Thursday, 28 January 2010

Crowdsourcing at Sundance 2010: Joseph Gordon-Levitt and the hitRECord Production

Every creative person has, at some time their lives, agonized over the conflicts between their creative impulses and the need to survive. Some go to art schools, take acting classes, or move to places far from home where a greater chance of securing an artistic livlihood exists. At this year's Sundance Film Festival, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt (500 Days of Summer, Hesher) has presented a new business model: share your gifts (and your work), collaborate with other artists, and partake of the profits of the final product--and you never have to leave home.

So how does that work, exactly?

To put it simply, you agree to allow other artists to alter what you've created and (hopefully) make it better. Dan Gordon-Levitt, Joseph's brother and business partner, points out that some artists are good at coming up with creative ideas, but are stymied when it comes to execution; others may never come up with an original idea, but are great at powering up someone else's imaginary universe. So the two get together online and make something; then a third person adds music, someone else plays with the color, someone adds opening and closing credits. Everything is open to critique and alteration and the community decides collectively what works and what doesn't. It's the ultimate in online "crowdsourcing".

"Art snacks," Dan calls these short films, ripe and ready for consumption by the Internet public.

If you really want to chew on the bones of this new production company, visit the hitRECord.org website and watch "The New Deal", which explains the whole concept in detail. Here at Sundance 2010, many of the hitRECorders, as they call themselves, have come together--both at Sundance and on the Internet, from parts distant--to complete a series of short films that illustrate how the whole thing works.

They are hunched over banks of wide-screened computers, sprawled on the carpet over keyboards, leaning against walls with laptops perched on their knees. This is the REC room, in the basement of the New Frontier venue on Park City's Main Street, across from the famous Egyptian Theater. Here, surrounded by other eye-catching visual art installations, finishing touches are being applied to the collaborative film screening in New Frontier's Microcinema on Saturday night. Though the conversations are hushed and they barely move, the energy in the room is so concentrated, I can smell it.

One white wall continuously replays pieces of Morgan M. Morgansen's Date With Destiny, starring Gordon-Levitt (or Regular Joe, as he calls himself) and the outgoing Lexy Hulme. But calling Joe and Lexy the "stars" of this film is misleading--the actors are actually two stars of a grand constellation. The rest are made up of countless people who have contributed to the creation of this project, some of them from places so removed from the traditional film scene, they might as well be downloading, altering, and sharing their work from the same moon that watches over Morgan and Destiny.

The script for this short, for example, was written by a woman named Sarah Daly, who uploaded the original text from her home in Ireland and has never personally met either of the actors. And, it's entirely possible, may never meet them.

One of the longest, continuously-contributing members of the group, Tori Watson lives in New Castle, England. She had only met two other hitRECorders prior to her arrival at Sundance, and then only briefly. "I don't get very many chances to collaborate with people in real life," she says. So the opportunity to work with an entire creative community was overwhelmingly attractive. And her involvement was what landed her here.

Like the other artists in this tiny room, Tori has been powering through the last week and a half, oblivious to the films and panels and parties going on all over town. Part of the crew had been running errands and grabbing food for the rest of the group, but lately the collaborators have taken to volunteering as runners just to get a break from the frantic online activity. Yet she doesn't appear as stressed as I imagined she should be, given her hectic schedule. It's obvious that she and the others in the room are just as passionate and excited as they are dedicated to their work.

When I tell her I have been watching the progress of the group for some time and am truly impressed by how far they've come in the last year, she suddenly switches gears. Had I recorded myself sleeping, yet? she asks. It's for another piece the group is working on, of course.

Jessica, known in the hitRECord community as TeaFaerie, floats to the floor like a multi-colored anemone, the fabric tendrils of her signature hat swirling around her elbows. As she opens her computer, she, too, encourages me to record something and upload it to the site. I had captured some low-quality footage of Joe speaking at last night's event, I tell her. But I was forced to sit in the back and all of the heads in the way made it difficult to get a clear view with my iPhone. Joe's face was also washed into invisibility by the spotlight. I doubted the film would be worth using.

"We want heads!" someone enthuses above me. Joseph Gordon-Levitt smiles as he swivels around in his chair. "It proves we were live," he says.

Well...maybe his whited-out features could be enhanced or drawn in... TeaFaerie agrees that would be a cool project and the ideas begin rolling out of her brain. At least until co-Producer Jared Geller steps in, his frustration palpable, and asks me to please let everyone get back to work. Kindness and apologies, layered over an all-business demeanor, he seems a man with a creative talent for making sure deadlines are met.

At the door, Dan Gordon-Levitt continues his personable, non-stop dialogue while shaking hands and taking pictures with bystanders. So intent is he on educating the curious, he has talked straight through chowing on the first half of his sandwich. An hour later, the other half still sits, untouched, atop the stool on which I have yet to see him alight. I could imagine he rarely slows down and happily burns the candle at both ends to make something he loves come to fruition. He reminds me of my own brother--loyal and dedicated, a great teammate for his brother, Joe.

The final project will be screened on Saturday the 30th at 6 p.m. at New Frontier's Microcinema venue. I plan to continue watching them, both here and from home; I see it as a rare chance to follow a creative business idea from its inception. Joseph Gordon-Levitt doesn't plan to stop here. From publishing, to a music label, to a physical venue, if it can be recorded, he wants to be involved.

I'm beginning to believe Joe and company just might have their own Date with Destiny.

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