Funding entertainment content: six things funders need to know

Making creative content that moves people — that makes us feel empathy, awe, and wonder — is really hard. Entertainment that also helps us understand our world better? That’s even harder.

At OKRE, we’ve seen many a funder recognise just how powerful entertainment can be in engaging people with new research, or new perspectives. But those same funders can end up struggling to back productions which meet those lofty aspirations. In our experience, there’s two big barriers that make those good intentions run aground.

First, funders can find it really hard to get constructive feedback on what they fund, simply because the incentives are all wrong. Grantees are motivated to highlight all the things that went well, even when funders go out of their way to find out what could have gone better. So you don’t get the great content that you want, and can’t figure out why.

Second, it’s not easy to access the right expertise. The kind of people with a nuanced understanding of how to produce video games, sitcoms, or full-length features have tended not to work for social impact funders. And when they’re brought in, there’s an awareness they might have hidden biases for a particular medium or company.

OKRE was founded to help solve exactly these kinds of problems, at-scale. We’re a new organisation, but our team has been connecting researchers, creatives, and people with lived experience for years. Here are six tips that we’ve gleaned in that time, which might help anyone entering this space for the first (or fiftieth!) time.

Focus on audience needs, not your own

As individuals, it’s hard not to be captivated by what we, ourselves, find entertaining, whether it’s that amazing new adaptation, or thrilling documentary. Similarly, as funders, it’s easy to focus on what our stakeholders might enjoy; does our board watch TikTok – or is it the News at Ten? Do they read The Verge, or The Financial Times?

Your audiences and beneficiaries will have different social backgrounds, educational histories, and friendship circles to you – and therefore distinct media tastes, too. Fixate on those needs, even though they might not resonate with your own.

Prioritise distribution, not just content

Imagine that you’ve just funded the best podcast your team has ever listened to. It combines deeply personal stories with cutting-edge research, is smartly-edited and thoughtfully scored, and makes an urgent case for social change.

There’s one problem; hardly anyone has listened to it. Your grantee has pushed it out on all of their social media channels and newsletters, but without much pick-up. You, as the funder, have tried to help – but your network is full of organisers and policy wonks, rather than the target audience of savvy young consumers.

It’s a classic case of failing to insist on a distribution plan up-front, which creates a problem that no amount of social media amplification or email blasts will ever solve. Anyone you fund should have a robust distribution plan from the outset, such as demonstrated interest or commitment from an entertainment distributor – like a streaming service, podcast network, or games publisher.

Take a portfolio view; they won’t all be hits

Funders don’t back scientific research expecting every project to be a breakthrough. Instead, they trust the process. If you support enough science, much of it will be incremental, but some of it will change the world.

The same is true for funding pro-social entertainment. Backing productions in a one-off, ad-hoc manner could result in hits or flops. But by setting a strategy, and supporting a portfolio of projects, you’ve got a much better chance of seeing a stand-out success.

Fund the valleys, not the peaks

Whether it’s the latest blockbuster game, art-house documentary, or gritty serial, we often only see the glitzy, glamourous outputs of the entertainment industry. But there’s a very long and winding supply chain that leads to those polished end-products. Without understanding the complexity of that path from concept to content, social funders can find themselves accidentally competing with commercial interests, instead of widening a funding bottle-neck.

Pinch-points differ for different media, but by identifying them, funders can maximise their influence. It could be that your funds are most effective far earlier in the production cycle than you might expect – supporting script-writing, or networking, for instance. You might even re-evaluate your goal; would you rather commission content, or successfully diversify the people & perspectives across an entire industry?

Take risks

Funding in a new sector and in a new way can be daunting, and feel confusing. The common-sense approach to coping with that is to be conservative; to try something that feels relatively safe and familiar. Over the years we’ve seen endless proposals for derivative documentaries that explain a new breakthrough, or copycat smartphone games that ape well-known hits.

But the best entertainment often succeeds precisely because it’s novel, unusual, or plays with audience expectations.

Be hands-off

There’s a natural temptation as a funder to be proactive and hands-on when commissioning something as high-profile as a piece of public-facing entertainment, which you hope might reach millions. But when working with industry experts, it’s better to be hands-off; if you can set a goal, decide a budget, and pick the right partners, you’re most of the way there.

But we’ve seen many people make the mistake of starting the creative process with a fixed idea of what the end-product should look like. This invariably ends up failing to create fresh, innovative content that appeals to audiences. If things end up going seriously awry, the answer is to reassess your criteria for finding experts, rather than trying to micro-manage them.

We're here to help

The OKRE team has experienced every facet of the research and entertainment nexus; we’ve been funders and fundraisers, producers and consumers, and everything in between.

We’re offering this advice in the hope it both reassures and excites funders. But if you want in-depth advice on the production cycle, wonder who to co-invest with, are curious about how to create social and cultural impact – or just want more information on anything else we’ve touched on – we’d love to help.

Our targeted programmes include work to support funders – whether that’s our research into how diverse audiences interact with entertainment, or building new networks of social impact to tap into. Do get in touch.