Here’s a question I get asked all the time in endless variations. "Holly, there is this guy in town I think might be interested in my film. How do I ask him for money?" In response, without even knowing who the donor is, I tell them that my first step in planning a major-donor solicitation or "ask" is playing my own version of the well-known game, "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon."
Legend says actor Kevin Bacon has been in so many films that every other actor is connected to him, somehow, through these films. My personal version of the game is "Six Degrees of Bringing Home the Bacon." First, I search my brain to figure out who I already know who has a connection to the potential donor. Within my network of friends, family, colleagues and passing acquaintances, there has got to be somebody who knows him directly or who knows somebody who knows him. I guarantee the same is true for you. Put the word out among your friends, your LinkedIn connections, everyone you meet. For example, a friend wanted to interview Richard Branson for her film and wondered if I knew how to get a hold of him. Flattering. I didn’t, but a few days later, I met another filmmaker who had interviewed Branson and could give me his contact information. That same week, at a party, I also met a woman who turned out to be Branson’s personal assistant! Just like that, my friend was only two degrees away from the bearded billionaire!
My second step in getting in the door is to ask myself what will motivate this person? To get them to agree to give me money, I have to think the way they think. There are three main reasons anybody is going to give you money for your film. One, they love you. "Mom, Dad, can I have some money?" Two, they love what your film is about. Go to the passionate feminist for your film about Gloria Steinem. Go to the dyed-in-the-wool animal-lover for your film about naked mole rats. Third, they love film. Period. Film lights their fire, floats their boat. They’re never going to make a film in this lifetime, but they want to party with you when you get into Sundance. Think about the reason why this person is going to want to sit down with you and hear your pitch in the first place.
Once I understand what is going to motivate this person, I need to cultivate them. If they are Mom and Dad, we’re on the fast track. Anybody else will need to see information about the film before I show up on their doorstep. Do I have website I can direct them to? Is there a one-sheet I can send them to begin the conversation and gauge their interest? Am I having a party where I will screen my trailer, and can I invite them to mingle with their peers who’ll be in attendance? I need to pave the way for a face-to-face request.
Okay, let’s say I did all that cultivation, and I have received some indication that this person is primed for my request. Maybe they said some complimentary things about my trailer. Maybe they wrote a small check in response to a group appeal. Now I need to set up the meeting where I can ask them for a bigger contribution. How am I going to do that? Well, I am not going to do it alone, unless I’m talking about asking my mother for money. Instead, I want the person who has the best relationship with this prospect to go with me. And I need him or her to call and set up that meeting. If I try to do it, I’m more likely to get shut out. I need the friend with pull to open the door for me. If I have the best relationship with this prospect, then I can set up the meeting, but I also need to recruit a wingman who will come along and do the actual asking. That way, I can preserve my friendship with this person, even if they choose to deny my request. My partner and I will discuss our strategy in advance and decide on a specific amount to ask for. We won’t make it up in the meeting! And once we get in the door, we won’t change the amount. We’ll be sticking to our guns.
The last thing I do before the ask is to think about the possible objections this person can raise. That is, what excuses might he use to wriggle out of handing over his cash? Will he claim the economic downturn prevents him from supporting my film? Will he say his kids are starting college in the fall so he’s broke? Will he say he supported another so-called commercial film in the past that bombed? What is he going to toss up to prevent me from marching to victory? You have to anticipate those roadblocks and be prepared to address them. Yes, the economy is bad, but we need a film about X now more than ever. Sure, your kids are going to college in the fall, but we will need your help in the spring, too, if that would be a better time. Yeah, that other film bombed, but here’s our airtight distribution plan. Oh, you can’t give $50,000, well how about $25,000? He goes left, you’re there. He goes right, you’re there, smiling and persistent.
Once I’ve done all of these things, I’m in the door, sitting on the plush couch, making my pitch. No more six degrees of anything.
Holly Million is a consultant, author, and filmmaker with nearly two decades’ worth of experience in fundraising. In addition to securing funding for A Story of Healing, which won a 1997 Academy Award, Million has raised money for documentary and dramatic films that have aired on PBS, HBO, and other broadcast outlets. She is the author of Fear-Free Fundraising: How to Ask People for Money, available on Amazon.com. Visit Million’s website at www.hollymillion.com and her fundraising blog at fearfreefilmfundraising.blogspot.com.
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