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GFEM Launches Media Database

June 17, 2009

(Kathryn Pyle is producing a documentary film about the post-conflict period in El Salvador. In her last post, she wrote about funding for documentary film and new media. )

GFEM_logo_140 Grantmakers in Film + Electronic Media rolled out their new Media Database on Monday at the annual SILVERDOCS conference/film festival in Silver Spring, Maryland.

At the event, GFEM executive director Alyce Myatt exhorted the audience of about fifty filmmakers to think beyond "cinema" to how they engage their audiences, the social impact their films can have, and how they can partner with organizations that use their films as part of a broader advocacy or service campaign. At the same time, Myatt lamented the decline in cinematic qualities among U.S. documentary films. "They’ve lost their aesthetic sense," she told those in attendance. "A good story about a critical issue should still be told artfully."

GFEM, which works to advance the field of media arts and public interest media funding, launched its Media Database at the Council on Foundations conference earlier this spring, but the effort is still in its early stages, with about 150 projects in the database at this point and another hundred in development. "As an organization, we serve funders," said project director Pamela Harris. "But the database is a bridge to film and video makers, radio and media advocacy projects." Grantseekers and grantmakers access the database through separate portals on the GFEM Web site, with profiles of the former behind one door and funders (or anyone else) able to search media projects by topic behind the other.

The how-to session at SILVERDOCS walked session attendees through the Media Database interface, starting with tagging. Selecting the right tag from a list that includes civil rights, disability, gender, and so on is essential to piquing funders' interest -- although the site is also being used as a resource by broadcasters and social issue organizations and shows up in Google searches.

Myatt gave an example of how subject terms can draw funders in. At the Council on Foundations meeting, she said, a family foundation member stopped by the GFEM exhibit and, during their conversation, offered the following caveat: "We don’t fund media, we only fund programs that address aging and end-of-life issues." Myatt immediately typed in those keywords and a trailer for a film on just that topic began to play. The man pulled up a chair, watched the trailer and, at the end, said, "They’ll be hearing from me." Another trailer, this one for The Child Is the Canary, about lead paint poisoning in children, has attracted environmental justice organizations seeking to partner with producer/director Robert Richter, the Healthy Homes Collaborative, and the Boston-based Lead Action Collaborative on education and advocacy efforts.

The audience was advised to develop their database profiles with funders' interests in mind. "They don't care about your film," said Myatt. "They care about a communication tool, a film that puts a face on an issue. The film shows the landscape and the personal story within it."

Out in the Silence, a film about homophobia in a small Pennsylvania town, was cited as an example of a well-done profile. The trailer for the film, which starts with a letter from a local woman begging for help for her bullied gay teenage son, is quite moving and the accompanying written description is clear and compelling.

For a media project to be eligible for inclusion in the database, it must have received funding from at least one foundation or government agency. Budget information is an important part of the profile, said Harris. Funders want to see a track record and where they might fit into the larger funding picture.

Has the database resulted in any new grants, the audience wanted to know. Too soon to tell, said Harris. "We're tracking Google and site traffic, but funders can contact the producers of media projects directly, they don't have to go through GFEM, so we might not know what happened. But we're out there pushing it; we want it to work."

"Do funders ever say a project is taking too much time to complete?" asked another participant, before adding, "My film has been going on forever!" The GFEM team tried to reassure him by pointing out that The Betrayal, a documentary about a Laotian family left behind after the CIA ended its "secret war" in Laos (1955-1974), took twenty-three years to complete. "Investigative journalism takes time. International travel is not cheap," said Myatt.

New media, the subtext of the NYWIFT/Women Make Movies fundraising seminar I blogged about over the weekend, was also in the spotlight. Myatt recalled the early 1970s, when new video technology reduced costs and the convergence of content and technology diversified the media community and transformed the medium itself. Today, she added, while radio and print media have adapted to the proliferation of video, truly innovative work is not being generated by the field. The dominance of techies, rather than storytellers, means that many worthwhile stories are not being told well. Myatt urged those in attendance to get up to speed, through conferences or organizations like the Bay Area Video Coalition. "If not, we’ll get content that's flat. We'll get more YouTube."

A new generation of philanthropists has brought a fresh perspective to media, said Myatt. They're media savvy, they are targeting films as part of their funding priorities, and they're looking at Miro, Blip.tv, and content created for mobile applications. "The elections in Iran, the mass mobilizations of people, were driven by tech sites, cell video, and Twitter," she added. "New media is moving in to fill the gaps."

Is she right? Is traditional documentary filmmaking an anachronism? Or will it adapt to new social and technological realities? Your thoughts...?

-- Kathryn Pyle

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