One Amazing Race: Grantee Karin Chien Shares How Nonprofit Grants Helped Get Circumstance in the Can
As we anticipate the premiere of Circumstance (a Cinereach grantee) in New York and LA theaters this weekend, Cinereach asked one of the film’s producers, Karin Chien, to reflect on the struggle behind the now-apparent glory. Faced with a compelling and important story, but a hard sell from a commercial perspective, the resourceful and committed team behind the film charted a harrowing fundraising course — from pre-production to the final days before their Sundance premiere. We hope other independent producers will find the Circumstance team’s experience useful and inspirational. From our perspective, above all else, it is a testament to the dedication and bravery of the independent producers who bring vital stories into being. We’re proud we had a small part in the Circumstance story, and congratulate the team and its supporters, on reaching this exciting milestone at last.
Circumstance, a film about teenage rebellion and love in an oppressive Iranian society, could not have been made without nonprofit support. This is a subtitled film spoken in Farsi, performed by an unknown cast, shot in an undercover production in Beirut by first-time writer/director Maryam Keshavarz, with minimal distribution potential in the region where the story was set. Who was going to invest in this project? Even amongst indie films, it was a risky proposition.
The film was too provocative and too lesbian for Middle Eastern investors, too non-commercial for film investors. But while equity investors were turning us down left and right, something extraordinary happened – the film received over $300,000 in non-profit support – 14 grants and in-kind donations in all.
Circumstance is the fortunate beneficiary of a few extraordinary individuals and organizations who believe in meaningful filmmaking. Cinereach, not least amongst them, came along five years ago and took notice that indies with socially relevant themes were struggling to survive in a commercially driven marketplace. San Francisco Film Society revitalized itself under Graham Legatt and found several million dollars to give away to narrative films. Sundance Institute kept doing its thing and has attracted more grant money than ever. It’s the start of what I hope is a permanent trend.
Grants are a godsend for any indie film. Not only do they not need to be paid back, but they don’t dilute investor profit participation. With grant money, investors receive more profit participation than if the film were fully capitalized with equity, thus making it more attractive to equity investors. Grants also come with virtually never-ending support – amazingly, these organizations gave us money and they kept giving: referrals, introductions, publicity, and advice. No resource went unused.
This is a breakdown of our non-profit support, and a snapshot of how Circumstance got made:
1. Sundance Institute: Circumstance participated in the Sundance Screenwriter & Filmmaker Labs (note of caution: it’s harder to become a Lab Fellow than to get into the Festival.) Maryam met our cinematographer and composer at the Labs. And once you’re a Lab Fellow, you’re eligible for Sundance grant funding from sources like the $5,000 Adrienne Shelly Women Filmmakers grant Maryam received and the $15,000 Zygmunt and Audrey Wilf Foundation Award the film received. Sundance has done an incredible job of bringing in money and partners to ensure their Lab projects get made and seen. Sundance grants enabled us to cast around the world, scout in the Middle East (Middle East Filmmaker Grant), shoot on 16mm film (in-kind Kodak donation), continue editing when we ran out of money (Annenberg grant), and finish with a 35mm negative (in-kind eFilm lab donation). In addition to grants, Sundance gave us notes on our rough cuts, wrote letters to the Jordanian Royal Film Commission when we were scouting, and introduced us to vendors and crew. The value of their support cannot be overstated.
2. Cinereach: This relationship actually started unexpectedly. Cinereach turned down our first grant application. But like all persistent indie filmmakers, we tried again. The second time, we were funded, and at exactly the most crucial moment. Following the massive post-election protests in Iran in 2009, we decided to fast-track the production in Beirut. We were worried the situation would worsen in Iran, and that our window to shoot this film in the Middle East would disappear. Before the protests, we planned to bring art department crew from Iran. In the end, only the Iranian props that a Western journalist brought back from Tehran participated in the film; it was too risky for Iranian-based crew or actors. We wanted to do our part by telling a story about Iranian teens, thousands of whom were killed or disappeared in the protests. When Maryam and fellow producer Melissa Lee started pre-production in Lebanon, we hadn’t raised even half the budget. The $25,000 Cinereach grant came through right before I left for Beirut. It was not only much needed money, but an incredible validation of our decision. In a way, it told me that everything would be ok, though it was still hard as hell. During the final stretch, Cinereach contributed another $20,000 post-production grant, which paid for sound and music costs.
3. San Francisco Film Society (SFFS): We were in the midst of editing the film in LA when we received an email from Josh Welsh, Director of Artist Development at Film Independent (see below), that SFFS had created a film fund and the deadline for applications was the next day. We quickly pulled together an application that included 10 minutes of footage. Incredibly, SFFS granted us $50,000 based on that 10 minutes and our written application. They knew and they believed. We found out about the grant after having paused post-production due to lack of funding, and it gave us a huge push towards the finish line. SFFS told us that Circumstance is the first of their grantees to have finished and the first to have theatrical distribution, and we couldn’t be more proud.
4. Film Independent (FIND): Maryam participated in the FIND Producer’s Lab in LA, which was taught by producer Gina Kwon. Gina brought the project to me. Though my plate was full at the time, I never forgot Maryam’s script. It was one of the smartest and most engaging scripts I had read in a long time, and it spoke to my desire as a producer to work on films about women and about politically relevant stories. Six months later, when my schedule freed up, I made a call to Maryam to see if she still needed a producer. Melissa Lee had just joined the project, and I joined the team right around Obama’s election. I remember that great post-election sense of change and empowerment. In addition to connecting me and Maryam, FIND granted us an in-kind Kodak film stock donation. They also recently hosted a screening for their members to help generate word-of-mouth for the theatrical release. Josh Welsh continues to look out for us for any and all opportunities (see SFFS grant).
5. Women In Film: We received a $10,000 grant from WIF and Netflix that kicked in right when we were completing the post-production for Sundance. It couldn’t have come at a better time. WIF also featured us on a panel at the Sundance Film Festival and will be including the film in their “Fearless” screening series in LA.
6. Fonds Sud: Thanks to our tireless French co-producer Antonin Dedet we received two grants from France. The first was a $4,000 development grant from Antonin’s home province. The second was a sizeable $40,000 Fonds Sud grant to cover post-production expenses. We had originally applied for development and production grants from the Fonds Sud but we were turned down, so it was a huge relief to receive the post funding. The grant has a very restricted spend – only in France and only for certain post-production items – so we had to factor in travel to France, overseas shipping, and exchange rate increases. But the Fonds Sud grant allowed us to make the 35mm festival print, create laser subtitles on the print, and deliver an interpositive.
7. Hubert Bals Development Fund: A Dutch producer helped the film apply for a $12,000 development grant that was critical to allowing Maryam to hold auditions around the world. We found our principal cast in Canada, France, Sweden, and the US. Without this grant, our casting process would have been severely limited. We applied later for the Hubert Bals Plus fund, which funds production, but were turned down.
The financing of Circumstance often felt like The Amazing Race – Maryam, Melissa and I in last place, and the production budget in first place. We were constantly raising money to catch up to our spend. For the first time, I broke a major producing rule of mine – never go into production without all the money raised – but we knew we had to. With the massive social and political change about to rock the Middle East, this was the time to tell this story. Even two weeks before our Sundance premiere, we were still locking in another equity investor. It wasn’t until we sold the film to Participant Media 48 hours after that premiere that the producers finally pulled ahead of the budget, after 18 months of breakneck sprinting.
As you can tell from the partial list above, Circumstance was incredibly lucky. Organizations like Tribeca Film Institute and New York University also provided valuable resources and support. But we were also rejected by more organizations than I can remember. More than once we were turned away because of the US embargo with Iran (ironic since Iran would later denounce our film). But we tried every avenue because we felt this film had to be made. In the end, we raised little more than half of the budget in private equity, mostly from friends and family who believed in us, and the rest in grants, in-kind donations and deferrals.
At our Sundance premiere, after the standing ovation and before the Q&A, I read a long list thanking every organization that gave us funding. And, not surprisingly, someone from almost every organization that funded us was in the audience, cheering us on at the premiere. It felt incredible to finally say in public, thank you to the funders who believed in us from the beginning. Their belief was the greatest support of all.
Karin Chien is an independent film producer based in New York City, and the 2010 recipient of the Independent Spirit Producers Award. Karin has produced eight feature-length films, including Circumstance (2011), The Exploding Girl (2009), The Motel (2005), and Robot Stories (2002) which have won over 100 film festival awards, premiered at Sundance and Berlin, and received international distribution. Karin is in production on Untitled (Structures), an installation by Leslie Hewitt in collaboration with Bradford Young, and in post-production on P. Benoit’s Stones in the Sun about exile from Haiti, and Bradley Rust Gray’s Jack & Diane starring Juno Temple and Riley Keough. Karin is the president and founder of dGenerate Films, the leading distributor of independent Chinese cinema. Karin is also the director of the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) Fellowship and the curator of the Chinatown Film Project, an inaugural film exhibition for the Museum of Chinese in America.