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by Lance Kramer for International Documentary Association

I was sitting at an IDA-produced summit on sustainability in February in Washington, DC. Dozens of seasoned filmmakers shared personal struggles about how they have survived in their careers as documentary filmmakers. I listened to people I deeply admire and respect candidly discuss potential action items to fix a financial model that many in the room agreed is broken. As a young filmmaker, I wondered what kind of contribution I could make to a big goal as elusive and abstract as sustainability. Then the topic of transparency came up repeatedly in conversation. It was striking to hear how many people operated alone and in the dark when it came to navigating the finances of our field. There seemed to be a basic lack of public data and dialogue.

The conversation motivated my brother Brandon and I to open up the books on our first feature-length documentary film, City of Trees. Over the course of five years, we had fiercely cobbled together $406,670 from non-traditional sources to fund our “low-budget” film. When it came to money, we had reached one conclusion: the math does not add up. In the interest of honestly addressing some of the financial realities facing our field, what follows is a nuanced portrait — a quantitative and qualitative audit — of our experiences funding our first film.

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