Documentary funding is scarce or non-existent in much of even the developed world. If you live in a place like Denmark, Norway, or Sweden, you're at a statistical advantage. These are countries haverelatively small populations, a ton of funding for the arts, and each country maintains its own broadcast networks that can both fund and purchase projects done within their respective languages. But most of us don't have the Nordic heritage of our lucky brethren.
What does this mean for non-fiction filmmakers? Well, there are options depending on who you are.
1. If you're independently wealthy, you're at a statistical advantage. You can fund your own projects and forget about this blog post. If you're among the lucky 1% go make a movie like Jamie Johnson, heir to Johnson & Johnson did in 2003!
2. If you're not independently wealthy, this is going to be painful, like, very painful. Like, extremely mind-bogglingly painful. If you want to apply for documentary funds, you can do this. But my caveat is: as both a novice and (relatively) successful filmmaker, I have tried to apply for these funds and I have never been granted a dime. Not for a commercial success like Amanda Knox, or for an insanely timely and relevant piece like EuroTrump. I have applied with teams that are made up of women, people of color, foreign -- it doesn't matter. However, it does help to look at the kinds of films that are funded by such grants as the one by the IDA and by Sundance. (Statistically if you are going for the IDA grant you will have much-improved chances if you are a woman or a person of color, or applying with one: As Deadline reports, of the 11 projects selected, 7 are directed by women, 10 have female directors and/or producers, 7 are directed by filmmakers of color, and 8 are directed and/or produced by filmmakers of color.)
3. But I believe there is a third option for the 98% of us who want to make powerful films, aren't independently wealthy, and won't be able to win a grant from a non-profit organization. You could spend your days applying for grants that you may never receive, but you can also spend your days in the field shooting. If you are making a film in your home city, amazing. You can have a day job (or a night job) and still work on your film. If you are making a film somewhere else, you will be okay too. My advice: First, save up some money while you are doing your pre-production. Second, plan a short trip to wherever you want to go as you must make sure there is a story as compelling as the one inside your head. Third, once you know you've got your story, put your place up on Airbnb and put your job on hold. Fourth, go and shoot. It could be years before you get a grant from the IDA or Sundance. But don't look at this as discouraging. In fact, look at it as a challenge for you to overcome. You're up against thousands of qualified people, so sometimes in life, you have to be a go-getter and reach for things yourself. The money may never come, but you will always have your product --your film-- to stand by. Plus, once you get your project off the ground, crowdfunding your post-production will be way easier.