FILM-MAKING WITH CHARITIES – part 1: what to expect

Posted: February 5, 2013 in Charity stuff, Uncategorized

Charities are becoming increasingly aware of the power of film, particularly over the last decade with an increase in campaigning films and documentaries. The immediacy of films and ease of sharing these days are an amazing promotional tool for charities. And film-makers are looking for increasingly varied ways to gain support for their films – and charities can provide that support in some ways, particularly if the films are issues-based or campaigning in some way.

With experience from both sides- as a film-maker as well as someone who manages charities and charity projects – I can and have seen the benefits and potential of film-makers working with and alongside charities. As such, I thought I’d share some thoughts, opinions and recommendations about how it can work, and where it may not – the pluses and minuses, opportunities and challenges, and some ideas about potential dos and don’ts. These are all based on my experience from both sides of the fence – as a film-maker trying to work with charities, and as a charity manager trying to work with film-makers. Hopefully some of this will strike a chord, provide insight, and may even benefit, parties on both sides.

These posts were partly inspired by a post on Shooting People by film-maker Laura Shacham about her excellent projects with charities, which itself was prompted by London Short Film Festival’s “BritDoc Presents: Other Ways Out” event with Doc/Fest’s Charlie Philips and BritDoc’s Luke Moody (her original post is here:

All opinions are my own, based on my own experience, and I’d love to hear other experiences, and opinions, of others.

This blog is split into three broad categories:

– some of the things film-maker can expect working with charities on their film;

– some recommendations to film-makers from the charity perspective;

– and other ways film-makers can (and possibly should) work with charities.

All opinions are my own, based on my own experience, and I’d love to hear other experiences, and opinions, of others. The majority of this post assumes you are trying to engage a charity in making your own film – some of the issues and challenges of making films for a charity to their brief are addressed towards the end of the first post.


What sort of support can charities give to film-makers that are producing films about the issues they support?


I think its important to stress, and without stating the obvious, do not expect to get any funding from a charity for your own film. Or other resources, for that matter. Not immediately, at least. Smaller charities simply don’t have the money – and larger charities, where they do have the money, are likely to want their own films made, rather than support yours (see the final section, Making your film – or making theirs?)

Needless to say, they’re not like private companies – your Puma, Restless, adidas or Eurostar – looking for the latest method to covertly market their product in new original ways. Unless they are one of the larger national or international charities, or one that focuses on campaigning, they simply don’t have much money or resources for supporting film-making – and many are struggling to survive in this economic climate. I tried to raise a small amount of money from a number of major charities for a fictional film project which closely aligned to their goals. All said they loved the idea for the film and would happily promote it when finished- but, even though this was a few years ago, when funding was better for charities, they all said they wouldn’t be able to put any money into it themselves.

However, on the other hand, as a charity manager, should I be in a position to commission a campaign film, I would be more likely to approach a film-maker that I was aware of, familiar with and trusted their work than some unknown faceless ad agency. So, on that front, there may be some future funds of some sort. May be.

Were this to be the case, then the relationship between charity and film-maker is quite different. If a charity does have money and wants a film to be made, it’s likely to be very much on their agenda. I’ve had feedback from other colleagues with experience of making films for large charities (rather than with) that have said, in these cases, creative control goes out the window. I look at creative control a little further below.


Laura Shacham’s post highlights how working with charities can open up the possibility of working with contributors you may not otherwise have access to. This can be representatives from that charity. It may also be professionals working in that particular field. But, more often, its likely to mean participants – individuals going through some of the issues that the charity is campaigning about, and that you would like to make a film about. This is great, and you can get amazing access to true stories on the frontline – but there are various issues, ethics, practices and sensitivities to be aware of here. I look at these in more detail in the next post.

Other support

The other support you may be able to expect from charities partly depends on the charity, and in my experience, the size of that charity, as to how supportive they can be. And there are some pluses and minuses to consider when going with a larger charity or a smaller one.

  • Larger charities

– Larger charities obviously carry a bigger rep, and to say your film was supported by them in turn may increase the reach and rep of that film. They may also have contacts with useful media partners that in turn may prove useful contacts and may be able to support you in some way.

– However, they also often have their own marketing and comms department, so whatever direct support you gain from them may be short-lived before they move on to their next campaign (unless your film is amazing- then they may milk it til the cows come home!)

– they may also be more precious about their ‘brand’ and logo – see below.

  • Smaller charities

– though they have a smaller reach- and substantially less money- will be all the more keen to gain your support and coverage of their cause, and therefore more likely to help promote it.

– Smaller charities tend to be more involved in ‘frontline’ working, and therefore are also more likely to have direct contact to potential contributors – eg hard-to-gain access to some people you may want to make your film about.

Creative freedom and engagement from the charity

Laura Shacham’s Shooting People post asks about lack of engagement and creative freedoms when working with a charity. I think the level of engagement will vary from charity to charity – and I think the level of creative freedom will also be affected by this level of engagement.

From experience, if they are going to be involved, charities will want your film to reflect their aims and ethics. But many charities will hopefully respect a film-maker or artist to reflect those ethics in their own way (though probably more so if you’re already a known or respected film-maker).

There’s a limit to how much they can legitimately curtail your creative freedom, unless they’re paying or supporting your film directly (see below). They may want to have their point of view stressed and not have a negative viewpoint on their work – but if they don’t pay for it or support it directly, then they don’t have editorial control, and they either support your film, or they don’t. In theory. In practice, this may need a bit of negotiation and clarification!

Making your film – or making theirs?

Even when a charity is fully paying for a film, the level to which they want creative control really does depend on the charity.

BUT – to be clear,  there is a difference between a charity supporting you to make your film, and a charity wanting you to make theirs – and the experience and creative control you will have is likely to be quite different here.

A few friends of mine who have experience working for several charities as film-makers, have had substantially different experiences to mine working with charities. They found that, when a charity is paying, there is often a strict brief to work to and they always have their agenda that needs to be clearly aired throughout. And whilst the level of editorial control can vary from charity to charity, if the client says something has to go, it has to go.

The most challenging experiences seem to be with charities with large committees – with various Board members looking for various messages, pulling a film in numerous directions and making it hard to be a film-maker – in their words, ‘it feels like nothing of value in filmmaking terms is left in there’. In another case, the charity have wanted a film to be incredibly prescriptive. And another charity just wanting simple straight-forward interviews – no high art. And even when a charity was fairly hands-off, the film still needed to be within the brief.

In one of the film-makers’ words, ‘That’s the name of the game and you can’t be precious about your film. Neither can you kid yourself you will make an unbiased, observational doc…It’s a very different kind of filmmaking and you must respect your client’s needs or not do the job.

In a charity’s defence, in these circumstances they are a client paying for a product – similarly to how an advertising agency may be employed – and some of these films become used as extended adverts for the charity and their work. They want their message to be loud and clear; and they want it to impact in as immediate way as possible – so they can continue to get support and that all-important funding to keep doing the work they are doing. And unfortunately, with that, creative freedom and editorial control can go out the window.

I personally have experienced both a large charity that, having funded the film project entirely, wanted their message, logo, branding, font type and statistics included throughout. But then they did pay for the whole thing, and I accepted this would be the case. And I have also produced two short campaign dramas for another charity where they were almost the opposite – having been involved in the script and the casting, they were then fairly hands off the remainder of the film-making process. But then they didn’t really contribute anything financially (and it took some time for the financial contribution they had promised to emerge).

On the other hand, they had also had experience of working with charities on their own films and documentaries – this was usually a very different and much more fruitful experience from a film-maker’s perspective. As highlighted in the previous section, without editorial control they have to trust you and this ‘changes the dynamic’.

Finally – and again, as touched on above – one of the most important ways a charity can help a film-maker is by finding contributors.  But as one of the film-makers I spoke to highlighted, many charities having strict guidelines to protect their clients. As a charity manager, this is something I look at, from the charity’s perspective, in the next post.


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