Cara Mertes, Director, Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program

Cara Mertes, Director, Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program

In September, the Sundance Institute and the Skoll Foundation announced a three-year, $3 million partnership dedicated to exploring film's role in advancing knowledge about social entrepreneurship. Spearheaded by the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, the initiative will explore the potential for combining the art of storytelling with the impact of social entrepreneurship. Cara Mertes has been director of the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program and the Sundance Documentary Fund since April 2006.

Philanthropy News Digest: The Sundance Documentary Fund is a key component of the institute's documentary program. How experienced must a documentary filmmaker be in order to receive a grant from the fund?

Cara Mertes: The fund supports first-time filmmakers, established filmmakers, and everyone in between. While we look at an applicant's background and capacity to complete a project, most of our funding is driven by the social relevance of the idea and the way in which the filmmaker plans to tell the story. As a result, we're often the first funder to support a project, though sometimes we provide strategic funding at a point when other funders aren't able to envision the final product. In that case, we'll provide additional funding that enables the filmmaker to develop the idea further. Since its inception — the fund was created by the Open Society Institute in 1996 and moved to Sundance in 2002 — the fund has supported more than four hundred films in thirty-two countries.

PND: What does the Sundance documentary program offer grantees besides funding?

CM: We provide a menu of year-round support activities. All our grantees are eligible to attend our Documentary Edit and Story Lab or the Documentary Composers Lab. In addition, we make it possible for them to attend the Sundance Film Festival and the Sundance Independent Producer's Conference, which will become part of the new Creative Producer's Lab we're launching. We also support works-in-progress and often bring filmmakers together with project advisors over the course of the project. In addition, we're also offering a series of work-in-progress trainings around the world right now.

PND: Is the documentary fund the sole source of support for grantees, or do you work with other partners?

CM: We're rarely the sole funder of a project, but that can happen if the filmmaker is making the film for very little money. We usually cover anywhere from a third to a half of the budget, but if the budget is large, our contribution will be more like 10 percent or 15 percent. The maximum funding we will provide for a single project is around $125,000.

When we fund a project, the filmmaker will often get calls from festivals, foundations, individuals, and distributors who are interested in looking at it simply because it has Sundance backing. Sometimes we broker relationships, setting up meetings for a filmmaker with distributors, sales representatives, and agents who are looking for a particular kind of film, or introducing a foundation or individual donor to a filmmaker. Then we step back and let the relationship develop organically.

PND: What are the goals of the Sundance-Skoll partnership?

CM: The idea for the partnership and the initiative grew out of small-scale, in-person convenings that took place at Sundance and at the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship last spring. The convenings, which were attended by social entrepreneurs and independent filmmakers, both documentary and dramatic, as well as producers, explored a number of compelling opportunities for exchange based on individuals' skill sets, world views, knowledge, and resources, while examining how creativity and storytelling, Sundance style, could further the field of social entrepreneurship. When we took the idea to Skoll president and CEO Sally Osberg and her team, they got it right away. The result is Stories of Change: Social Entrepreneurship in Focus Through Documentary, which will explore film's role in advancing the understanding of social entrepreneurship.

The partnership is a natural because both the institute and the foundation have a history of being change-makers. Skoll is interested in people around the world creating positive change for a sustainable future, while the Sundance Documentary Film Program supports filmmakers who are telling stories of people making positive change. The grant not only funds professional exchanges between documentary filmmakers and social entrepreneurs, it also supports the film projects that result from those exchanges. Half the grant, about $1.5 million, will create convenings and networking opportunities so our storytellers can begin to understand the world of social entrepreneurship, while at the same time social entrepreneurs supported by Skoll — who are creative and always thinking outside the box — can better understand the world of storytellers. Each can then use skills learned from the other to make their own product better.

The other half of the grant will go toward actual film projects we see developing from these exchanges — stories about entrepreneurs or the value of entrepreneurship told in a compelling way for general audiences. Later this fall, we'll post in-depth descriptions of the kinds of projects we're looking for on our Web site. Then, in January, we'll bring filmmakers and social entrepreneurs to the Sundance Film Festival for the first set of convenings and, subsequently, to a producers conference for more exchanges. We'll also be taking filmmakers to the Skoll World Forum for the next three years.

We'll be announcing a request for proposals early next year and will be funding proposals from anywhere in the world for projects produced by either a single person or co-produced by the fall of 2008. We expect to see the first films produced with partnership funding start to roll out in 2009.

PND: How do you think your partnership with Skoll will affect philanthropic support for film projects in the future?

CM: As far as I know, no other grant targeting the film community has been defined in quite this way. We're happy the Skoll Foundation had the foresight to value such an approach, and we plan to create and widely disseminate case studies so other funders can look at the lessons learned to see whether they can do anything like Skoll and Sundance are doing to support film. Judging from the level of excitement created by the announcement of the grant, this is an idea whose time has come.

Alice Garrard