Thursday, August 23, 2012

MacArthur Foundation Documentary Films

Understand guideline and funding cycles

MacArthur publishes program guidelines to help applicants determine whether their idea for a grant fits within a particular grantmaking strategy.

As a general rule, applicants should base this decision on three related criteria that appear in program guidelines: the topical focus addressed by the grantmaking strategy; the geographic area covered by the grantmaking strategy; and, finally, the type of funding (i.e., general operating support, research, program support, etc.) that supports the grantmaking strategy.

Like most strategic grantmaking foundations, the MacArthur Foundation considers funding only those applications that closely match the topical, geographic, and funding criteria for a specific grantmaking strategy.

Please note:  Application guidelines for documentary film funding differ from guidelines for other MacArthur grantmaking strategies.  Please precisely follow the instructions below for documentary film proposals.


MacArthur's goal in media grantmaking is to provide the public with high-quality, professionally-produced documentary films, deep and analytical journalism, and well-produced news and public affairs programming. In a media environment characterized by proliferating information sources of varying degrees of reliability, the Foundation seeks to support serious, fact-based journalism for television, radio and the web, the type of original reporting that is likely to be blogged about, linked to, tweeted, and otherwise circulated throughout the Internet. Programs supported by the Foundation inform and educate their viewers about important and under-reported topics, provide balance and accurate information, encourage global conversations, and use technology to tell stories in engaging and interactive ways.

Key staff officers for this program are Media, Culture, and Special Initiatives Vice President Elspeth Revere and Media, Culture, and Special Initiatives Director Kathy Im. Inquiries about grantmaking should be sent to

Documentary Films

MacArthur supports the production of social-issue documentary films on important contemporary topics, intended for a broad audience, particularly in the U.S.  Over the last 30 years, we have supported over 200 films by some of the most critically acclaimed filmmakers in the country.  Their documentary work combines exceptional storytelling with in-depth journalism. Many of these films have had a long life beyond festivals and broadcast, and been used in educational, community, and policymaking settings over many years, sparking conversations and activities that contribute to social and policy change.
Open Call for Documentary Film Proposals
The Media, Culture, and Special Initiatives program is accepting proposals for documentary film projects between Monday, August 6, 2012 and Friday, September 7, 2012. Apply now.
The program seeks to fund documentary projects that address the significant social challenges of our time or explore important but under-reported topics.  Domestic and international topics are welcome, and preference will be given to projects that align with one of MacArthur’s grantmaking areas. Support will be provided primarily for production and post-production activities, and to experienced filmmakers based in the U.S. with track records of completing excellent feature-length films that have been broadcast nationally and internationally and received critical recognition.
This is a highly selective process.  We see many more qualified projects than we are able to fund, and must make difficult choices.  In each round, the Foundation is able to support just 8-12 projects, from the 300-400 proposals submitted.  
Please read the following instructions and criteria carefully.  We have a very small staff to review what is typically a large number of proposals.  In order to successfully conduct an open call process, we must rely on your help in applying only if you think that your project fully meets the MacArthur Foundation’s criteria.  If you decide to apply, please help us further by following the instructions meticulously. 
  1. Begin by completing an electronic cover sheet. Proposals must be submitted electronically via with “Documentary Grant Proposal: [YOUR ORG’S NAME]” in the subject line (e.g., Documentary Grant Proposal: Hopeful Films).   Be sure that any links to sample work are active, you provide the password, and the link remains active through March 2013.
  2. Proposals will not be accepted prior to August 6, 2012 or after 11:59pm CST on September 7, 2012.  Please do not wait until the last minute.  This can cause systems to become overtaxed and to break down.
  3. Due to the high volume of submissions combined with a very small staff for this program, the Foundation cannot respond to phone or email inquiries about the criteria or process.  Please read the criteria and guidelines (and FAQ section) carefully and proceed using your best judgment. 
In selecting documentary films for support, the Foundation looks for projects that:
  • Address important, contemporary social topics – international or domestic
  • Follow an issue over time, providing in-depth reporting that goes beyond conventional news coverage
  • Utilize compelling personal stories to engage viewers and create empathy
  • Appeal to a broad audience because they are accessible, interesting, and balanced (i.e., they treat different points of view respectfully)
  • Are factually correct and follow best practices in journalism
  • Align with MacArthur’s programmatic interests in the U.S. and International Grantmaking areas
  • Have a strong likelihood of broadcast in the U.S. and elsewhere, and thoughtful plans for broad dissemination in educational, community, or policy settings
  • Are led by experienced U.S.-based filmmaking teams that have past success in bringing a documentary project to successful completion and reaching broad U.S. audiences
Proposal Guidelines
Please read this section carefully and follow the instructions closely.  Do not refer to instructions about applying for grants in other parts of the MacArthur website, which may be different from the guidelines provided here. 
If you are working on multiple projects, you may submit more than one project for consideration.  However, each proposal must be sent separately.  Please read over the criteria carefully and submit only those projects that closely meet the Foundation’s selection criteria.
If you submitted a proposal for a documentary project in December 2011 and that project was not funded, please refer to your letter from the Foundation before re-submitting a proposal for the same project.  If you were instructed not to re-apply, please do not resubmit a proposal for the same project. 
Your proposal must include FOUR parts; please label them accordingly:
Part 1 – Cover sheet & sample of work-in-progress
Please complete the electronic cover sheet and include a link to your sample work-in-progress video.
Part 2 – Description of the film 
  • In this section, please describe the film in greater detail, providing a clear sense of the film’s theme, format, structure, style, and point of view.  Please also describe the intended audience for the film and what you expect to be the likely broadcast and distribution vehicle for the film.

    Please include the current status of the project and explain how MacArthur funds will be used to advance the project.

    This section of the proposal should be NO LONGER THAN 6 PAGES in normal type. If your project proceeds to the semi-final round of review, you will be contacted and asked to submit a fuller treatment.
Part 3 – Budget
Please include a detailed budget for the project, including a list of income sources (with amounts).  
Part 4 – Production personnel
Please submit a short bio of each of the key production personnel.  If you are able to provide a link to a more detailed bio or filmography, please provide the link.  If your previous work is available for online viewing, please provide the link.  (Do not send DVDs of previous work.)
This section of the proposal should be NO LONGER THAN 1 PAGE.
The Foundation’s Response
As soon as you submit your proposal to, you will receive an automatic acknowledgment email stating that your proposal has been successfully submitted.  If you do not receive that acknowledgement within 48 hours, please let us know by sending a message  Please do not call.
Between September 2012 and November 2012, the Foundation’s staff will be reviewing the proposals and selecting a group of semi-finalists.  Applicants in the semi-final round are likely to be contacted by the Foundation staff for more information.  Between December 2012 and January 2013, the Foundation will work with a panel of reviewers to make its final selections.  We expect to notify the grant recipients and to make a public announcement by March 2013.
We recognize that this is a long waiting period, however, we are committed to reviewing each proposal carefully and thoroughly, and with our small staff, this takes a great deal of time.  If you have significant updates on your project (funding, awards, etc.) you may send them to the Foundation using the same address and heading.  These updates will not be acknowledged but we will add them to the proposal.
For documentary film projects that are not selected for funding, we will notify the applicants by email by February or March 2013, if not sooner.
Due to the high volume of anticipated proposals, the Foundation will not be able to provide updates to applicants during the review process.  Please do not call or email us; we will not be able to respond to inquiries about individual projects or provide updates on our process or timeline.   In addition, the size of our staff makes it impossible to provide feedback on project proposals or detailed explanations of our decisions.   

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