Taboo Theater: Crowd Funding & Self Promotion

Rachel Spencer Hewitt

Independently & Unapologetically Taking Your Work to the Next Level
Featuring a Crowdfunding Success Story and Practical Steps from an Expert

Increasingly, my Facebook feed is sprinkled with posts asking for donations. From international acting workshops to self-produced off-broadway plays to grad school class tuition, artists are taking advantage of the kindness of friends and strangers, importance of stacking pennies, and effectiveness of social networking. Combined, these elements just may make someone’s dreams come true, providing funds that otherwise would remain elusive.

In this article, I research experience and expertise to help bolster your confidence in self-promotion and help you prepare to take your project to the next level.

For some people, self-promotion comes naturally. These brave, outgoing souls feel no hesitation shouting their need and/or victory to the world. However, for other more introverted personalities, self-promotion feels terrifying, confusing, or even possibly offensive. The reality of self promotion and crowdfunding is that there is a sense of personal risk: Self-promotion makes us vulnerable. We fear backlash. Self-promotion and asking for support not only puts our own person out into public, but it does so in the context of our precious hopes and dreams. Receiving feedback from other people is inevitable, for better or worse. Pushing the birdie of our dream project out of the nest, so to speak, unavoidably creates the moment of suspension when we wait (publicly) to see if the dollar numbers climb enough give that baby bird wings. Or if that baby bird will fall, fail and die. But if we don’t send it out into the world…you know…never knowing if it can fly and regret and all that!!! In order for an original work in particular to succeed, extroverts and introverts, comfortable and uncomfortable both must acknowledge:

Self-promotion is necessary place for the success of original work.

Crowdfunding is a powerful and potentially rewarding platform for taking original work to the next level.

In order to confront the scary and boost courage in taking this necessary risk, I dig a bit deeper in this article into one artist’s experience, Brandi Leilani of the web series Supporting Roles, with making the bold move of pushing her dream out of the nest. Her social media promotion has been one of the most successful and creative that I’ve seen from a grassroots independent team. I wish I could say that feedback was all joy and success – and perhaps it was about 99% – but in truth she did experience some harsh criticism (aka Facebook scandal) while promoting her crowdfunding campaign. She also exceeded her campaign goal and her project took off. I was fascinated by the bumps and bruises she experienced while also succeeding, so I reached out to ask what that unsolicited and unfounded criticism was like to receive and how she overcame it. To explore the process further, I also reached out to an expert on crowdfunding, Isabella Junqueira – Phd candidate and scholar in residence – and asked for her basic tips and pointers for anyone interested in branching out on this potentially intimidating venture. Isa gave some key thoughts for artists getting started below. First, we’ll begin with Brandi’s experience.

Brandi has been a professional actress for over ten years. Like most of us, she works multiple jobs while auditioning, printing headshots, and jumping on the rejection/acceptance roller coaster ride. With the availability of equipment and technology created the opportunity for Brandi to make her web-series dream a reality. Like a great artist, she took her inspiration and made an opportunity for herself, becoming both actor and director, artist and producer. A photo caption of one of her original production notebooks on Facebook reads:

“One year ago Brandi and Sarah sat down with just two things; a crazy dream and the desire to create something together. Today, that dream and ‘web stuffz’ is an Official Selection at Austin Film Festival and that is just the BEST feeling.”

I asked Brandi about the “before” moments – good, bad, and ugly – that led up to her recent and currently running success.

Was this your first crowdfunding experience?

Yes! Crowdfunding was always in the back of my mind as a possibility for projects down the road, but then this particular project snuck up and seemed like the perfect fit. Each of us had friends who had tried the crowdfunding route before and each of them had incredibly varied experiences, so we were really nervous going into it. It wasn’t just a crash course in crowdfunding, but a crash course in producing and a complete redirection of my career.

What were the challenges/surprises in preparing to go live with your campaign? 

I’m going to be totally honest – I was terrified at the beginning. The terror was more manageable because I thought that Sarah was totally pulled together, but apparently she was pretty nervous starting out- she just hid it much better than I did. …And then there’s Shannon who went into it with blind trust that Sarah and I knew what we were doing. HAH! (After all, Shannon does have the best humor out of the three of us.)

We all three live in different cities, so Sarah and I would Skype once a week to check in with each other. In-between our meetings we mainly worked with spreadsheets, lists, and emails (thank you Google Drive!) while we each worked with our individual assignments. Sarah was assigned to work on the marketing and managing of all of our online materials, I was assigned to business networking, pitches, and submissions, and Shannon was our master writer for all written communication of our brand. On top of that, Sarah would send daily motivational GIFs to keep us all focused on the important things in life: pugs walking in baby pools, ducks learning to walk, etc. Really, the crowdfunding was the smaller part of a bigger picture in our minds, but a necessary step in this particular project.

As much work as we put into the campaign before it launched, we had no idea how much work was headed our way once we hit GO.

How much work (and resources) had you poured into your project before your campaign and what made you feel ready to take that next step into crowdfunding?

Whew. First of all – I don’t think that you’re ever really ready for crowdfunding the first go-round. But in retrospect we did a few things right that helped make it a successful campaign. Sarah and I first met each other in June of 2014, concepted the show that October, filmed 3 episodes over 2 days in April 2015 and released them June. The turnaround for that process was CRAZY fast. We managed to find a team of people who poured their hearts into the project as much as we did, but more importantly they poured their resources into the project. That was key to our success. Everything was done on the highest possible professional level. We had a limited crew, but we were complete with a director, DP, producer, gaffer, sound, and three AMAZING PAs who all volunteered their time. Once the filming was finished a professional editor did all of our post-production for us to really polish the project.

We always felt confident about the joy behind the concept and the writing of the scripts- the quality of the final edits pushed us over the edge to believe that this project was worthy of more time and episodes.

What platform did you use/why did you chose it/how much did your campaign bring in?

I went to a writing festival last fall and sat in on as many of the workshops as I could over that weekend. Nerd Alert One of my favorite lectures was given by Emily Best- the Founder and CEO of Seed and Spark. After hearing her talk it felt like an amazing platform for female filmmakers- I ended up being right about that.

After the festival I emailed her and chatted really briefly about what we were working on and she responded to me immediately. ….Uh, nothing like human contact to make a girl feel right at home.

Sarah, Shannon, and I went through a lot of pro and con comparisons and debates about which platform we wanted to use, but in the end we really liked a couple of key elements about S&S. First of all- they make you do a ton of work on the front end including very specific budget work before you ever officially begin the campaign. That work felt never ending at first, but we were really grateful almost immediately. The other major benefit of S&S is the “lend” option instead of cash payments. We had a number of artists offer us their work for free based off of what they saw and liked from our current work. We were able to consider their offers and choose whether that was the right direction for our project. Some of the offers were from people we knew, but we also received offers from people we had never met prior to the campaign.

What advice would you have for other artists eager to take that bold step in creating investment opportunity for their original work and ideas?

Oh. Man. Proof of Concept. You have to have a proof of concept. By far the best possible thing any artist can have is a Proof of Concept. And I don’t think it can just be a proof of an idea…but a fully realized visual for people to go by.

We didn’t realize it at the time, but having our first three episodes was VITAL to making our fundraising goal. People could see the quality of work we were already producing and the stories we were telling. It gave them a real motivation to want to join the campaign and be a part of something they believed in, not just something cool they thought might happen eventually.

What did it feel like to receive that brief unsolicited criticism from a stranger, and what thoughts did you choose to overcome it and press on with your vision?

I had no idea how much the words of a stranger could or would affect me. The day started with a text from Sarah followed by a barrage of texts and facebook messages from people asking me what was happening- I had no idea what they were talking about. This was my first foray into the speed and power of social media. The woman accused me of using money from our FRESHLY finished crowdfunding campaign for my own personal gain. But she didn’t just take out her vendetta on me… she did everything in her power to drag down the entire production of Supporting Roles. And with it- all of the people involved.

First I cried.

Then I got pissed.

As an artist, and specifically an actor, you’re emotional by nature. You’re heart is open and raw. Things that might hurt a little end up hurting much more than they should. I did a lot of soul searching that day about what people really think of me as a person and artist. Whether I’m a good person. Whether I’m a good actor. Whether I’m good enough.

There were a lot of comments made to me by people that day full of love and encouragement. But one comment I kept hearing was “She’s just jealous.”

I can’t diminish what those people were trying to do by telling me that. I get it. I understand that jealous people can say unkind things. I get that unkind people can sometimes be jealous. But there’s something about “She’s just jealous,” that didn’t sit right with me. Because jealousy doesn’t automatically cause you to be an ignorant bitch.

Supporting Roles was always intended to be a series about women supporting women. And in the moment of our greatest success to date, we were ignorantly attacked by another woman. As soon as I realized how ironic and ridiculous and dumb and obnoxious …. And did I say dumb?…that was, I realized it wasn’t worth giving another second of my time or energy.

Maybe people are going to choose to hate on us with every bit of success we get in this business, but as long as we’re doing it honestly and in a way we believe in ourselves we can’t have any regrets about what we’re doing. I believe in us and we will continue to support other artists and other females making their way in this world with love. Because it’s hard.

But on the flip side – the support we’ve gotten from people has meant more than we could ever convey. To those people we say: Love and Donuts. xoxo

Totally inspired by Brandi’s resilience and success, I gathered some amazing tips and steps from Isa Junqueira who helps create a game plan for you to get started below!

What do you love most about crowdfunding for independent artists?

I really appreciate the opportunity for creative and excellent work to become a reality to be enjoyed by a greater audience. Crowdfunding is usually a critical first step for such works to be produced.

2. What are the top three elements an artists’ project should have in place before starting a campaign?

There are various elements that are important when starting a Crowdfunding campaign. However, if I were to pick the initial 3, I would choose:

First, have a strategic plan for: pre-campaign, during and post-campaign requirements. If a proper strategic business model is not your strong point, think of it as an itinerary for a journey. When planning a journey you need to know how much tickets, hotels and transportation will cost. In the same fashion, when preparing a short business plan you will need to justify how much every step of your project will cost and how long it will take (highly recommend Alexander Osterwalder’s Business Model canvas). You may not need to delineate this plan in detail on the platform itself but serious investors may ask about it and you must be prepared to answer. You must also start planning what kind of rewards related to your project you will offer. You can be creative as you like. Finally, a Crowdfunding campaign is a round-the-clock commitment. Thus, think how much labor assistance you will need: before launching a campaign, during and after the campaign.

Second, it is important that you have a clear vision of your mission. You must be able to communicate this vision enthusiastically, easily and succinctly to your campaign team (select your team well) and audience.

Thirdly, network, network and network. You may have a well-developed social network but you must go beyond this boundary. Be part of forums where others discuss their crowdfunding experiences; seek and discern the advice of experts; and search for the best type of Crowdfunding platform for your project (look for similar projects or genre).   Search for any other “crowd” cluster that may be beneficial to your campaign either as a resource or as a supporter or both.

3. Some artists are uncomfortable with self-promotion or may get a bad rap/be afraid of “bragging”, what’s your advice for a new crowdfunded on being bold about their product and themselves?

I believe that first, they should introspectively consider the execution of their craft. For actors: how do they prepare themselves before going to an audition. For writers: how do they present the highlights of their beloved scripts. For the directors: how do they share their vision for the production of a story. All of these steps require preparation, hard work, bold commitment, and excellent delivery. In the same way, an artist will not ‘brag,” he/she will simply talk honestly about their work and the significance of this particular project: why is the project important to them and to their selected audience, what they have accomplish thus far and how much more they will they be able to accomplish with the help of committed supporters.

4. Why is it crucial for artists to be unapologetic in asking for funds for their project?

It is crucial to be confident, organized and passionate about your project. Your audience, “the crowd,“ will be more inclined to be part of “your vision” and contribute to your cause if they sense that you have a strong commitment to this particular project. In addition, they must be confident that you will complete, distribute and promote your project successfully.

5. What is the connection between crowdfunding presentation and product value?

We live in age where visual presentation is a dynamic tool of communication. Videos should be well-made, engaging and not very long (2 – 5 minutes tops). They should establish a clear and compelling vision about you and your Crowdfunding project. Usually the visuals and videos at the onset of the campaign will represent the unfolding of a long courtship between you and your potential backers, so make it count. During the campaign it will be just as important to continue with updates and visuals to keep everyone already backing your project interested and pressing on to attract new backers.

And finally, what did Isa have to say about Brandi’s experience and our parallel fear that criticism will attempt to de-legitimize our dreams?

In any situation as an artist, critics will come out and say whatever they say from their paradigm. As an artist, you may choose to ignore it or see that perhaps there is something to it and solve the problem. In this case, Brandi’s project is the focal point. She is not crowdfunding for acquiring a dog. Thus, all that backers should be concern is how is she using the money to bring her project to fruition and that is why I am a firm believer in having that strategic business model plan. You can be transparent by showing your backers where you are int the process and where the money was used that was raise by the crowd. If she follows that her personal life should not come into question because it is not related to the project at all, people must have balanced life especially creative people. Now, if she went and use the money raised to buy a dog house and a diamond color for her dog than that is different. But that very seldom happens because people who enter these projects sacrifice a lot, they have invested a lot of themselves into the project and it is such a hard and time consuming process that I would say most people are very honest and honorable from the beginning. At least this is what I have seen.

Many actors or creative people do not consider themselves as business people but they are, or – I believe – they should be. Their craft, experience and their name is their brand, and they have to develop a strategy and a plan in order to make their marvelous ideas become realities while expanding the reach of their “brand.”

I completely, wholeheartedly agree!

So if you have a dream or project that you’re willing to be vulnerable for, get to work! Fear not the criticism, only the lack of preparation. Let your work speak for you and those critics fade into the background as your numbers climb. As with any project, in crowdfunding and self-promotion, more sweat before in prep means less sweat later in performance. Put in the work, and push that baby out of the nest. Tag me too! I love supporting dreams and watching them take wing.

Taboo Theater is a blog series by Rachel Spencer Hewitt covering unmentioned, uncomfortable, or controversial topics in the world of theater.

Rachel is a professional PR/Social Media Manager and Actress currently making her 3-second-stage-time debut on Broadway and loving every bit of it.

What are your thoughts? Have a crowdfunding story that reflects this? That differs? Crowdfunding questions? Share in the comments below!

Meet my guests – BIOS:

Brandi Hollsten considers herself a modern day renaissance woman. She writes, acts, plays ukulele, and organizes everything within reach. She fights the stigma of women and shoes by going barefoot whenever possible, once hung out with Elijah Wood for two minutes at his house (some may prefer the term “mildly stalked”), and can often be found with a mimosa in hand.

She is an Executive Producer, Writer, and Actor for Supporting Roles– a web series following two actresses through their ridiculous lives, really ridiculous auditions, and less ridiculous friendship.

Supporting Roles is produced and created by Sarah Adams and Brandi Hollsten, and written by Brandi and her sis Shannon Hollsten. It is an official selection for the 2015 Austin Film Festival. Current episodes are available online with the rest of Season 1 coming in February!

M. Isabella C. Junqueira has worked over 10 years as a project manager in project financing and strategic development. She received her Master in International Business Development from the École Superiéure de Commerce (ESC) de Dijon, France. Currently she is a PhD candidate in Management at LUMS, UK and her research interests reside in the intersection of entrepreneurship and alternative finance with a focus on: crowdfunding, innovative business models and networks management.