LOS ANGELES – He’s played a teenage Martian, a sex addict, a time traveler and a Batman in training. But in the end, Joseph Gordon-Levitt may become best known as a real-life ringmaster of the greatest show on Earth.
“HitRECord,” which airs Saturday nights on Pivot, is available only on satellite dishes in the Twin Cities, but it might signal the future of television. A variety show created and hosted by Gordon-Levitt, it is built by a community of strangers who collaborate over the Internet to create short films and songs.
“First Stars I See Tonight,” which opened last weekend’s premiere episode, originated with Gordon-Levitt’s online request for fans to tell him about “their first time.” One woman responded with a heart-touching tale about not being able to see stars, because of a rare eye disorder, until she was 16.
Producers turned the story into a script and then used the show’s website, HitRECord.org, to audition narrators. When a Scottish woman won the part, the location was switched to Europe. Actors were cast online and were placed alongside the short film’s star, Elle Fanning, using a green screen. Special effects came courtesy of an artist in Britain. The score was assembled from recordings by 30 different musicians.
None of the contributors ever met.
For another bit, 30 fans were taught choreography online and then showed up to perform a song-and-dance number at Los Angeles’ Orpheum Theatre with Gordon-Levitt and guest Tony Danza.
It’s a unique approach to doing television in an industry where originality is as rare as a four-leaf clover.
“My parents brought up my brother and me with ideas that some might consider revolutionary. Like, it’s good to share,” said Gordon-Levitt, whose enthusiasm last week brightened up an otherwise drab Los Angeles hotel suite. “It’s good to be kind to people around you, good to understand you’re part of something larger. Those sorts of ideas are at the bottom of what ‘HitRECord’ is about.”
Born during a dry spell
His brother Dan, who passed away in 2010, was instrumental in launching the website in 2005, during a dry spell for Gordon-Levitt that occurred between his role in the TV sitcom “3rd Rock From the Sun” and his emergence as a major player in such independent films as “(500) Days of Summer.”
“At the time, I was in my early 20s, had quit acting for a while, and when I wanted to get back into it, I couldn’t get a job,” he said. “I was pretty discouraged about that. I realized I had to take responsibility for my own creativity. I can’t wait around for someone to hire me and allow me to make things. I love it too much to wait.”
The crowdsourcing project morphed into live shows, starting with a concert four years ago in a mall basement as part of the Sundance Festival.
Despite Gordon-Levitt’s recent successes in “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Lincoln,” a variety series designed by showbiz outsiders would have been a hard sell at established networks. Enter Pivot, a six-month-old satellite channel aimed at young adults. It was eager to secure a major star and an innovative concept. It has already renewed the series for a second season.
“It’s risky, but it turned out really well,” said network president Evan Shapiro, who previously headed IFC and the Sundance Channel. “Open-source creations are becoming an established practice in other businesses. No one is smarter than everyone. It’s not a fad. It’s something that will continue to grow.”
He’s still the boss
Trendsetters contributing to “HitRECord” get more than the privilege of saying they worked with the guy from “Don Jon.” A budget of $50,000 is allocated for each episode.
How it’s divvied up gets tricky.
For the first episode, producers posted a proposal on how the 426 contributors should be paid, based on how much they think each person mattered. Users then had two weeks to agree or disagree to the plan. The leadership team could make tweaks based on that conversation, but ultimately it’s up to Gordon-Levitt who gets what.
“We tried to devise a formula. There is no formula. It just takes going through one by one and figuring it out,” he said, noting that one artist who provided significant content to the online version of “HitRECord” last year made $30,000. “You have to trust us and believe that we’ll be fair.”
Despite the group-think approach, there is still a curator, one whose artistic tastes bode well for the show’s future.
“Yes, this is an open collaborative process, but I always want it to have the voice of an individual driving it,” said Gordon-Levitt. “Once you don’t have that voice it turns into chaos or just corporate-committee kind of boringness. So, yeah, it’s not exactly democratic. We call it more of a benevolent dictatorship.”