BERKELEY -- Filmmaker Jacob Kornbluth was shooting a series of short videos about the economic crisis featuring former Labor Secretary Robert Reich when he realized he had a much bigger story to tell.
"I thought, 'I'm sure there are a lot of people like me who are looking for a coherent story of what happened in a movie (format)," Kornbluth said.
The pair agreed to partner on a feature-length documentary, "Inequality for All." Inspired by Reich's book "Aftershock," it's "sort of 'An Inconvenient Truth' for the economy," Kornbluth said.
The film, still in production, is this year's Saul Zaentz Award winner, an honor bestowed by the Berkeley Film Foundation that comes with a $20,000 grant. The award is named after the Academy Award-winning movie producer whose company is a major supporter of the foundation.
"The way in which the film is going to speak to audiences about income inequality is going to have such power," said Abby Ginzberg, the foundation's president and an award-winning filmmaker herself.
"Inequality for All" is one of 23 films the foundation is supporting this year through its annual grant program, now in its fourth year. It's funded by the city of Berkeley, Wareham Development and the Saul Zaentz Co., with additional support from an annual gala.
This year the foundation distributed $150,000 in grants -- $130,000 to professional filmmakers and $20,000 to student filmmakers, said David Bergad, vice president
The grants are not designed to fund a project entirely. Rather, they support the area's vibrant filmmaker community by "helping (filmmakers) get to the next stage or finish the stage they're in," Ginzberg said.
"What's good about getting a grant from any foundation is you can then say you've at least gotten money from somewhere," Ginzberg said. "It's as much a vote of confidence as it is about the money."
For Kornbluth, though, it means getting shots he wouldn't otherwise be able to undertake. He recently traveled to Seattle to interview top earners and provide more context for the conversation he wants his movie to spark.
"The money, specifically, allows us to keep shooting," he said. "We have a movie to make. Every dollar that comes in is like another second you can do."
Last year's Saul Zaentz Award winner, "Sweet Dreams," has gone on to earn major recognition, including a screening in April at the United Nations. The documentary tells the story of a group of Rwandan women from all sides of the 1994 conflict who come together in a drumming circle and later open the country's first ice-cream parlor.
Filmmaker Lisa Fruchtman, of Berkeley, said the foundation's support "really propelled us forward. This was our first grant for a significant amount of money," said Fruchtman. "Entering film festivals isn't cheap. There are DVDs for the press. Postcards cost money. So we're very grateful for this."
Berkeley resident Samina Hitch, a student at California College of the Arts, said she might use her $5,000 student grant to pay for postproduction and festival entry fees. Her short narrative film, "Anarkali Blossoms," involves a mother who considers kidnapping her daughter as a way out of a child-custody battle. The initial round of shooting wrapped up in April, but Hitch said the grant opens up the possibility of additional shoots.
While the money is a big boost, there are also less tangible benefits, Hitch said.
"It very much legitimized the project," she said.
Ginzberg said more than 60 local filmmakers applied this year, suggesting the local film scene continues to thrive.
"This year, there were some absolutely fabulous films," she said. "It's an exciting moment."
For a complete list of 2012 winners, go to http://visitberkeley.com/film-office/berkeley-film-foundation
"Inequality for All:" https://www.facebook.com/InequalityForAllFeatureDocumentaryFilm
"Anarkali Blossoms:" http://anarkaliblossoms.wordpress.com
"Sweet Dreams:" www.sweetdreamsrwanda.com