Programs Tue 11.12.2013

Grant Winning Secrets: Making a Work Sample That Grabs Them

As crapshoots go, applying for grants is right up there. Yes, you are way more likely to get the grant than to get hit by lightning, but for anyone whose been rejected time and again, it can sure feel like the likelihood is the about the same.

At last month’s Film Independent Forum, a Fund-That-Doc panel revealed what those odds really are at their organizations. Sundance gets up to 2,000 per year for its Sundance Documentary Fund and funds about 3% (60) of those, according to Rhadi Taylor, who finds, cultivates and finances documentary film for the program; Catapult Film Fund selects seven projects from a pool of about 480, says Catapult co-founder Lisa Kleiner Chaonoff; Latino Public Broadcasting funds about 10 out of 100, said Luis Ortiz; and San Francisco Film Society funds about 3 of 250, according to Michele Turnure-Salleo, who heads the San Francisco Film Society’s Filmmaker360 Department.

So that’s the size of the crowd. Now, what does it take to stand out? One of the most critical components of any application, says Turnure-Salleo, is the work sample. “Work samples can make or break an application,” Ortiz agrees. Here, Turnure-Salleo offers insights into the art and science of crafting something that will rise above the work sample sea. 

Are work samples a make-or-break proposition?
Sometimes the filmmaker’s written application is very strong but the work sample does not live up to or deliver on the promise of the application. In other cases the written application isn’t particularly strong but an outstanding work sample can turn it around. Depending on the phase of production the filmmaker is applying for, ideally a work sample will compliment the written application submitted. We like to see samples that expand our knowledge of the project rather than replicate something that has already been presented in written form. This could mean in the case of a narrative post-production grant application having script pages from one part of the film and rough-cut excerpts from another part of the film.

Michele Turnure-Salleo at the 2013 Film Independent Forum

What’s the most common mistake people make when submitting work samples?
First of all, they don’t often ask us in Filmmaker360 for advice on what to submit. We recognize that many funders don’t have the resources or time to do that, but we do it, because we feel that it is a good investment of our time if it results in quality work samples being submitted. Secondly filmmakers often assume that reviewers will watch the whole film (despite a stated length limit) and submit their full rough cut. Reviewers inevitably end up watching the first 5 minutes or so of the rough cut, which may not be the most compelling segment of the film. And finally applicants often feel that they should save their best material for the finalist round, which they might not have the chance to do if they are not selected as finalists, or not share it at all thinking it should be saved for the premiere of the film. To that end, I always advise filmmakers to submit a work sample that is the most evocative and compelling sample they have.

What would you suggest in terms of the mix of excerpts?
Work samples that provide the reviewers with a good sense of the emotional stakes and complexity of the characters in the film have an advantage. A sample that shows a lead character expressing the exact same emotion in every excerpt would be less successful than say a series of excerpts that showed a variety of emotion. It is also better to include a variety of characters, situations and locations.

What do you recommend regarding pacing?
Of course it depends on each particular film, but if a filmmaker is submitting multiple excerpts, it’s important to think about how the reviewer is going to experience the sum total of them.  In most cases it is better to have a shorter excerpt first—something that draws the reviewers in and makes them want to see more.  The second excerpt should build on that curiosity, but also provide a different insight into the character or story. And often with us in Filmmaker360, we like to have the last excerpt be something that has a strong emotional impact.

Give some examples of things that make work samples stand out.
With script samples, we really are looking for life on the page, compelling characters, great dialogue and ideally a moment of transformation in the story. With previous work samples or rough cuts, we are drawn to films that have a strong aesthetic voice and so samples that draw us immediately visually into the world of the film are exciting to us. For documentaries or narratives: intriguing characters, unique stories and ultimately an ability to build a scene.  Really what we are looking for is potential.

Any other do’s and don’ts?
DO reach out to the funder well in advance of the application deadline to ascertain what they look for in their written and visual materials.  Every funder has its own way they like things structured and what they look for. Try to build a relationship with them as early on as you can. This also gives them more of a chance to help you.

DO ask the funder if there is an opportunity to provide a work sample explanation. This can help provide context to the sample you are submitting.

DO show your sample to someone who knows nothing about the project. Their objectivity will provide you with insight as to what a reviewer might think. Alternatively show someone who has seen all that you have shot. They might think of a better scene to include that you hadn’t considered.

If you don’t progress through to being a winner of the grant, DO ask for feedback on your application and work sample. Not all organizations can offer it, but it’s always worth asking.

DON’T be afraid to apply again. There are a myriad of reasons why projects get funded or don’t get funded and it is often worthwhile trying again.

By Pamela Miller / Website & Grants Manager