How to get funding for your documentary in the UK

Filming at the Repton Amateur Boxing Club in London. Credit: LeoLondon.
Filming at the Repton Amateur Boxing Club in London. Credit: LeoLondon.

It’s the fairy tale ending every debut documentary filmmaker dreams of: seeing your film on the big screen, making waves at film festivals and reaching audiences at home and abroad. But as every independent filmmaker now knows, the beginning of this story starts with funding, and securing funding for your film may require as much creativity and hard work as writing and directing.

Whether it is appealing to UK investors, entering competitions or applying to government schemes, a filmmaker working in Britain in 2015 must understand the multitude of routes available in order to raise the money they need and realize their ambitions. 

One increasingly successful avenue to venture down is equity crowdfunding and it is revolutionizing how independent filmmakers seek financial contributions.

I’ve worked as a documentary producer for five years and I’ve noticed that a great filmmaker can emerge from anywhere at any time. Exceptional documentaries often originate from a great idea, usually inspired to change perceptions or expose the truth behind the myth. With crowdfunding, these important ideas can now thrive without relying on a bank, a team of producers, or a rich relative to get off the ground. That’s powerful and rather inspiring.

Crowdfunding means you don’t have to be beholden to dry, channel commissioners and their departmental budget and editorial meetings, tediously waiting for an answer before you start filming. 

“We made £17,000 in our first night, bought a camera, travelled to find our contributors and off we went”, says Lizzie Gillett, one of the producers of the seminal film about climate change “The Age of Stupid” (2003).

Neither do you have to worry about impressing the right civil servant from an institution such as the BFI – the UK Film Council sadly closed its doors and the BFI continues to shake off criticism of nepotism. Your only worry with crowdfunding is whether you have created an effective campaign and attracted fans, and that all starts with the pitch.. 

With the right pitch you can comfortably fund your film from a collective group of friends, family and supporters. 

There are five basic steps to designing a campaign drawn from crowdfunded documentaries including “The Age of Stupid”:

1. Write a budget

Try to keep the budget small. At the budgeting stage, a lot of the costs will be unknown but the best way to keep the budget small is to pay the crew relatively low wages and sign them up to a deferred profit scheme instead. You can then track each crew members pay to see how much they had deferred overall and use this to work out what percentage of the profits each crew member is entitled to at the end of filming.

For filmmakers in the UK, you can also claim the Producers Tax credit from the government. You can get 25 percent of your budget paid back to you if you successfully apply for this credit. In order to do this you must certify your film as British and have a theatrical release. 

2. Work out how much the minimum investment needs to be

Once you know how much you need to raise, you can work out how many investors you need. The question of what percentage of profits funders get for their cash investment is crucial. Offer a bad deal and you won’t have much interest. 

To again use “The Age of Stupid” as an example, the initial “unit” of investment was £500 but that was when the producers had their idea written on the back of a receipt. Once production was underway, the minimum of investment was raised to £5,000. See below for their total raised and percentage profit levels:

STAGE       MINIMUM NO    OF ‘SHARES’    TOTAL RAISED

Stage 1      £500               100                  £50,000

Stage 2      £5,000            40                    £200,000

Stage 3      £5,000            40                    £200,000

Final          £10,000          15                    £150,000

Percentage Profit Levels

STAGE                    MINIMUM                  % PROFITS

Stage 1                     £500                           0.05
Stage 2                    £5,000                         0.25
Stage 3                    £5,000                         0.25
Final                        £10,000                       0.10

3. Have lawyers check your documents

There are inevitably lots of regulations surrounding the solicitation of financial investments so it’s important to get a professional legal opinion about your plan. Approval should be received from Financial Services Authority (FSA) in order to give investors confidence that you aren’t going to run away with their money. 

If you can’t afford a lawyer, look for advice from the legal advice from own-it.org

4. Pitch to anyone you know who has disposable income

The internet should be the first port of call when building a network, so set up a website (in addition to your production company site) for your film. This is where all information about the project, contacts and how to invest should be found. 

Once that is up and running use social media to your discretion: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, email, etc. They’re all invaluable but the latter form of communication can be the most effective – use mailing lists to friends, colleagues, distant relatives and admirers. It’s all part of keeping your supporters part of the project. 

The latter form of communication can be the most effective – use mailing lists to friends, colleagues, distant relatives and admirers. It’s all part of keeping your supporters invested in the project. 

If appropriate, you should also find ways to access people who are already aware of or passionate about the issue you want to highlight in your film. You’ll need to explain why investing in your film is a strategic and cost-effective way to further your cause. 

5. Spend the money on the film 

That’s obvious, but archive can be one of the most expensive factors to consider at the beginning of the film. It’s worth approaching big archive houses to offer a share of the profits early on. When I worked on the film ‘(Still) The Enemy Within’ (2014), both ITN and BBC gave the film access to 20 minutes of archive for a small share of the profits and a very low upfront cash payment. 

Finally,  two very important things to remember when crowdfunding:

  • Celebrate and do not underestimate the value of ‘word of mouth.’
  • When people invest in your film they have have become a part of your team.

As a thank you to investors, invite them to events, encourage them to write or promote your film and publicly recognize their generosity in social media or the film website. 

Like filmmaking, crowdfunding can be a lonely business: at times it can be slow, isolating and insular work, but always it’s also a collaborative process, so remember and appreciate the team backing you. They will be the ones spreading the word and selling tickets at the box office.

For more information on how to finance a documentary film in the UK, check these links from the BBC and Raindance.org.

Good luck!

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Natasha Cox
Natasha is a television and documentary producer working in London. She has produced documentaries for Channel 4, ITV and the BBC as well as contributing to the award winning film, '(Still) The Enemy Within' released in 2014. Natasha co-founded the action group, 'Art Uncut' for artists and musicians against public spending cuts in the UK.

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