The single biggest question that every aspiring independent producer wants answered is, “Where can I get the money to make my film?” The frequent suggestion is to look at the financing credits on comparable films, then seek funding from the same sources.
This article checks the financing credits of The Port of Last Resort, a documentary about the 20,000 Jewish refugees from Central Europe who escaped to Shanghai in the years leading up to World War II. It details the path that first-time feature-documentary producers Joan Grossman and Paul Rosdy took as they sought to answer the financing question for themselves.
Proving again that the best ideas are encountered by accident, the producers discovered the little-known history of the Shanghai refugees during a visit to Grossman’s family. A family friend, Ernest Heppner, had written a book based on his experiences as a refugee in Shanghai. He mentioned to Grossman that he knew of no significant films on this facet of Jewish history. (This year, Ulrike Ottinger came out with her four-and-a-half hour opus, Exile Shanghai.) In the summer of 1993, Grossman read the book prior to its publication. At this time, he and Rosdy were seeking funding for several other films, so they did not immediately commit to the refugee project.
When in Austria a year later, Grossman met with Kurt Jetmar of the production company MR Films in Vienna to pitch the idea of a film on Americans in Prague. Jetmar was friendly and generous with his time, but “clearly not really excited” by the idea, Grossman reports. On the way out the door, Grossman had the presence of mind to mention the Shanghai concept. The veil of disinterest lifted and the two talked for another 20 minutes. Although Jetmar never took on the project in any formal way, his reaction was critical. It encouraged Rosdy and Grossman to commit to researching the project and raising production funds.
The key to funding The Port of Last Resort was the collaboration between Grossman and Rosdy, an American and an Austrian. By assembling a combination of government loans and subsidies, corporate underwriting, foundation grants, and television pre-sales in Europe and North America, the producers were able to raise a total budget that would not have been forthcoming from either continent alone. About one-third of the funding came from American sources, and two-thirds came from Europe.
As a resourceful producer, Rosdy’s job is to know the funding pools in Europe. He began the search with Documentary, one of the programs found under the umbrella of MEDIA, the European Union’s Audio Visual Sector. The MEDIA I program (which in 1996 was replaced by MEDIA II, administered in Brussels) provided interest-free loans to European independent producers for 50 percent of a project’s development costs. Three-quarters of MEDIA I’s loans were provided during development and the other quarter on the first day of production. The loan is payable six months from the beginning of production, with the assumption that it will be repaid out of production funds. If the project never goes into production, the loan is excused. The Port of Last Resort received about $10,000 from Documentary in early 1995, the first contribution to the project.
Kurt Jetmar of MR Films, who had responded so enthusiastically to the idea for the film, helped Rosdy prepare a proposal to the Austrian Film Commission of the Ministry of Arts and Sciences for a work stipend in November 1994. Rosdy received a modest $6,800 stipend in April 1995, which the filmmakers applied toward development.
The Wiener Städtische Versicherung is a large insurance company in Vienna that is well known in Austria as a major arts sponsor. Rosdy approached them with a proposal, and in exchange for a credit in the film the company contributed $2,500 towards development and will provide another $2,500 after the film is completed.
Production Funds: Europe
The first major European production grant came from the Film Commission of the Ministry of Science, Transportation, and Art in April, 1996. This government agency does not provide funding to individuals, so Rosdy and Grossman had to form a co-production partnership with an established Austrian production company. Rosdy contacted Lukas Stepanik of Extrafilm, a producer he had met at the Shanghai Film Festival, in order to seek his involvement. Stepanik was excited by the content of the film. And since it is often difficult for Austrian documentaries to reach an international audience, Stepanik was also excited by the organization of the project as an American/Austrian co-production. While a formal agreement is still being negotiated, Extrafilm will have some ownership stake in the project, as well as receiving compensation for expenses.
The benefit of attaching The Port of Last Resort to an established production company is that it opened up opportunities for greater funding. Extrafilm applied to the “Innovation Pot,” a subsidized television pre-sale program set up between the Austrian Film Institute and Austrian television station ORF. The concept behind the “Innovation Pot” is to support smaller, individually produced Austrian projects that already have a significant amount of funding in place. The Port of Last Resort received about $100,000 from this funding pool in July 1996.
Production Funds: U.S.
Raising money in the United States proved much more difficult. Grossman and Rosdy applied for all of the usual public grants: National Endowment for the Humanities, New York Council for the Arts, New York Council for the Humanities, and Independent Television Service. Although they received some positive feedback from panelists and program administrators, none of these sources provided any funding.
Next, the producers turned their attention to private foundations. Their initial research, utilizing the CD-ROM database at the Foundation Center in New York, yielded only a handful of foundations that identify themselves as supportive of projects related to Jewish history and also indicate a willingness to fund media. Grossman decided to go against the conventional wisdom of carefully targeting foundations and instead cast a wide net, contacting any foundation that indicated a funding philosophy in concert with any facet of The Port of Last Resort. She also identified potential donors by reading the credits on already completed programs. The Jewish Heritage series, for instance, which aired on PBS, yielded a number of names.
Grossman sent out more than 200 one-page solicitation letters and received about 15 requests for additional information. When a foundation expressed further interest, she followed up with a three-page project description and budget. As the project progressed, Grossman maintained communication with the foundations.
The Arthur Ross Foundation was the first to commit to some level of production funding. When major development activities had been completed, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation requested a script and a copy of the trailer that the team had produced. Based on these materials, they decided to support the project. Neither foundation was willing to commit early in the project’s development. The Ross Foundation pledged support of $10,000 after $180,000 was raised, and the Weinberg Foundation indicated it would contribute after “a substantial amount of funding was in place.”
The profiles published in the Foundation Directory indicate that neither the Ross nor the Weinberg Foundation accept unsolicited requests for support.
Yet Grossman’s results make clear that it is possible for an unsolicited application to gain the attention of the foundation’s administration. Gail Lloyd of the Ross Foundation indicated that while the foundation does not usually support filmmaking, Mr. Ross found the story of the Shanghai refugees historically significant and decided to help fund the project because there is very little material published or produced on this historical event. According to Grossman, Weinberg Foundation president Bernard Siegel personally knew several Shanghai refugees and so was interested in the subject. While this may seem serendipitous, it indicates that there are real people at these foundations who have interests that may align with a producer’s.
In June 1996, Rosdy attended the Sunny Side of the Doc film market in Marseilles. Grossman had faxed those U. S. companies sending representatives, informing them about the status of the project and inviting them to visit with Rosdy. Rosdy met with Jon Moss, at that time Director of Documentary Programming at HBO/Cinemax. While he was interested in acquiring the film, Moss indicated that the completion funding required was more than what HBO could provide. But once the “Innovation Pot” funds were secured, HBO/Cinemax was able to provide finishing funds in order to acquire The Port of Last Resort for the Reel Life series.
Moss (who has since left HBO and is now an independent producer’s representative in New York) was excited about the project because the Shanghai story is a new facet of an otherwise well-known and well-documented historical period, and because it includes archival material never previously presented in a documentary on World War II. HBO has a tradition of special programs related to World War II and the Holocaust, and Moss felt The Port of Last Resort continued and extended this tradition.
According to John Hoffman, the current Director of Documentary Programming, in order for a film to be considered for Reel Life it must have the potential to win festival awards, gain positive press reviews, and receive other forms of critical acclaim. What people at HBO respond to is “filmmakers who have access,” Hoffman indicates, especially access to a subculture or unique archival materials. The Port of Last Resort fulfilled the programming objectives of Reel Life and consequently HBO/Cinemax provided the funds necessary for the project’s completion in exchange for an 18-month exhibition window.
With the money from the Documentary program and the Film Commission of the Ministry of Arts and Sciences, the producers began searching for archival materials. They attended a conference on the Shanghai refugees in Salzburg where some initial interviews were videotaped. These interviews and the information they uncovered led to one of the most important aesthetic decisions, the choice not to use narration but to utilize the voices of the refugees—either in interviews or through voice-over performances of their letters, diaries, and reflections.
After a research trip to Shanghai in October 1995, Grossman and Rosdy wrote a script and constructed an 8-minute trailer, which combines interviews shot on video in Salzburg, super-8 film footage shot in Shanghai, and VHS preview tapes of archival film materials. While this was clearly a sketch, assembled on a cuts-only VHS edit system for $500, the power of the idea was evident.
There is a great deal of passionate debate about the usefulness of a trailer. In this case, it was critical to the project’s success. Although skilled, these two filmmakers were essentially unknown first-timers. While someone with an established reputation might eschew a trailer, in this case it provided the kind of evidence funders were seeking that Grossman and Rosdy were going to be able to actualize this idea. According to Jon Moss, the trailer was critical for HBO’s funding. Even though it did not have high production values, the trailer demonstrated the substance of the program and provided a feel for what would finally exist in the 60-minute film. This allowed Moss to sell the project internally, providing convincing evidence to those inside HBO with decision-making authority that the film was appropriate for Reel Life.
The trailer was essential for the producers as well. First, it gave them an opportunity to evaluate the aesthetic choices they were making. Second, it substantiated the claim that the piece was “in production.” It showed the archival footage, the recently recorded Super-8 film, and the video interviews. There was no doubt that production was underway. Nothing else is as attractive to a potential funder than knowing there is progress toward the end goal. The greater the progress, the smaller the risk.
There are practical and budgetary issues related to coproductions for European/American television. The primary issue is with formats. This explains, in part, Grossman’s and Rosdy’s decision to produce on 16mm film rather than on video. By finishing on film, the producers could fulfill their obligation to supply original masters to both American (NTSC) and Austrian (PAL) television.
Language is another issue. Grossman and Rosdy did all the development work in English. Then Rosdy rewrote the proposals into German for presentation to European funding agencies. The final version of the film will be no exception. Once the English version is completed, the Austrian version will need to be crafted, requiring translation of both acted and interview materials.
The Port of Last Resort will be completed toward the end of 1997. Critical to its success is that Rosdy lives in Austria and Grossman lives in New York. Using the knowledge and resources that each have, they were able to piece together sufficient funds to cover the entire project. Here again is proof that it can be done.