More Money for Fewer Filmmakers: Is This the Future of Documentary Philanthropy?

Earlier this year, the MacArthur Foundation announced it would discontinue direct support of individual documentary projects in 2016, leading us to wonder if their decision would leave the documentary space worse off.

At first blush, the answer would be "yes," and director Cynthia Wade, a previous fund winner, wholeheartedly agreed, noting, "With MacArthur leaving the direct funding stage, filmmakers will have fewer opportunities to secure major grants of $100,000 or more."

In essence, MacArthur outsourced funding to "nonfiction media producers through new and existing partner organizations." That makes sense from the foundation's perspective, given how it's worked to streamline its grantmaking. And in any case, keep in mind that it certainly hasn't abandoned this space.  

But people are nervous, and for good reason. 

One of the intermediaries getting MacArthur cash is Tribeca All Access, a program in support of filmmakers from underrepresented backgrounds who are working on documentaries and interactive projects. We currently have no insight into the degree to which their support from MacArthurs is going up or down.

So we'd like to turn our attention to a related fund this is not the recipient of MacArthur cash—the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund. The fund, along with its corporate partner, the AOL Charitable Foundation Awards, recently announced the winners of its cycle. A quick perusal of the accompanying press release reveals this interesting tidbit:

In the past the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund awarded grants to a larger number of documentaries, but this year, curbed the final tally in an effort to allocate more funds to each project.

Indeed, the fund previously awarded grants totaling $150,000 to 10 filmmakers. Now we see the fund has awarded a total of $150,000 to seven. Is this a good thing? Well, it depends on who you ask, naturally.

Recipients certainly aren't complaining (though we have no direct corroboration of this). But those who missed out are likely wondering what could have been.

Obviously, the fund made a calculated decision, here. Despite advances in digital technology, making a movie isn't cheap. And so the fund concluded a little extra cash was necessary. But what if other funds and foundations take this similar approach? The compounding effect could create a documentary landscape that looks rather unequal, in which fewer recipients get more money, while simultaneously strengthening the importance of issue funders.

This could be a good thing if you believe that, in general, funders spread around their money too thinly and should place bigger bets on fewer projects. (Which, by the way, is a key idea that's animated MacArthur's reorganization—with IP cheering along.)

Or, it may not be a good thing, if you believe that your project should get funding and it doesn't. 

In related news, back in May, MacArthur announced it was expanding its journalism and media grantmaking to support professional nonprofit reporting, nonfiction multimedia storytelling, and civic media that enables "new ways for people to express and organize themselves for social change."

Check out our take on this development here.