Will Changes at MacArthur Leave Documentary Filmmaking Worse Off?

There's an intriguing dichotomy around the idea of change in the arts philanthropy world.

On one hand, grantmakers like the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation often fund organizations that embrace their affinity for "creative disruption."  But as anyone who has had their peaceful morning breakfast "creatively disrupted" knows, the theory is rarely wonderful in practice.

And so arts organizations, generally speaking, aren't jazzed about drastic—or even relatively minor—change. (For recent evidence, check out our take on developments in Seattle, where a prominent grantmaker unexpectedly dialed back its operations, much to the consternation of local arts organizations.)

So what to make of news that the MacArthur Foundation announced it would discontinue direct support of individual documentary projects in 2016?

A closer look reveals that it isn't as dire as it initially sounds. Then again, it isn't good, either. In fact, now that we think about it, we'd classify it as most certainly bad.

As fans of MacArthur know, the filmmaker has been a consistent funder in the filmmaking space going all the way back to 1985. Why, just a few months ago, we looked at the winners of its most recent round of Documentary Fund grants. The cumulative give of $2.5 million represented MacArthur's largest ever singer-year investment in documentary film and interactive storytelling projects.

At the time, we sensed no indication that a change in their decades-old grantmaking process was afoot. But foundations rarely telegraph these things, do they? Instead it's like stumbling upon the kitchen and finding a "Dear John" letter next to the toaster. You never see it coming.

The gist of MacArthur's letter is as follows: First off, it has no plans to cease funding documentary filmmaking. (These letters always start off with the good news.) Instead, rather than directly funding the projects itself, MacArthur will increase funding to "nonfiction media producers through new and existing partner organizations."

In short, MacArthur is outsourcing the funding, a move that would seem to make sense. 

Kathy Im, the director of journalism and media at MacArthur, runs a bare-bones operation. She and her small staff oversee funding of investigative journalism, in addition to the documentary fund, which involves screening hundreds of documentary proposals over the next four months. MacArthur concluded it simply couldn't supply the fund with the "well-rounded, programmatic support" it deserves.

MacArthur already has a track record of funding partner organizations, including POV, Kartemquin, Firelight Media, Independent Television Service (ITVS), Sundance Documentary Fund and Tribeca Film Institute. And so while the funding will continue, the checks will be signed by someone other than MacArthur.

"The Foundation’s relationship with each partner organization is unique, as each organization has different strengths and reach, but all of the partners do devote a significant portion of their MacArthur grant funds to direct support of documentary filmmakers," Im said.

Yet despite Im's reassuring statements and MacArthur's pledge to "increase" funding to partner organizations, filmmakers nonetheless worry that a significantly smaller percentage of MacArthur's funding will go toward individual films. That's because while MacArthur will fund a partner organization—take the Sundance Documentary Fund, for example—Sundance can use some of that money for unrelated expenses, like paying down general operating costs.

"With MacArthur leaving the direct funding stage, filmmakers will have fewer opportunities to secure major grants of $100,000 or more," said director Cynthia Wade, a previous fund winner. Wade worries other grantmakers may follow MacArthur's lead.

Good times.

Add it all up, and MacArthur's decision is the kind of "creative disruption" that most documentary filmmakers, we wager, could happily live without.

(Also, why didn't MacArthur simply hire a few additional staff members?)

See more articles by Mike Scutari.