Filmmakers increasingly need to seek funds from as many sources as possible. A fundraising party may seem like a fun way to raise much-needed dough, but they are a lot of work. Still, securing the right host, making a personal connection to the guests, and laying the groundwork for future "asks" can have pay-offs far beyond the money raised at the event. Parties can build the community your film needs to get to the next step.
I recently talked to fundraising expert Morrie Warshawski, whose book The Fundraising Houseparty: How to Party With a Purpose and Raise Money for Your Cause , is now out in its second edition and includes new sample invitations, new tips on making use of the Internet for the party, and a brainstorming worksheet to help filmmakers identify potential new partners and hosts. Warshawski is also the author of Shaking The Money Tree: How To Get Grants And Donations For Film And Video -- 2nd Edition and speaks regularly about fundraising and career issues for independent filmmakers.
I also spoke with filmmakers Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar who successfully raised funds through parties for their 2007 film, Made in L.A.  about the labor struggles of immigrant garment workers in Los Angeles. The film screened on the PBS series P.O.V., is continuing to play festival and community screenings around the world, and has been nominated for an Emmy. Also providing insights fresh from the experience of his first fundraising houseparty is first-time producer/director Christopher Wong. He is in the process of raising funds for his film Whatever It Takes  about a year in the life of an urban high school whose staff is determined to protect their kids from falling through the cracks.
At what point in the process of making a film should one consider holding fundraising parties? Do you need to already have a trailer? A fiscal sponsor? Money raised from other sources?
Morrie Warshawski: I would consider it as soon as I have an idea for a film. You can throw a party at any point along the process from idea, through production, post-production, and even during the distribution phase.
Almudena Carracedo: You almost definitely need a respected fiscal sponsor. People prefer to be able to make tax-deductible donations, and they will feel more secure donating to a fiscal sponsor that guarantees that the funds will be spent in the project in a professional manner. We were honored to be able to work with Women Make Movies  on Made in L.A.
Morrie Warshawski: You don’t absolutely need to have a trailer, but these parties work much better if you can show a strong, engaging trailer that is a portion of the film you plan to make.
Robert Bahar: I suppose some filmmakers might be able to hold an event without a trailer, but we always felt that a trailer was essential. Screening and discussing the trailer gives the event a focal point; it helps the audience connect emotionally to the film, and it demonstrates that you really are doing what you say you are doing.
Morrie Warshawski: If you’re throwing the party early in your process, you might be trying to raise enough funds to shoot your trailer. In this case, you’ll need to be creative and present something else -- slides, clips from previous work, subjects of the film who come in to give personal testimonials, or do a script reading.
Almudena Carracedo: Even though it always helps to have previously raised some funds, it is probably not a necessity in a fundraiser. People are going to support you because they believe in your cause, that you're making something valuable, and that you have the capacity to finish it. The more you can use the event to make the case that "this film needs to be made" and "this film is important, urgent, and new" the more persuasive you'll be.
Morrie Warshawski: It always helps to be able to say that other people have already given you some support, but this is not a requirement. Remember that some people want to be known as the risk-takers who jumped on the wagon first. But it does help a party if you can have someone commit to matching gifts that night.
How would you compare fundraising through parties to fundraising through grants? Are the potential rewards worth the effort?
Morrie Warshawski: Oh my -- this is a big question! There is a world of difference between these two avenues of fundraising -- in fact, they are two opposite ends of the fundraising spectrum. Fundraising through grants involves an intensive period of research, followed by making contact with a funder, then the creation of an extensive written proposal that might be supplemented with ancillary materials. The whole process of researching, applying for and then hearing about a grant can take many months. And, because the competition for grant dollars is so intense, the odds are stacked against you, so you receive many more rejections than awards. When you do get a grant, however, you’re likely to land something in the mid to high five-figure range of support.
[Editor's note: Many filmmakers are supported by grants of $10,000 or less by private foundations, such as the LEF Foundation or state/regional arts councils, such as NYSCA .]
Robert Bahar: In comparison to applying for a comparably sized grant, in this case you have control of how much money you'll raise, and there is virtually zero chance that you'll end up empty handed. With a grant, the odds are probably 80 or 90 percent that you'll be rejected. Of course, sometimes small grants open doors to bigger grants from the same funder, and there's no one right choice. Most projects will use a number of fundraising methods across their lifespan.
Christopher Wong: Raising money through a houseparty is such a different feel from going through a foundation or a film organization. The level of personal interaction is so much more crucial with a houseparty. In addition, the appeal one makes is much more raw, and less reasoned that with a written proposal. The other major difference is that one gets the money immediately at a fundraiser, instead of having to go through four to six months of deliberation.
Morrie Warshawski: With a houseparty, everything is much faster. You only need about six weeks lead time. It’s much more personal. You work with a group of people. There is little research involved. You don’t have to write a proposal. And, if you do it right, you can pretty much guarantee you will get money that night, though the amounts will be more modest. Whether the rewards are worth the effort depends very much on the nature of the project, how fast and how much money is needed, and the personality of the filmmaker.
So take me a little bit through the process. Let’s say I wanted to have a fundraising party for my film. Should I put together a big public soiree or can I really raise funds with just a small home-based event?
Almudena Carracedo: We've had several fundraisers. One was a concert. The other ones were houseparties. All of our events brought in the same level of donors, but they were in different communities, either geographically, or in different networks around Los Angeles. I think you want to create an event where people feel that have been invited to something special. Even if 100 people show up, you don't want it to feel "public" per se. Rather, you want people to feel that they received a special invitation and that the event is being hosted by people that they respect in their community.
Morrie Warshawski: I am a big fan of the smaller houseparty as opposed to the large, public fundraising special event. With a large special event, it is possible to make some money, but it is highly likely that you might actually lose money in one of two ways. One obvious way is that the event actually costs you more than you paid for it. But a more insidious and invisible way you lose money is that you don’t get as much from each person as you could or should. For instance, if you charge a $50 admission to a benefit screening, the donor feels they’ve made their contribution and you can’t ask them for more money that evening (unless you’re conducting an auction where they feel they are “buying” something). But if that same donor was worth and could afford a $500 donation, you just lost $450! The beauty of the houseparty is that when people make a donation it’s at the level they’re most comfortable with, and that’s usually quite a bit more than the price of a special event admission fee.
Is it typical to have only one party for a film or to hold several parties at different stages of production or with different types of funders (such as one for people who could afford to donate $50 or $100 separate from one for people who could afford to donate in the four- or five- figures)?
Morrie Warshawski: It is very unusual to hold only one party for a film. Usually you are holding a number of parties, sometimes in a number of different cities. Part of the strategy for a houseparty is to keep the invitees homogeneous and not heterogeneous -- you want to invite donors of modest means to one party, major donors to a separate party and not mix the two up. This makes a big difference in how much you will ask for and get at each event. Talk to the host and set a goal that is reasonable -- or a slight stretch -- for the worth of the people being invited and for the number you hope will attend. This means your realistic goal will be different for every party you throw. It’s pretty common for modest parties to bring in $3,000-$7,000. I’ve received notes from filmmakers in the past six months that said their parties netted anywhere from $12,000-$23,000 in one night. I also know of parties that have brought in as much as $120,000 and as little as a few hundred dollars.
Christopher Wong: I just had my first fundraising party in New York and plan to have at least two other fundraising parties in the near future -- one in Los Angeles and one in Boston.
So what is a realistic goal for most films to make from a fundraising party?
Robert Bahar: A houseparty is worthwhile if you set a fundraising goal that you are happy with, and if you really put in the forethought and effort to achieve that goal. In our experience, successful events yielded at least $8,000-$10,000, given the audience that we were fundraising from. It really depends on the community that you're reaching out to. Since Made in L.A. is about immigrant labor issues in Los Angeles, it was natural for us to reach out to labor, social justice and activist communities in L.A. And in reality, we were already working with those communities in the making of the film so it wasn't hard to find them!
Christopher Wong: I thought I would be able to raise $10,000 at the New York fundraiser. That night we only raised $4,000. But there were some potential donors who couldn’t make it at the last minute. I stayed in New York for a few additional days and met with some who had been invited, but couldn’t make it that night. Since these were people with whom I had a prior friendship or acquaintance, I took advantage of the opportunity to invite them to lunch or coffee. Because they had already received the invitation, most people were open to just meeting one-on-one. I managed to raise another $4,000-$5,000 from these follow-up meetings.
You bring up an important point about people already receiving the invitation, so there were no surprises that you would be asking them to donate. But for the party itself, what is the most diplomatic but direct way of conveying this in a written invitation, so guests are not surprised when they are being hit up for money?
Morrie Warshawski: You have to make it very clear that people are going to be asked for money at the houseparty. This is very important. You never ever want to blindside invitees who think they are coming to a “party” and then find out they are being asked for money. Your invitation will always include an RSVP card, and that card allows people to make a donation even if they can’t come, so that is signal enough that the event is about fundraising. You could say things like “You are invited to a celebration and fundraising event….” or “Please join us for a benefit for….” I even saw an invite once that said “… and don’t forget to bring your checkbook and/or credit card!” My book has other examples.
Realize that being upfront about the fundraising purpose of the party is going to discourage lots of people from attending, which is why you must invite three or four times as many people as you would like to show up. But, that is one of the wonderful “self correcting” aspects of the houseparty. Many people will say “no thanks,” but the rest that do show up know what they are in for and come to the party ready to be asked and to make a donation.
Almudena Carracedo: It's very important that the invitation be clear that the event is a fundraiser. We suggest including phrases like these in the invitation: