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Studio Executives, Starlets, and Funding

December 6th, 2007 · by Jake Seliger · 4 Comments

In William Goldman’s hilarious Adventures in the Screen Trade*, he wrote, “Nobody knows anything.” Nobody knows how much money a movie will make or which movies should be made or what audiences want. Goldman cites movies a studio thought were a sure thing and flopped, and movies every studio but one rejected, only to see it do such astronomical business that every executive in the studio could buy a Beverly Hills pad and live like Ari Gold in Entourage.

Any smart studio head will they say, “I did it once with Star Wars, so why can’t I do it 50 more times with Space Battles and Sun Fight and so on until I exhaust my thesaurus?” This is grossly unrealistic because it assumes studio executives own a thesaurus, but the point remains that if they could reliably pick billion-dollar movies, they wouldn’t have to spend so much time agonizing over scripts from those ungrateful striking writers, putting projects together, trying to get Russell Crowe and his $20 million and 20% deal on board, and doing the 750,000 other things required for a movie to have what they consider a shot at the big time. In other words, they want to find an algorithm for finding a sure thing, so instead of all of that studio executives could skip straight to the mansion-and-floating-in-the-pool-drinking-mai-tais part of their lives, which is why studio executives became who they are. If they’d gotten in for another reason, they’d probably be picketing the Universal lot.

As a result of this effort at picking winners, studio executives have spent enormous amounts of time and money on screen tests, re-cuts, edits, and probably much I don’t know about, all in an effort to discover whether if their movies will succeed. Despite all this effort, most movies still bomb.

Nobody knows anything. If they did, movies wouldn’t bomb so often.

Many of you might be thinking, “I’m at a site about grant writing, right? And if so, why am I reading about Hollywood?”

It actually has a lot to do with grant writing. A commenter to our fourth post writes: “I cannot shake the observation that to get a grant you must tell people with the money what they want to hear [...] But there seems to be no objective criteria by which these grants are awarded [...]” Telling funders what they want to hear is a fine observation because you should follow whatever guidelines they provide.

The golden rule cliche says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The almost-as-old, snarky version goes, “He who has the gold makes the rules.” If you want to make the rules about who gets funded, you have to lead a federal agency or start a software company, make more money than some countries’ GDP, and endow a foundation. Assuming that Bill Gates isn’t reading this, you’ll have to follow the rules of whoever has the gold, and if you don’t want to follow them, you’re less likely to get funded. You should follow the funder’s instructions if you want to be funded, just as studio executives know that if they want their movies have a better chance of success they should hire Kate Winslet.

You can maximize your probability of being funded by submitting technically correct proposals written and prepared to the best of your ability. This will improve your odds of being funded, which in part includes making sure that you follow whatever submission guidelines are available.

To be sure, no one can be certain whether a given proposal will be funded. Almost anyone who makes guarantees about funding is probably doing something unethical, exaggerating their connections, or simply lying. It’s also difficult to gauge the likelihood of a particular proposal being funded because you probably won’t know many other factors: the other applicants to a program, the mood of the reviewers, who the reviewers are, how many other applicants there are, whether the funder has hidden priorities, the phase of the moon, etc. Like studio executives picking movies, you won’t always know what the audience wants, despite what the audience may say.

Sometimes the funder will want agencies with long track records, sometimes new agencies. Sometimes funders will have geographic preferences—if you’re working for an organization in the Northeast, for example, and the Northeast has brutal competitors while practically no one from the Southwest bothers to apply, and if the funder wants to fund programs evenly in the U.S., then it’s possible that an otherwise good agency with an otherwise good program won’t be funded in the Northeast. Notice the preceding sentence’s length and how many caveats it contains, and that’s only for a single hypothetical factor. Multiply that by fifty or a hundred or infinite factors, right up to whether a reviewer knows where the proposed evaluator went to college and doesn’t think much of that college, which happens to be his college’s rival, and you’ll start to realize why no one can guarantee funding no matter how great an applicant and application might be.

Still, as an organization applies, it should pay some attention to whether its proposals are consistently rejected. As the Seliger + Associates FAQ states:

Over time, you should achieve a 25% – 50% success rate. If less than 25% of your proposals are being funded, you’re probably doing something wrong (e.g., incomplete application packages, ineligible applicant, etc.). If more that 50% of your grants are being funded, you probably are not stretching the envelop far enough by trying to get grants to extend your agency’s service capabilities.

So, to go back to the commenter, who writes about how there seems to be no objective criteria by which these grants are awarded, I’ll give a short answer now: it depends on what you’re applying for. This post, however, has been extended long enough, so Part II will deal with that and come next Monday. Any successful post ought to have a sequel, action figures, and lunch boxes.


*An essential book for anyone who wants to better understand the movies they watch, and, implicitly, why so many are abysmal.

UPDATE: See Part II here.

Tags: Advice · Grants · Questions