance Alumni community, receive ongoing mentorship with Documentary Film Program staff for guidance and feedback, and become eligible for DFP’s four annual creative labs (including the Edit & Story Labs and the Documentary Music and Sound Design Lab) and three fellowship opportunities.

Project applications are accepted and granted year-round, though projects that are not selected will only be allowed to reapply once at a later stage of production.


The Fledgling Fund provides grants from $10,000 to $25,000 year-round for social documentary film projects that seek to improve issues that affect the lives of the most vulnerable.

The films that are chosen for grant tend to cover a range of social issues, but those that are character-driven stories that add a new perspective or information to that particular issue tend to prove the most successful.

Note that these grants cannot be used for production nor post-production. Instead, funds will be allocated for outreach and audience engagement strategies. The Fledgling Fund sees this as the best way to create greater social impact. The fund also requires projects to have a fiscal sponsor based in the United States before funds can be dispersed.

When applying, include at least a rough cut of the work. Submissions are accepted at any time and filmmakers will be notified of their results within three months.


Filmmakers with a feature-length film in advanced production or post-production should consider submitting it for funding consider by the Gucci Tribecca Fund.

The fund awards grants from $10,000 to $25,000 to films that, like the Fledgling Fund, look to highlight and humanize significant social issues around the globe. In particular, the AOL Charitable Foundation Award seeks films that explore issues impacting women and youth, and spotlight the women and children who are working to overcome these challenges to create a better future for their communities.

Films are expected to challenge the status quo in both subject matter and form, be able to exist in multiple distribution platforms, have an intended running time of at least 70 minutes and align with the fund’s intended premiere exhibition date.

In addition to the grant itself, those selected receive guidance, consultation, and support from the Tribeca Film Institute. Submissions open each year on December 5 and close two months later on February 5. There is no entry fee for projects submitted to the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund.


Each year ten projects by first or second-time women directors are selected to be part of Chicken & Egg Pictures’ Accelerator Lab. The lab is a combination of funding, mentorship, and workshop support.

Each participant receives a two-part grant up to $35,000 for the production of a film that’s developed over the course of the program. Accelerator Lab participants come together at various points throughout the year for peer support and development opportunities. Participants are also required to attend three intensive retreats throughout the year, when the majority of the mentoring occurs. One of the retreats includes a public film festival where participants are encouraged to rub elbows and network with industry professionals.

The Accelerator Lab is committed to the experience acting as the incubator for the film and requests that no more than 40 percent of footage should already be shot prior to applying. Also, final projects should be feature length films. Films that address issues in global justice, human rights, and the environment are prioritized.

Check back as more funds and labs are added.


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