Guest Post: Leah Warshawski on "Navigating Rejection With Grace"

The process of getting a film made is a long climb through rejection, neglect, frustration, and even some hostility. Those that "know", tell you that it is impossible -- but still tens of thousands of films get made every year despite this knowledge of the "experts". Being a filmmaker takes incredibly thick skin. But it not just bullheaded arrogance that is needed to navigate through the difficult climb to completion. You need to turn rejection into a tool.

Today's guest post by first time feature filmmaker Leah Warshawski captures these necessary lessons well -- and even for the seasoned pro are crucial reminders of how to get it done without losing perspective.

My father is my hero. He is also my toughest critic, most trusted advisor, and has recently transitioned into our team’s biggest cheerleader. Naturally (as his daughter) I feel a particular kind of “pressure” to finish our documentary Film Festival: Rwanda (www.inflatablefilm.com) 4 years in-the-making in a way that warrants his respect. My father, Morrie Warshawski (www.warshawski.com), teaches workshops on filmmaking and fundraising, with an emphasis on documentaries and the hordes of people crazy enough to make them. His books have become “manuals” for creating (and funding) successful documentaries.

So making my first feature documentary should be easy, right? Somewhere in my subconscious, I naively assumed that growing up around my Dad meant I had a head-start on some kind of “super-fundraising osmosis.”

You can imagine my surprise four years ago when I excitedly called my Dad from Seattle to tell him the good news - I had decided to make a film about a new generation of Rwandan filmmakers on the opposite side of the world. “Well, are you sure that’s a good idea? Could you pick somewhere a little closer to home,” he said with hesitation. My heart sank. Partly because I knew he was right. Partly because (like every other filmmaker I’ve ever met) I had never felt so determined and passionate about anything else in my life so far.

Four years later it turns out my Dad was right. We have made three trips to Rwanda, completed production, and are in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/365442215/film-festival-rwanda-a-documentary-film?ref=live) to finish a rough cut. It has not been easy, but the challenge and process have been worth the struggle. People always assume I have a clear path to funders and grants because of my Dad's connections, but I can tell you (after 2 years of rejection letters from almost every major documentary grant organization) that is far from the truth. The reality is that I’m still applying for grants and still being rejected, but our film has brought my father and I closer through our mutual understanding of how difficult and rewarding the process is - and that is priceless.

So how do you gracefully navigate rejection and still get out of bed in the morning? Very carefully. I’ve learned a lot from my father and I feel obligated to pass along a few things that have helped me the most over the last four years, in case you don’t have a professional fundraiser in your family.

Rejections are opportunities:
You spent weeks and months working on grant applications and isolating yourself from everyone you know. You’re angry, sleep-deprived, and you couldn’t drag yourself away from the computer long enough to go for a 15-minute walk. How can you not follow-up and ask for an explanation?! Use your rejection as an opportunity to contact the organization through email. Not everyone will give you feedback, but most people (when asked nicely) will at least respond to your email. That relationship will be helpful the next time you apply or have questions. Everyone respects “professional persistence.” You may even get a nice surprise when someone replies with constructive criticism on your application! Use that to your advantage and make your application better for the next round!

Social media = The best friend you’ve never met!
Make a Facebook page for your project and spend 10 minutes a day recruiting new fans. Post to other people’s walls, ask everyone on your mailing list, and keep it simple and useful. Thanks to the magic of Facebook, I made a friend for life when a woman noticed our project and offered to host a fundraiser without ever meeting us in person first! We ended up making a few thousand dollars from her event and she remains one of our most enthusiastic supporters.

Switch it up:
Let’s face it - rejection is never pretty. No matter how much you prepare for the letter, it doesn’t get easier. And when you go into a dark place to hide after the mail comes, you expect your parents to give you a few words of encouragement, right? I thought that was standard fare before my father gave me some advice that changed the way I navigate rejection. He said, “Just expect that you’re not going to get any grants and then maybe one day you will get lucky - and that would be a nice surprise!”
As filmmakers we have an abnormal sense of perseverance and somehow believe that if we work harder it means we are also smarter and better than everyone else who applies for the same grant. Switch up your thinking, and understand that nobody owes you anything - we are all in the same boat.

Don’t forget to come up for air:
…because the rest of your life depends on it. Someday you will be done making your film and all that time you used to spend writing grants and fundraising can now be spent with family and friends. Force yourself to get some air, go outside, and take the time to cultivate relationships. We all know that those are opportunities to fundraise as well and that you never go out without mentioning your project... and you never know who you might meet on your walk around the block...like I did. He’s now my future husband. Oh, and I’ve convinced him to be the post-production supervisor for our film!

-- Leah Warshawski

Leah Warshawski is based in Seattle, WA. She is a global film and television producer who is currently raising funds to complete her first feature documentary - Film Festival: Rwanda. Visit her project at: www.inflatablefilm.com.