As an indie doc filmmaker, getting to the final stages of completing your film can be grueling. Ordinarily, you’ve spent months or years on a project. In fact, you know the characters in your film better than your own family. Then comes the financial strain as you struggle to make ends meet while completing the picture. You’ve tapped out your investors. And now, you must look elsewhere for the financial lifeline that will allow you to complete your film. So, where do you go? The answer may be to apply for a grant.

When it comes to grants, the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund is one great option. The Gucci Tribeca Doc Fund is an annual grant for doc filmmakers. The Tribeca Film Institute (TFI) works with international retail brand Gucci along with Verizon Media (formerly The Oath Foundation) to make the program possible. In short, the mission of the grant is to provide finishing funds to filmmakers in the final stages of completing a feature-length social issue-driven documentary film. 

To get more insight on how filmmakers can win such a grant, we spoke to the Director of Documentary Programs at TFI, Jose Rodriguez. He filled us in on the details of the program and gave us an inside look at the grant process.

Knock Down the House starring Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez directed by and photo by Rachel Lears courtesy of TFI

About the grant

You don’t often hear retail luxury brand names like Gucci associated with documentary filmmaking. The partnership, however, evolved organically out of an effort to cultivate event partnerships back in 2007-08. Rodriguez says his former boss, Ryan Harrington, helped bring that relationship to fruition.

“They (Gucci) have catered to underserved stories for a long time. They also commission filmmakers to do content for them, and their network of celebrities and famous people invested in social issue causes are part of the jury here,” Rodriguez says. That jury includes celebrities like Edward Norton, Jessica Alba, Olivia Wilde and Jada Pinkett Smith.

“We know what the brand is, across a global scale, and they use that kind of spotlight and position to get behind a lot of female-driven stories, supporting underserved women, underserved youth,” Rodriguez says, “And, following those stories to find their necessary impact campaign, they can reach the right audiences and use the power they have for positive change.”

Moreover, with the name recognition of Gucci and the stellar reputation of the Tribeca Film Institute, the grant has continued to grow in popularity and competitiveness over the years.

Moreover, with the name recognition of Gucci and the stellar reputation of the Tribeca Film Institute, the grant has continued to grow in popularity and competitiveness over the years. The grant opens for submissions every year in February and stays open for two months until April. Most competitive reviewing takes place shortly after that going through the end of July. Thus, the final stages of deliberation take place through August. TFI usually announces grantees at the end of August or early September.

Reentry directed by Jennifer Redfearn photo by Red Antelope Films and TFI

Notable recipients

The Gucci Tribeca Doc Fund has granted filmmakers over two million dollars since its inception. The program puts emphasis on bringing women’s voices and stories to a larger audience. Rodriguez estimates that seventy percent of the grants go to women filmmakers or stories about women. 

Rachel Lears is one notable recipient of the grant in 2018. Her film, Knock Down the House, is a hit on Netflix. The doc chronicles the journey of three women running for Congress and challenging the status quo of the establishment. The film includes the breakout star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her grassroots journey to Congress. Netflix acquired the award-winning film for a record-breaking $10 million dollars this year at Sundance. Lears’ film was one of six projects chosen to receive a grant in 2018. Together, the projects took home a total of $150,000 spread out among the 2018 grant winners.

Some other noteworthy docs selected for the grant in past years include Call Her Ganda, which played Tribeca Film Festival and at Hot docs, and Roll Red Roll. Both are available on PBS/POV. Another recipient, Crime and Punishment, is available on Hulu. The Infiltrators has been optioned by Blumhouse TV to develop as a scripted series format and the list goes on.

What does TFI look for in a grant application?

“Since it’s an International and well-known program,” Rodriguez explains, “we get a lot of submissions around 400-500 a year, and this year exceeded that number with about 100 more.” TFI manages all of these submissions with a multistep selection process based on several criteria.

TFI has other funding programs for indie filmmakers. Yet, what sets the Gucci grant apart is the focus on stories that have a social urgency or are media-driven. Rodriguez emphasizes that films that have an urgent timely social issue driving the story will likely rise to the top. “If you pay attention to what we are looking for you will see. Some recent examples include the opioid crisis and income inequality.”

TFI also favors stories created by established filmmakers who still need more support. Sometimes, a first-time filmmaker can get in the mix. However, the panel likes to see a track record of completed films. This helps ensure filmmakers put the grant to good use. Rodriguez says, “We like to see films that are in mid to late production and that showcase a palpable access to the story.” 

Tapping into current trends

Throughout the process, TFI looks for films that have global topics, unique access to the subject and can resonate with a large audience. Looking at this year’s Sundance Festival winner, Knock Down the House, we can see how recent media trends can impact the jurors’ decisions.

“Rachel Lears, the filmmaker of Knock Down the House, applied for the 2018 grant. And we keep an eye out for trends, so we noticed last year that we got a lot of submissions for films about women running for Congress. The question was do we support one, many or none of these films because it’s urgent or timely? And when AOC won, we revisited the footage, and that gave it an edge, so it was pushed to the finalist stage and from there it was a no-brainer.” Rodriguez explained.

Untitled Puerto Rico documentary directed by Cecilia Aldarondo. photo by Pablo Alvarez-Mesa courtesy of TFI

TFI wants to make a difference

The panel also factors in whether or not the grant will ultimately be a factor in completing the film. The panel doesn’t want the grant to be just a “drop in the bucket” as Rodriguez described it.

“Projects tend to be in the half-million range on average. With that budget in place, we ask: Is this the type of filmmaker that has amassed a lot of support from other funders? Is their ask meaningful? Is it something we can say we are helping to make a difference?” Rodriguez says. “Or maybe it’s a first time filmmaker with a killer social story. It may be a cause for concern if it’s a first-time filmmaker, but you still kind of take that leap.”

Rodriguez says “Ideally you want films out there a year from now. We want to make sure the filmmaker is serious enough to complete the project, and we can support that. We like it to be something tangible.”

Also, repeat projects sometimes come back to apply for the grant a year later. Rodriguez says they keep an eye on how projects have developed to decide if they can now reach the finalist stage.

“Most of the submissions by U.S. filmmakers are known or we have been tracking. Abroad international submissions are where we find the most surprises that we weren’t aware of… We tend to discover a couple that reach the finalist stage that we had no idea about,” Rodriguez explains.

The review process

After the grant closes submissions, the review process begins. In addition, the judging process is a collaborative process. There are different levels of filtration that each submission is subject to before moving onto the next stage.

“Me and my team personally put our eyes on everything. Once everything is processed, one of us does first look. Then after first look, if the application is strong, then it gets bumped up to the next level. Then outside reviewers take a look; they either complement our opinions or they might contradict,” Rodriguez explains. Reaching out to peripheral TFI associates helps the team get a fresh perspective. 

“Then we end up nailing it down to 100-150. Then another team member joins and helps us cull the list down. When we get to a place around 50 applications, we bring in our top brass to take a look, including Monika Navarro.” Navarro serves as TFI’s Senior Director of Programs. She has plenty of experience in managing content and funding initiatives as a former Senior Manager at ITVS.  

After that, Rodriguez says, “We have jury deliberations with a 1-2 hour call, then have to bracket three to four weeks for the Gucci jury to review the 15 finalists at their own time until the end of August.

“Ideally the submissions get whittled down to fifteen. That’s when Amy Hobby, the Executive Director of the Tribeca Institute, will make a final look before the final fifteen projects are presented to the Gucci panel.” 

A Place of Absence directed by and photo by Marialuisa Ernst photo courtesy of TFI

The jury

The final stage of deliberation features a five-person jury put together with Gucci. The jury includes an all-star diverse cast of individuals ranging from celebrities to activist and filmmakers.

Rodriguez breaks down the panel like this: “One or two celebrities — they could also be an activist or invested in the political spectrum. Maybe like Josh Lucas, Ed Norton, Jessica Alba or Olivia Wilde. Then, maybe the third slot will be a doc filmmaker who participated in the grant in a prior year and comes back as a juror, like Roger Ross Williams or filmmakers who have gotten grants from us and know our sensibilities,” Rodriguez says.

The panel will also include another person in the industry, “someone doing similar work to us, like from IDA (International Documentary Association) or the Guardian.” There will also be someone from outside the doc space, “maybe someone who comes from a socially conscious group, philanthropic, government, or LGBTQ organization who helps us decide if the story needs to be told now,” Rodriguez concludes.

The finalists

Rodriguez and his team curate the list of finalist with both popular message-driven projects and also a few more under-the-radar stories to keep the process honest. “We put in projects we think our shoe-ins and maybe a few dark horses to see what the jury thinks, to see if what they see is in alignment with what we see.”

Rodriguez also notes that, for the final stages of judging, filmmakers must provide a 10-30 minute sample. “The longer sample provides a more clear cut direction of the narrative and shows the jury if the filmmaker has all the assets and skills to tell the story.”

Once the final jury has deliberated and chosen the winners, there is a vote on how to allocate the funding. Rodriguez gives some examples of how this process works: “The jury can decide to fund all 15 finalists for $10k each or vote to give the filmmaker exactly what they requested or in some cases more than what they requested.” 

After the final deliberations, TFI starts rolling out decisions through the end of August or early September.

Tribeca Film Institute official logo courtesy of TFI

Beyond the grant

Another form of support for filmmakers that works in association with the Gucci Tribeca Doc Fund is provided by Verizon Media (formerly the Oath Foundation).

“We have Verizon Media (formerly the Oath Foundation) onboard; they have been a partner for the last 4 years. A portion of these grants is provided by them. We also have a few other grants for filmmakers and other grants for in-kind services, like our impact distribution campaigns,” Rodriguez says.

“The way this works,” he explains, “is we send a questionnaire to the filmmaker about the opportunity and share with the jury who we think would like to opt-in or opt-out for impact support. All shared support provided by Verizon Media is in association with the jury panel’s decision, and Verizon/Oath provides additional support and works with an agency called Picture Motion to execute an impact campaign.”

Picture Motion is an award-winning social impact agency for film and entertainment. PM develops and implements effective social impact campaigns that will maximize the power of a film to ignite progressive change.

“The pattern in the past has been some money will get allocated towards post (through the Gucci grant). And then some will go towards a Picture Motion campaign, which works with the filmmaker on rollouts to festivals and connecting with the audience,” Rodriguez says.

Success stories

93 Queen and Call Her Ganda both received grants and impact campaign support in 2018. Directed by Paula Eiselt, 93 Queen is a doc about a Hasidic female volunteer ambulance company. PJ Raval’s Call Her Ganda tells the story of a trans woman murdered by a U.S. Marine in the Philippines. Both docs found a home with POV/PBS.

The additional support 93 Queen and Call Her Ganda received helped bring the respective communities together to view the films. Thanks to the impact campaign, Call Her Ganda even screened on Capitol Hill for members of Congress. This put the film in front of policymakers in an effort to invoke change and pursue justice for the victim.

A network of options

In some cases, TFI will steer filmmakers not selected for the Gucci Tribeca Doc Fund or the impact campaign to other grants. “Some stories might end up reaching further in our rounds but better suited for another grant program,” Rodriguez notes. “For example, if the film comes from a Latin American filmmaker with a story that resonates with that region, the better grant for that project might come from our Latin American grants allocated to projects out of our Tribeca All Access Program.

Women in Blue directed by Deirdre Fishel photo by Eric Phillips-Horst courtesy of TFI

What happens if you win the grant?

If you’re lucky enough to win a grant from the Gucci Tribeca program, what happens next? “If it’s a $10k grant, it’s given to the filmmaker or the LLC,” says Rodriguez. “We just cut them a check. It’s dispersed as soon as the agreement is signed and can take up to a few weeks. If it’s $15k or higher, it’s split up. The first $10k is released upon signing and the remaining is released when delivery of a rough cut assembly is completed.”

There are no rights restrictions for the grants winners; filmmakers just need to include the Tribeca logo on the film and an acknowledgment in the credits. TFI can provide feedback or notes to the filmmakers after reviewing a new or final cut of the film. However, the filmmaker is under no obligation to make changes based on the feedback from TFI.

“If a filmmaker goes down the wrong path, we have a conversation, but we are mainly here to help and assist.” Rodriguez continues, “If the filmmaker is submitting to a festival, we talk with our colleagues to see if we can help. If the filmmaker wants us to help with the rollout, we can assist in that regard. We brainstorm a strategy with them. It’s only as hands-on as the filmmaker wants us to be.”

What about distribution?

The ultimate goal of any film is to find its audience. Rodriguez said they do provide some support in connecting filmmakers to distributors where it seems applicable.

“It depends. We do catch up calls with filmmakers. If they tell us they are speaking to a few (potential distributors), if we know them, we might be a cheerleader. We also run a film market during the Tribeca Film Festival, called TFI network. It’s a filmmaker and industry market, a way for filmmakers to take meetings with industry people including distributors or sales agents.” 

TFI generally reserves a few slots dedicated to grantees for the film market interaction.

Final advice for applying for a grant like the Gucci Tribeca Doc Fund

“We like filmmakers to be really confident and trust their samples and materials,” Rodriguez says. “We have a general inbox (documentary@tfiny.org) where my team answers questions according to how they arrive in the queue. But we can’t delve into feedback once we close for submissions. If they have updates we can see if we can incorporate them… When we are not open for submissions is a good time to reach out and pick our brains.” Rodriguez says.

Rodriguez concludes “All our children, we love. We are proud to have supported these films.”

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