Making ‘Tiny Dancer’: Indie Filmmakers Work Through the Challenges of Crowd Funding

Tiny Dancer: Indie Filmmakers Work Through the Challenges of CrowdfundingWhen Film Slate Magazine first profiled Jayce and Tiffany Bartok at this time last year, the married indie filmmakers from New York were just beginning on their odyssey in getting their film “Tiny Dancer” funded and produced. The Bartoks, with Bryan DeCastro, had formed The Independent Collective, which they hoped would spearhead the crowd funding of their movie. The eventual goal of The Independent Collective is to also help other projects get made; “Tiny Dancer” was to serve as somewhat of a test case. Their goal is to have the film shot by the summer of 2012.

Fast forward nearly a year and the Bartoks have found that crowd funding in general, and certainly in this economy (a tiring phrase indeed, but one that seems to be a prerequisite in any story that discusses money and filmmaking) is a challenging and complex task. They had funded Jayce’s first movie, “The Cake Eaters,” which starred Kristen Stewart, through traditional methods. But it seems that making an indie film that way–with only a few producers–is yielding mixed results these days.

They have managed to shoot about 20 minutes of footage through their fundraising efforts, and although the original vision of the film has changed somewhat (there is now some inclusion of documentary style segments, although Jayce is unsure of whether those scenes will make the final cut), the Bartoks are determined to see the project through.

After shopping the script around, having several table reads and trying to figure out who would work best as the lead, the Bartoks decided to go with a dancer that could act, rather than an actress with a dance background. Katherine Crockett, a Martha Graham Dance Company principal, plays Lauren Drake, a legendary dancer who gives up dancing when she has a child. Motherhood, though, doesn’t complete Lauren’s life, and she is determined to be a dancer again. Daphne Rubin-Vega (“Rent,” “Jack Goes Boating”) also stars in the movie as Lauren’s friend and fellow dancer who follows the emotional journey of someone determined to risk everything in her life to do what she loves.

The movie is not only being funded through non-traditional methods, the filming is following that path as well. Most productions film when all the funding is secured; the Bartoks would have preferred to go that route, but the situation has dictated that they film when they can. The stop and start nature of the project has tried their patience but not their resolve. Both continue to work; Jayce is an actor whose credits include “Cop Out” and the USA series “White Collar.” Tiffany is a stage actress and a make-up artist, and the two have worked on various shorts and films together.

In addition to forming The Independent Collective, which has a 501(c) 3 designation through the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA), meaning the donations are tax deductible, the Bartoks have started a campaign through Indie Go Go, among other initiatives, trying to use the power of the Internet to reach as many people as possible. Their recent Indie Go Go campaign to raise $9,000 was successful; they have a budget in mind of $250,000 to get the movie made the way that they would like.

Not many filmmakers trying to make a movie on this scale are working with the competing challenges of trying to fund and film their movie at the same time. The process also has other challenges—Tiffany leads the Internet fundraising effort, and is in contact with the supporters of the film. To her, it is not so much of a question of always being “on” when trying to market the movie, but providing answers to people is sometimes tricky.

“I don’t think it’s hard to be on, but it’s really hard to act like…everybody is looking for an answer, they just want something else,” Tiffany said. “They want to hear that we’re filming the movie. So you start to feel like you’re disappointing everybody. That’s where we are now. We’re sort of on the Wednesday of it. There’ll be days when there’s nice weather, the stars are aligned, and $1,000 will come in really easily that day without any effort.”

These new crowd funding efforts have not yielded a magic bullet; there are no tried and true methods, so for filmmakers like the Bartoks, it comes down to mixing and matching and trying to find what works. Tiffany likened it to taking a road trip.

“We’re spread out accidentally in so many places,” she said. “Some people send money to Indie Go Go; some people are sending checks in the mail. It’s not all going to the same place, so it’s really hard for me to find validation. We’re just doing everything as an experiment, and I see people that drive the car right down the road. And we stop off on the side of the road, at the gas station, check it out…It’s amazing because in the end I’ll be able to teach a course in what works and what doesn’t.”

Even though Jayce readily admits he is the social networking neophyte of the couple, he knows that by crowd funding the film, the money has to come from places other than the ones they have gone to in the past. It is no longer about the people that you know and whether they will support you.

“How can we expose this to…how do we get it to catch fire beyond our inner circle?” he said. “And the whole point of our last event was to reach out to people that were not friends of ours. People that were like the guys who produced ‘The Cake Eaters’ {that} hosted our last event, and it was a lot of their friends, but that was still really difficult because I don’t know if it’s the economy or if it’s our approach—we’re not being too heavy handed about it or we’re not being pushy enough—so I think we’re digging in and really trying to start pestering people, which I hate, but I think we’re finding that at least we’re emailing people personally and saying, ‘hey we’re doing this, can you help us out?’”

On the filmmaking side of things, Jayce was buoyed by the initial few days of filming. After getting an influx of cash, he was able to get the actors and a skeleton crew in place (with some people donating time and equipment) in order to make progress. But once the money ran out, the production shut down until the next round of funds could be obtained. He has to remind people that this is not the finished product; with Jayce injecting some documentary style segments into what was shot, the narrative of the film might not even be locked down.

“It was super exciting for the three days,” he said. “It’s my biggest sized thing that I’ve worked on as a director. My past film, it included writing the ‘Cake Eaters,’ co-producing that and we directed a documentary together, Tiffany and I did a short, but that was like a full on thing, and of course you wanted to keep on going. You assemble this team, and then you stop, and then you show this excerpt to people, and everyone has an opinion about the instincts that you have. You know, say the documentary instinct, and everyone is viewing it as a finished film. But it’s in no way a film, it’s like an excerpt. It’s almost like a test shoot.”

The nature of the filming schedule, of waiting until they have enough money to shoot for a few days or a week, allows outside pressure to become more prevalent. Instead of having a finished film to take on the festival circuit or to show distributors, the work in progress nature of “Tiny Dancer” allows others to voice their opinions.

“You show it to everyone and they have a comment on it and causes you to second guess your instincts,” Jayce said. “I think that that’s actually the worst part of stopping. People always had a good reaction to the finished script, but when we decided to make it, because we were doing it for much less money, and we were like, ‘let’s make something that we really, really find interesting.’ We started trying these things that weren’t in the script. None of the documentary material is in the script. So of course, that’s caused me to go, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute, whoa.’ So, my head is spinning right now, but I think we’re on the right path.”

So what exactly is the key to this new paradigm? Are there any hard and fast answers to the question of how to get your film crowd funded? For Tiffany it is about more than just getting in on the ground floor. You have to be there before they even pour the foundation.

“It’s all about the zeitgeist,” she said. “I’m discovering you have to be the first one there. If it’s working for people, you’re too late. Some things that were successful for us were things like this Philanthroper campaign. That was random. I had gotten a couple of emails about which gives a dollar to kids who need books or whatever. And I was like, ‘I know this is a real big stretch, we’re not really a charity but would you consider one for indie film.’ And they were like, ‘yeah sure, why not?’ That was really successful because nobody was doing that.”

Ultimately, the Bartoks want to see “Tiny Dancer” get made. They have altered their budget projections a few times, but are focused on making the best possible movie, no matter how much money they have.

“I know we’re going to do it. I feel like after the campaign is over I’m going to regroup and say, ‘okay, how much money do we actually have?’ and can we do this for $100,000?” Jayce said. “And how can we get that extra $70,000? What should we do? I think it’ll be good when it’s over to actually look in the account and say, ‘we have this amount of money,’ and what’s that? Because our goal is to make it in the summer, just to get a film made. A-Z, as producers, writer, director.”


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