Paula Froehle is a producer, director, visual artist, educator and entrepreneur based in Chicago. She is the Co-Founder and CEO of Chicago Media Project (CMP) an innovative philanthropic community that exists to support social impact films and filmmaker sustainability. Paula has overseen more than $3 million dollars of grant and equity funding for numerous documentaries including the current top-grossing biopic of all time WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?(Focus Features), THE FEELING OF BEING WATCHED (Tribeca 2018), THE FOURTH ESTATE (Showtime) and STEP (Fox Searchlight), to name a few. She also served as an executive producer on 306 HOLLYWOOD (Sundance 2018), FLY and the upcoming documentary THE INFILTRATORS. Paula also co-produced the powerful documentaries BLUE WALL, TROPHY (CNN Films), VOYEUR (Netflix) and the 2017 Academy Award-winning documentary ICARUS.
I had the opportunity to speak with Paula not only about Chicago Media Project and its impact for socially-conscious filmmakers, but what motivated her to create CMP for other artists.
Chicago Media Project (CMP) came to be after the first Good Pitch Chicago in 2013. You and co-founder Steve Cohen brought CMP to life which is a huge endeavor. What made you personally driven to create CMP? Did you see a need that wasn’t being fulfilled? Was it a specific motivation based on personal experience or was it a combination of factors that birthed CMP?
CMP was ultimately born of the belief in the power of individuals to make a dramatic impact through the collective funding of great documentary films that move people to take action.
As you mentioned, CMP was born out of the Good Pitch Chicago event in 2013 where roughly 300 individuals came together to support seven documentary films. In just one day we raised over $400,000 in financial support and connected filmmakers to over 50 organizations that could use their networks to maximize the film’s impact. The success of this one-day event opened our eyes to an untapped network just waiting to give back and support media. My business partner Steve and I realized that there is a far greater opportunity for impact when individuals come together as a group. In five years that power has manifested in support for over 30 films and $3 million dollars.
You’ve been involved in several start-ups. What makes CMP different for your personally?
With CMP, it’s our community of members that have created a unique experience for me as an entrepreneur. This community aspect is what really sets CMP apart in the field. We currently do not take support from major foundations; rather, we leave that funding for filmmakers. We cultivate individual donors and demonstrate to them the power their support can have when pooled with like-minded individuals and amplified through media. We whole-heartedly believe in community as a powerful resource toward fulfilling our mission of using media and great storytelling to bring about change in the world.
CMP currently has four areas of programming – film funding, community events, media innovation, and member events. It seems like they are an ecosystem that feed each other. Even though they are separate programs, there seems to be a natural flow within them. How did you decide on these areas? Why was it important to have a mix of exclusive member programming and events for the general public?
Our programming has always developed organically out of our listening to the needs of our members. Our initial mission was to hold member events to connect our community with filmmakers and by doing so, demonstrate that their goals and desires are aligned. It was through these events and in discussion with our members that we decided to branch out to public-facing programming like Doc10 and Dinner & Docs to share what we love with the broader community. It was important to us from the start that the work we do impacts the broadest constituency possible.
I think for a lot of artists, filmmakers and media creators funding is really daunting. Many find it really hard to believe that someone would want to fund their project which, really, is their dream and vision; it’s personal and that makes seeking funding a vulnerable experience. There can be a lot of doubt and self-consciousness around that. On that note, was it hard attracting the founding members? Was there a sense of risk or were investors excited and willing to connect with filmmakers and media creators? I think demystifying ‘the investor’ is helpful to many of our readers.
I believe CMP’s authenticity, originality and passion is what has always attracted members. From the start we wanted to create an engaging and immersive funding experience for our members. So in that sense, our membership was self-selective. The key to our long term success is in supporting the community we’ve built and continue to build.
Part of our mission is to help investors better understand the filmmaking process. In addition, there was a need for filmmakers to better understand what investors do and what things they need (like strong communication) in order to build a lasting relationship that was mutually beneficial to both parties. Basically, funders want connections to great stories, close connection with the filmmakers and an inside look at the creative process. They want to be able to see that their support is going to make a difference both to the process of making the film as well as to the filmmaker themselves. My suggestion for filmmakers looking to approach investors is to present themselves authentically and understand that this is an opportunity to build a long-lasting relationship. In general, this means it is requires more than just a single meeting and that they need to invest time and energy into fostering that relationship for long lasting success.
The Impact Grant Fund is a unique model centered on community. It takes on the ‘it takes a village’ concept. How did you decide on this model? Did being a filmmaker and visual artist yourself – having that first-hand experience being on the other side of the ‘investor table’ – help shape the direction of the fund?
Steve and I are such a great partnership because we bring strengths from different sides of the industry. Steve’s background is in politics and philanthropy, and mine is in education and filmmaking. Particular to my experience, I was able to assess the quality of storytelling and the ability of a film team to get the project to the finish line. The interesting piece has been that now Steve and I are interchangeable in our experiences and abilities.
Regarding the grant fund, the way we have broken it down into three parts (Early Stage, Filmmaker Sustainability and Innovation in Outreach Campaigns) came directly out of my experience as a filmmaker. We wanted to focus our support on areas that are traditionally under-funded or not acknowledged, and hopefully set an example for the rest of the industry.
Mentorship seems to be a cornerstone of the grants. Why is that important to CMP?
As a filmmaker and former educator, I believe in giving back in the form of mentorship. I know firsthand how isolating the filmmaking experience can be, especially if you are a documentary filmmaker who rarely has more than two or three people on a production team. While Steve and I are the primary mentors at CMP, we wanted to also provide filmmakers direct access to our network of members whose expertise extends into areas that can be useful – whether that is legal, marketing or philanthropic connections. It has more to do with the brain trust that is our membership than just the money they are giving.
The membership is a critical component as it enables the Impact Grant Fund to exist. What I like about your membership is that it is accessible. You don’t have to have the income level of, say, Sir Richard Branson to participate. I think sometimes when people here the world ‘philanthropist’ they associate it with people who are in top income bracket – like the 1% – and assume they can’t take on that role. Was it deliberate to ensure that membership was accessible to people of different economic backgrounds?
Accessibility was a critical piece from the beginning. With CMP we wanted to provide a space for community generosity independent of individual means. Part of the goal of “bundling” member donations is to enable people of a wide variety of capacities to support and feel the same level of engagement in the larger process. This not only attracts more people to our organization, but it shows the potential that we can reach if we all join together to support. We believe CMP provides members with the opportunity to be generous toward the media they love and not to be hindered by their income bracket or background.
Approximately one third of member donations are used for grants for filmmakers and half of all member donations support the content CMP curates for members. I was surprised initially reading that as I thought more money would be going to film grants. Will the amount of member donations targeting the Impact Film Fund increase over the years? What have been some hurdles in building both the film funding arm and the member programming?
A portion of member donations goes toward general grant support for our filmmakers. In addition, the Impact Grant Fund was seed funded separately from 8 individual members who were wanting to increase our granting ability. We continue to receive support for this fund and anticipate it growing in the future.
The slate of projects CMP supports is stories that compel action. There’s a strong theme of social justice, human rights, environmental rights, humanity, creating empathy; essentially filmmakers and creators that genuinely give a damn and want to change the world. Would you say this is a critical component of CMP’s ethos in general? Building a community around art that can make a true difference?
Definitely! Social impact and community are the core tenants of CMP. It is our mission to make a difference and to change the world, but it has to be anchored in great storytelling. Without that no one will pay attention long enough, or become emotionally hooked in a way that can command their attention and direct them toward action.
Last question: ten years from now, what do you envision for CMP, its members, and artists.
Ten years from now we hope to have an even stronger network of members nationwide. In an ideal world, we will have continued to solidify the community of individual donors so that we have groups all over the country. This will help filmmakers feel that there is a broader network of people who are available as a resource – financially and for professional guidance. Another Oscar wouldn’t hurt either!
For more information on the Chicago Media Project visit: chicagomediaproject.org