With a fresh Oscar nod and a Sundance Film Festival Audience Award, 2023 is shaping up to be an exciting year for Catapult Film Fund. A longtime partner and stakeholder in MIF’s efforts to convene a robust network of documentary film funders, and a member of MIF since 2022, Catapult has gained a reputation for its work to support artists and their films in the earliest stages of development. Founded in 2010 by Lisa Kleiner Chanoff and Bonni Cohen, Catapult is among the first supporters on a project, and it stays with that project from its very early beginnings until it makes its way out into the world. In this Q&A, Catapult Co-Director and Senior Program Officer Megan Gelstein—who spoke at our film funder gathering adjacent to the Sundance Film Festival earlier this month—gives us a deeper look into Catapult’s strategy, lessons learned from playing the long game, and what the funding community should do more of to support nonfiction storytelling.
Nina Sachdev, Communications Director, Media Impact Funders: We know that getting films off the ground is incredibly difficult. But early stage work is your bread and butter. Tell us how you “catapult” nonfiction filmmakers into the world.
Megan Gelstein, Co-Director and Chief Program Officer, Catapult Film Fund: It’s true, early stage funding is our main area of focus. Catapult offers early funding and mentorship to propel non-fiction films forward. We support filmmakers with authentic voices who tell stories with integrity, creativity, a cinematic vision, and a strong perspective. We also serve as an early supporter and fearless champion of artful documentaries that inspire and engage audience members — films like “All That Breathes” (director Shaunak Sen), “Crip Camp” (directors Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht), “In the Same Breath” (director Nanfu Wang) and “The Territory” (director Alex Pritz).
What makes us unique is that we’re small and nimble, and able to pivot quickly, which in many ways mirrors the experience and work of an independent filmmaker. At our best, the support we provide gives the filmmaker the feeling that they have a partner who is in their corner and advocating for them as they navigate the challenges of making an independent documentary film. We try to address what the film needs along the way, whether it’s fundraising strategy, or concrete advice about production, or building out their film team. And then once the film is on its journey, we do what we can to connect the filmmakers with other potential allies, whether they’re funders or distributors.
Nina: And Catapult has been supporting this work for 13 years, right? What are some of the key insights and learnings that have emerged from playing the long game? How has your approach changed over time?
Megan: Yes, it’s been 13 years, and we’re proud to have supported over more than 200 projects — and eight of them premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. And when Catapult was founded back in 2010 by Lisa Kleiner Chanoff and Bonni Cohen, the fundamental idea was to provide funding for documentaries at the earliest stages. At that time, there was very little support out there for films at this stage in their development—a lot of times filmmakers were approaching us before there was any proof of concept, sample, or trailer. So things have changed a bit, and now other funders are funding earlier and earlier—which is great—but still, not enough.
We’ve learned so much since we first started: sharpening our ability to pick the really special projects many years before they are complete. We have also refined our understanding of how to best to support filmmakers year over year. Specifically, one critical metric in evaluating a project at this very early stage is listening to the questions filmmakers are wrestling with (as opposed to the answers filmmakers are assuming they will find). The beginning is such an open exciting time, and we have found that the filmmaker who is asking the right questions about story and structure are the filmmakers who end up making uniquely special films.
Another area in which our approach has changed is our recently launched new initiative called the Catapult Research Grant. We see this as a “pre-Catapult” grant; funding the work a filmmaker would need to do to get ready to apply to Catapult or another development funder. Too often, filmmakers are expected to self-fund research and development on new projects. This can be a long and costly process of development. So this grant recognizes the need to resource the labor and talent required to develop great ideas. By offering research funding, the Catapult Research Grant can help sustain filmmakers during this early period while also reducing barriers to entry for a diverse slate of voices. With the Catapult Research Grant, we hope to help contribute to filmmaker sustainability and diversity in the field.
Nina: The impact of COVID on the majority of independent artists has been devastating. From your perspective, where is the field with helping them regain their footing? Are we still in emergency support mode?
Megan: COVID was very difficult for the majority of independent artists. And the impact was long felt. The field did what it could to step up and I was deeply moved by the innovation to meet filmmakers where they were and help them keep the momentum they needed to complete their projects.
So while I don’t think we are in emergency mode anymore, it’s a mistake to think that we can let our breath out. Independent filmmakers are still facing steep financial challenges. Right now, at this festival, many filmmakers are going into significant debt just to finish their films and get them here in time for us to enjoy them.
It’s very hard right now to know how the field overall is doing with regard to helping filmmakers. I do know that it’s still very difficult to raise money, and these filmmakers need our support. But they don’t just need support in the immediate sense—they need long-term longitudinal strategy to keep making these beautiful and impactful cinematic films.
The funding community should do what we can to support creative risk-takers, since the streaming platforms tend not to support these kinds of films in their early stages. Some of the most exciting work being developed out there has no precedent—and that should be applauded. —Megan Gelstein, Co-Director and Chief Program Officer, Catapult Film Fund
Nina: We’ve heard time and time again that the streaming platforms’ appetite for nonfiction storytelling over the last few years has created a “golden age” for documentary film. I’m curious about how you think that sentiment squares with the persistent inequities in the space that some organizations and funders like yourself are trying to address.
Megan: That phrase gets bandied around but it’s not exactly that simple. Absolutely, there are subject areas that get funded more easily than others (celebrity, true-crime, news-adjacent, or sports) but even those films and filmmakers struggle to make their budget. And for those filmmakers who are challenging the form, or trying to envision something new, the path to completion can feel anything but certain. The funding community should do what we can to support creative risk-takers, since the streaming platforms tend not to support these kinds of films in their early stages. Some of the most exciting work being developed out there has no precedent—and that should be applauded. We need to remember that nonfiction filmmaking is expensive, and in the end, when we are sitting in the theater or on our couch applauding, the film feels inevitable. But in the beginning, it can feel anything but inevitable, and that it is the time to step up.
Nina: Philanthropy continues to play a large and growing role in the development of the documentary film field. What more can philanthropy do, keeping in mind the challenges we discussed above? What are the most effective levers funders can pull?
Megan: Funders should take risks. That’s what we do at Catapult and we hope others will too. For example, Catapult was among the first institutions to support “All That Breathes,” and “The Territory,” which have both been shortlisted for an Oscar this year. Neither of these films fit into an obvious category but they are beautiful lyrical films about deeply important topics.
Another thing is to realize that on average, development support in the United States ranges between $20,000-$30,000. But often a filmmaker needs two to three times that amount to make a sample reel thatʼs strong enough to unlock production funding. To raise the remainder of their development budget, the options are limited. Filmmakers can apply for other grants, but granting organizations make decisions once or twice a year, so if they miss the application deadline they have to wait six to 12 months for the next one. And even if the timing does line up, it can take four to six months for a decision. In addition, not only is development support often insufficient, it is also fiercely competitive. For example, Catapult just received 830 applications in a single round of review. So ideally, philanthropy could play an enormously effective role by coming in early and helping to bridge the financial gap. We recognize that it can be difficult to evaluate a project so early, so we actually partner with a variety of philanthropic organizations and individuals to help them find films that we collectively think are going to be particularly compelling.
Nina: What are some of your favorite examples of impact stemming from Catapult’s portfolio?
Megan: It’s hard to pick, because each film and filmmaker is special. We have a few quotes from some filmmakers that we’ve worked with that we are happy to share:
”Simply put, my film “All That Breathes” would never have been made had it not been for the Catapult grant. Catapult provides not just crucial financial support but rigorous mentorship as well as, well, a sense of emotional support in what often feels like a lonely arduous and daunting start of a long journey.” —Shaunauk Sen, “All That Breathes” (streaming on HBO starting Feb. 7)
“Catapult is near and dear to my heart. They were the first to fund us and it was very important for our lift-off. Their funding made our trailer possible as our angelʼs money wasnʼt going to stretch far.” –Jim LeBrecht, “Crip Camp” (streaming now on Netflix)
“Our Catapult grant was extremely important to our ability to keep filming for American Factory. It was our first grant….it gave us joy and confidence, when we had little idea of what all those hours we were filming in the factory would amount to.” –Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar, “American Factory” (streaming now on Netflix)
“From advice on who to approach and when, to knowing when to cut our losses on a financier who might never come through, the deep experience of the Catapult team and the frankness of our conversations was one of our greatest sources of support throughout the filmmaking process. I know for sure our film wouldnʼt be where it is today without these discussions and guidance.” – Alex Pritz, “The Territory” (streaming now on Disney+)
Nina: What’s your advice to a film funder who’s just getting started or even one who’s been at this for a while?
Megan: My advice to other film funders (new or a veteran) is to be curious. Ask lots of questions and stay open to the answers. Interrogate your assumptions and be willing to pivot. The journey of making an independent film is unpredictable and that’s part of the fun. Assume the film will take years to make and enjoy the process—in the end, it’s the creative journey that is the best part of the experience.
Nina: What’s next for Catapult?
Megan: Catapult is at an exciting inflection point. We’ve brought on new staff and increased the amount of support we provide for development grants ($25K per grant). We hope to grow the program to strategically expand support to highly talented filmmakers, and elevate the finest nonfiction films at a crucial moment in their development, and expedite the film’s path to market. We are about to start the third iteration of our Research Grant Fellowship. This program pairs filmmakers and seasoned mentors for 1:1 development over six months.