Q&A | Maida Brankman: Leveraging Intermediaries

Maida Brankman
Liminal Fund

In May 2015, at the one-year anniversary of Cohort 12's graduation, I reached out to the members of my cohort with an invitation to reflect on what we feel we'd learned since completing the TPW Intensive Program. What follows are my responses to the set of questions I posed to the other members of my cohort.

Q: Take us back to the end of our intensive program last May. What was top of mind for you then?

MB: I spent almost all of my cohort year grappling with the concept of “passion” and my seeming inability to find one that would drive my philanthropy. Very close to the end of the course, I finally uncovered the passion for storytelling I've had since I first learned to read. The epiphany was that, unlike people who have passions for “topics” (e.g., reproductive health, public education, climate change), my passion is for “tools,” or the processes that can be applied to a range of topics to meet specific goals. The focus of my presentation was fairly backward looking, telling the story of my journey to that “aha moment,” and was decidedly light on specifics about how I intended to explore the intersection of storytelling and philanthropy moving forward. I suppose I knew I would set about conducting a landscape scan, but for how long and to exactly what end was fuzzy at the time.

Q: In what ways has your philanthropy in the past year been impacted by what we learned in the intensive?

MB: Number one, meeting TPW member Diana Barrett (Fledgling Fund) in Washington, DC was an enormously pivotal moment in my journey. Not only did she provide the first living example of philanthropy that excited me, but also quickly opened doors to key people and organizations in the documentary film world. I'm not sure how much this is directly related to TPW, but reflecting on how I have been able to leverage those initial introductions into meaningful relationships with many other documentary film funders shows me that networking is an activity I enjoy and am good at.

Secondly, as I made my way through the documentary film industry I maintained a focus on understanding funding gaps and opportunities in order to develop an intentional philanthropic strategy. I'm not sure I would have applied that kind of discipline had I not taken the TPW intensive. I suspect I would have felt overwhelmed with all the new knowledge I was acquiring and would have responded by either making a bunch of disparate grants based on what I liked; or, conversely, slipped into analysis paralysis and done nothing at all.

Lastly, I think I was able to develop my current funding strategy because TPW taught me how to integrate my understanding of gaps and opportunities with my passions, values, and capacity. I have a much clearer sense of my assets and limitations. Taking 12-18 months to immerse myself in a new field provided the time to get to know both the industry and myself. I realized, for example, that I'm more interested in working on systems than individual projects; I have a low tolerance for bureaucracy; and that one of my short term goals is to develop a funding strategy that puts my continued learning at the center.

Q: What challenges have come up for you, and how have you addressed them?

MB: I can think of two big ones right off the bat. First, as much as I learned in my TPW intensive, once it was over I felt adrift. I have never worked this independently before, so setting goals and finding answers to questions was a big challenge for me. It's not exactly rocket science but it's taken me a while to build the discipline to conduct the research and build the networks required to meet a variety of goals – not just the documentary film landscape scan. All of my previous work experience came in traditional settings where I had built-in teams and projects, so I'm still working on developing meaningful collaborations that don't derive from the office environment.

Another challenge I've faced in the past year has to do with time. I have a tendency to be impatient, so if I don't feel I've reached a certain goal by a specified date I get really cranky. People tell me my expectations are unrealistic and that I ought to be kinder to myself, so I'm working on that. I'm also trying to get used to a widely variable intensity and pace of work: I can go from being over-scheduled, which is both energizing and exhausting, to hitting a slow patch, which makes me antsy. This one I haven't quite figured out yet.

Q: What is your vision for the year ahead? How about three years out?

MB: I'm really excited about the launch of my 2016 Liminal Fund strategy: Momentum Grants. I have partnered with three established documentary film funders (Catapult Film Fund, Chicken and Egg Films, and Britdoc) to distribute small quick-release funds to film projects threatened by unforeseen circumstances. This kind of money is extremely hard to come by, but can have enormous impact on the narrative quality and completion prospects for a film. By choosing to fund through intermediaries, I eliminate the need to establish an independent organization, and – much more importantly – will have the opportunity to learn about how funding decisions are made by the experts. The data I gather from all three partners has the potential to turn into a fascinating bit of research from which many in the industry will benefit. So the one-year vision is all about learning: what kinds of funding request come in? What's in and what's out? What did we learn in the implementation of Year One that will require adjusting in Year Two? And perhaps in year two I'll add another partner or two to the mix, which would enrich everyone's learning.

Three to five years out my goals are a bit broader. As we continue to learn and fine-tune the Momentum Grants program, I would love for other funders to join in to grow the pool of available funding. I also aspire to be a part of an industry-wide conversation focused on attempting to rationalize the documentary financing landscape with an eye on developing more opportunities for sustainable filmmaking career options.


Maida Brankman is director of Liminal Fund, which supports documentary filmmaking, and is on the board of Working Films.

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