The winding road to funding for racialized creators

To get funding for a film or series, you need to be able to write a convincing proposal, have proven experience in the field, and generally have a solid network you can count on. While the funding application process is technically neutral and open to all, without discrimination, access for racialized filmmakers and producers is definitely influenced by existing social norms and inequalities. Although there’s no published data to date on what’s holding back funding for racialized creators, informal discussions with various groups identified four main barriers to be overcome. 

1. Getting experience can cost a bundle  

Directors generally need at least one project under their belt before they can apply for a grant or any type of financing. Not a big problem for any recent graduate in film or audiovisual studies. Potentially insurmountable for anyone having to self-finance their first project.

“People are expected to work for nothing when they start in the business. That’s something not everyone can afford,” said Montreal-based director Liz Singh. It’s a difficulty she had to deal with in making her first feature film, The Lower Plateau.

Singh did have a degree in film production, but her only experience was as a screenwriter. One of the key funding requirements is the experience you have in the position you’ll hold in the project in question. Since she was going to be the screenwriter, producer, and director in The Lower Plateau, her request for funding was turned down.

“I have more than ten years of experience and this year I was finally able to get a grant,” she said. What she’d like to see is more specific funding for smaller projects. “I shouldn’t have to be competing with a potential Oscar-nominee for funding.”

2. Getting a distributor/broadcaster deal could be a deal-breaker

Some funding programs require aspiring directors to first have a deal with a broadcaster or distributor. “On one hand, someone has to be your primary funder; someone has to believe in you,” Toronto-based producer/director Tamara Dawit said. “On the other hand, if there’s no one on the jury with empathy for your community or your target audience, you’ve got a problem. In my experience, projects tend to do better the more diverse the funding body is.”

Arts councils without the broadcaster/distributor-deal requirement are obviously better sources for emerging creators to seek out. But Dawit feels that funding your projects this way puts limits on your career. “You can’t combine arts council funding with broadcaster financing,” she said. “The upshot is that while this makes it more likely that creators from under-represented groups will get a grant from arts councils that understand their vision and put more emphasis on the achievement score than a commercial funder would, it also puts them in a position of having to create a more uniquely artistic and non-marketable product. What this essentially says to racialized creators is that they can work as amateurs but there’s no place for them in the business.”

3. Getting mindsets to change is essential in fighting racism

According to Liz Singh, the problem in funding for audiovisual works is “also a societal problem, the effects of racism and so-called white supremacy. Sometimes it’s just blatant racism and sexism, people uncomfortable dealing with you because you’re a person of colour or not taking you seriously because you’re a woman,” she said. “One investor actually told me that it’s not good business to make films about Black persons because they don’t do well internationally.”

Comments like that are nothing new to Tamara Dawit but for a different reason. Her films are not made in English, French, or in an Indigenous language. The CMF Linguistic Diversity Program is among the only programs in Canada that funds projects in languages other than the two official or Indigenous ones.

After many applications for funding in Canada, Dawit headed to Europe where she found it was easier to get financing for her projects produced in East Africa. She’s also been working as an inclusion and diversity consultant for the CMF since late last year. “I’m able to understand the issues racialized creators face, and I’m also able to remain detached since I’m not competing for funding in the Canadian market like they are,” she said.

4. Getting from permanent resident to citizen status

Tired of being the only non-white persons on every project they worked on, twin sisters Rennata and Georgina Lopez decided to create their own production company, Lopii Productions. Unfortunately, being permanent residents and not Canada citizens, almost prevented them from accessing funding.

In 2018, when Lopii was given the go-ahead by TVO to produce a show and they were just about to get funding from the CMF, the Lopez sisters were shocked to find out they weren’t eligible because their company wasn’t considered Canadian. Both of them would have to be Canadian citizens for that to happen.

American citizens of Mexican origin, Rennata and Georgina had lived in Canada since they were six, and never felt it was necessary for them to become citizens. With the exception of the right to vote and stand for election, the rights and duties of permanent residents are virtually the same as those of Canadian citizens.

“We were very concerned because we were already in pre-production for the show and the CMF was involved,” Georgina said. “We got the news about our permanent resident status problem in November 2018 and were enrolled in the citizenship program by December.”

The twins were able to persuade CMF management to give them time to become Canadian citizens. In the end, an exception was made, and they received funding on the condition that they would both be Canadian citizens within one year, or they’d have to repay the funding in full. Georgina took the citizenship oath in October 2019, followed by Rennata in January 2020.

So where is all this getting us?

The personal accounts gathered for this article reflect a range of views and experiences. A specialized study on the subject would need to be carried out in order to get a really accurate assessment of the situation for resolving the issues.

The Bell Fund began a process internally in summer 2020 with a voluntary self-identification form for applicants to complete. Other initiatives, like a workshop organized during the last edition of RIDM and led by director Khoa Le helped a dozen racialized filmmakers learn more about the grant application process.

Alberta-based filmmaker Nauzanin Knight was also aware of the racialized women no-shows at networking events. “I’m one of the very few female filmmakers and Afro-descendant business owners in Edmonton,” she said. Knight decided to embark on a national qualitative research project to determine the factors that contribute to the inclusion/exclusion of women of colour from industry networking events. “It’s important because networking events like these are the entry point for establishing partnerships and getting contracts.” She expects results of the study to be published by the end of 2021.

Funding agencies could be more flexible on the need for a distributor/broadcaster deal especially in light of the ever-increasing number of streaming platforms. 

That’s been the case for the Bell Fund’s webseries program since 2018. According to Bell Fund deputy director Chantal Côté, creators with an existing audience on a digital platform, including Facebook and YouTube, may be eligible for funding in the webseries program. Platforms not connected to a broadcaster must be pre-approved by submitting a dedicated form. “If you’ve built a Facebook page, for example, or you have a YouTube channel, or your own niche community that works well, and we determine that it has potential – even if it’s niche – you can apply to the Bell Fund once we approve your platform. But you won’t be eligible for the tax credit because you have to be associated with a broadcaster for that,” she said.

While these stand-alone initiatives do have merit, they’re not mainstream and might not have as much impact as comprehensive measures would have on long-term goals.

Rime El Jadidi
Rime El Jadidi is the Associate Editor of Now & Next. She previously collaborated with Inspirit Foundation, BIPOC TV and Film, and the Black Screen Office. Rime started her career in journalism and speaks five languages.
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