Advocating for animals through film…and finding the resources to do it

When one considers effective ways to advocate for the well-being of animals, the first things that come to mind usually include reaching out to congresspeople, donating to and volunteering at worthy charities, consolidating spending power to eliminate abusive industry practices, and signing petitions to help animal welfare and wildlife conservation groups lobby lawmakers in Washington—all of which are essential for success.

In recent years, however, an additional advocacy strategy is demonstrating large-scale success in directing the public consciousness toward wildlife conservation and animal welfare reform: documentary film. An Inconvenient Truth, one of the most successful U.S. documentaries ever made, opened people’s eyes to the impact of their actions on the environment and, among many other recognitions and nominations, received the 2007 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Last year, that same award went to The Cove, a film that exposed the cruel treatment and slaughter of wild dolphins for meat—found to contain harmful levels of mercury—at a secluded, heavily guarded cove in Taiji, Japan.

With the 83rd annual Academy Awards airing this evening, the season for recognizing 2010’s most outstanding movies reaches its climax and provides a perfect opportunity to highlight another successful newcomer among animal advocacy documentaries. Equine Destiny, a collaborative effort between Change for Balance Productions in Irvine, California and the Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center in Huntington Beach, exposes the widespread abuse and slaughter of America’s horses happening largely outside of public awareness in the U.S. In addition to the four awards it won at the 2009 Los Angeles Reel Film Festival, the documentary short received 1st Place and awards for Best Visual Effects and Best Narration at the 2010 Los Angeles Movie Awards at the end of the year.

The Lion’s Share spoke with producer Adam Steel about fundraising for the film, viewing opportunities, how people can help horses, and his advice to other documentary filmmakers.

Claire Sterling, The Lion’s Share (TLS): It’s encouraging to hear that Equine Destiny has received so much recognition and acclaim at film festivals on the West Coast, and that the film is raising awareness about the plight of America’s horses. What opportunities are there for those of us in other areas of the U.S. to see the film?

Adam Steel, Change for Balance Productions (CFBP): We’re working with equestrian centers, equine rescue organizations, and the equestrian community around the country to host local private screenings of the film followed by Q&A sessions with a member of the Change for Balance team. We’re hoping to bring Equine Destiny to Long Island in the next couple of months. Our target audience is the non-horse-owning public, including those who aren’t necessarily “horse people,” because they have the most to learn about the issues explored in the film, and their involvement in helping to address these issues is critical. Our ultimate goal is to bring Equine Destiny to every TV in America in order to reach the broadest audience possible. We’re not selling the movie on DVD at this point so that we can retain exclusive rights and hopefully drum up support from more distributors and potential investors.

[3/29/11 UPDATE: Equine Destiny will be featured as part of the New York International Independent Film & Video Festival at the Quad Cinema on Saturday, April 30, 2011, 4:00 pm EDT.]

TLS: What kind of financial support did you receive for the film, and how did you go about raising the necessary funds?

CFBP: We were initially approached by Mary Behrens and her sister Carole Harris about creating this documentary. Mary owns and operates the Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center and helped found Red Bucket Equine Rescue. We weren’t aware of the issues facing horses at that time, but once we began to look deeper, we saw that this film really needed to be made. Mary and Carole provided all the funds to help us produce the film and truly inspired us with their passion for the issue.

It is without question that the success of a film depends on how well it is marketed. Ordinarily, the marketing budget for a film can far exceed the production cost, but we have had no marketing budget at all—our resources have run out—so as you can imagine, it’s been very challenging to spread the word. We have forgone receiving payment as filmmakers and have put all of our money back into the film. We’ve gotten lots of pats on the back for this film, but the unfortunate truth is that we haven’t gotten much financial support. We’ve been trying to market Equine Destiny for about two years using grassroots networking and social media, and now it’s up to people who care about these issues to take it to the next level.

People can donate to Equine Destiny through the Inter-Nation Cultural Foundation, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Contributions are tax-deductible, and 90% of the funding we receive for Equine Destiny goes towards marketing the film, which will in turn support horse rescue and education. The remaining 10% of our funding pays for essential services from CPAs and others—the executive director doesn’t take a salary. Transparency is very important to us, so information about 100% of the dollars we spend is available to all our donors.

TLS: In what other ways can people get involved in helping to create a brighter future for America’s horses?

CFBP: People can make a big impact by volunteering with horse rescue organizations in their area. In addition to needing money, these facilities really need people’s time in order to carry out their operations, and they can’t necessarily afford to hire staff. We’re also looking for sponsorship opportunities with companies whose products are useful to the equestrian community, and we’re working to get endorsements from celebrities who own or work extensively with horses—we hope that future screenings of Equine Destiny will encourage people to bring contacts to the table.

TLS: What advice would you give to other documentary filmmakers who may be inspired to follow in your footsteps?

CFBP: First of all, patience and perseverance is key—the notion of overnight success is a myth. Like anything in life, it takes a lot of time and energy to master a skill, so if you’re not willing to truly invest yourself in the craft, you are wasting your time. You can’t please everyone, so don’t be deterred by naysayers—no matter who criticized or doubted what we were doing, we forged ahead and still managed to pull it off. If you have the mentality that you will be successful and not be attached to a time frame, you will succeed.

Second, you should surround yourself with like-minded people who have the same mission and drive. We firmly believe in “collaboration, not competition.” By combining your talents with others, you will be much more effective in your process and will be able to cover more angles necessary in producing a film.

Third, production value in filmmaking and standards for what audiences expect today are very high, so be sure to use quality equipment—it’s essential for getting people to take your work seriously. The good news is that quality cameras today are a fraction of the price they used to be while maintaining professional quality. But just because you have great equipment doesn’t mean you will automatically be a professional cinematographer or editor; experience and practice are the best teachers.

And lastly, don’t rush the release of the final product—you’ve got only one shot at it, so do it right! If you’ve been working on your film for six months and could still use more time to refine your technique or bring in additional expertise, it’s better to wait another six months and make it the best it can be. Be as professional as possible across the board.

At Change for Balance, we’ve gone on to create other documentaries and media productions, but that’s only one component of what we do. We see film as a way to initially engage people through entertainment, educate them about important issues, and ultimately move them to action. We work with nonprofit organizations and socially responsible businesses to help them raise awareness about their causes, spark discussions among the players involved, and advocate more effectively.

If you’re a filmmaker seeking funding for your project, here are some places to start:

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Fundraising tips for animal shelters

The number of online resources I’ve recently encountered relevant to fundraising for animal shelters has reached critical mass—no time like the present to share them!

As far as grants are concerned, an excellent source of information is the Foundation Center’s new GrantSpace – Animal Welfare portal, which includes requests for proposals and news stories specifically related to animal welfare funding, facts and figures about foundation giving associated with animals/wildlife, sample animal welfare funding proposal documents, links to research reports related to philanthropy that benefits animals, information about the Foundation Center’s prospect research tools, answers to frequently asked questions, and more. One of the Foundation Center’s Cooperating Collections, the Grants Information Collection in the Memorial Library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, also maintains a comprehensive listing of U.S. organizations that fund animal rescue and rehabilitation.

In addition, information about specific grant opportunities for animal shelters in the U.S. can be found on the Web sites of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the Humane Society of the United States. Grant listings for animal shelters/rescues can also be found in the Animal Shelter Tips blog’s “Finding Grants” section..

Online resources focused on other aspects of animal shelters’ fundraising needs are also available. The Animal Shelter Tips blog’s “Fundraising” section offers ideas for developing special events, engaging volunteers, securing corporate sponsorships, and using technology effectively. eHow’s article “How to Raise Money Online for an Animal Shelter,” most recently updated in December, provides general recommendations for goal setting, online donation software, charity shopping vendors, and the use of social media to publicize fundraising efforts. All these points require diligent research and careful planning in consultation with other sources.

The Foundation Center offers some helpful guidance regarding best practices in researching and cultivating individual donors, which can be found in its GrantSpace Knowledge Base, its “Getting Started with Individual Donors” podcast, and its “Raising Funds from Individuals” webcast. The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) and Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement (APRA) provide more comprehensive information on this subject.

Aligning the stars with your cause

During the past several weeks, quite a bit of press has been given to three celebrities who have committed time and financial resources to animal-related organizations.  Paris Hilton—heiress to the Hilton Hotels fortune, known for her extravagant lifestyle, wild partying, and varied pursuits within the entertainment and fashion industries—recently revealed a more earnest side when she volunteered some of her 200 hours of community service to the Las Vegas-based Animal Foundation, which operates one of the busiest shelters in the U.S. and inspired her to adopt a 3-year-old Chihuahua in December.  Also in the spotlight is Pamela Anderson, made famous by her numerous television and film roles and her tumultuous relationships, who has aimed for a higher purpose over the years by serving as an animal activist—the U.K. chapter of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) just named her its 2010 Person of the Year.

That being said, the ideal scenario for charitable organizations working with celebrities is being able to share the prestige generated when those individuals’ achievements within their chosen fields are widely honored and celebrated.  Such was the case with Betty White, whose acting career extends more than sixty years and whose involvement with the Morris Animal Foundation—dedicated to advancing animal health and welfare around the world—spans close to forty.  In December, the Associated Press voted her 2010 Entertainer of the Year, and the press release picked up by myriad news outlets nationwide mentioned White’s current role as trustee of the Foundation.  This is bound to have a powerful positive impact on visibility and respect for the organization among the general public.  White has been featured in promotional videos for the Foundation, which have most likely received far greater attention in the last several weeks.  One such video is presented here:

Attracting and sustaining celebrity attention is no easy task, but fortunately, there are a few resources that offer insight for organizations hoping to give it a shot.  Among the most useful is a Philanthropy Front and Center-New York blog post summarizing a panel discussion held at the Foundation Center-New York in October.  Much of the advice shared at the event, “Star Power: Effective Engagement of Celebrities for Your Arts Organization,” is equally applicable to organizations working outside the arts, and can be easily adapted by those that improve the lives of animals.  The Foundation Center’s GrantSpace Knowledge Base also features a resource-rich section dedicated to celebrities and philanthropy, providing an annotated listing of relevant books, articles, Web sites, and other tools, including the Foundation Center’s Celebrity Foundation Directory.

As the Academy Awards ceremony scheduled for Sunday, February 27 draws nearer, news coverage of celebrity giving is likely to expand, and with it, new opportunities for engaging entertainment icons in charitable efforts.