Can Joseph Gordon-Levitt Reinvent Television With His New Show, ‘HITRECORD ON TV’?

CREDIT: AP Images/Chris Pizzello

“I have a really eclectic taste in what I like to watch,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt mused at the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, California on January 11. “You know, with movies I don’t only like to watch romantic comedies or action movies. I like all kinds of movies, and with music, I don’t only like to listen to you know, I don’t only like to listen to De La Soul or only like to listen to Johnny Cash. I like to listen to all different kinds of music, and HITRECORD is a way that I can really work on a variety of eclectic things.”

He was referring to HITRECORD, begun in 2005 as a message board Gordon-Levitt and his brother Daniel founded as a place to post videos, music, and short stories. “What we discovered,” Gordon-Levitt explained, “was much more fun than just talking about the little videos I was making, was having all the different people that were joining this message board make stuff together.” HITRECORD gradually evolved into what he describes as “an open collaborative production company,” in which many people may contribute to writing and recording a song, creating a narrative or music video, or working on a piece of visual art. The contributors retain their rights to their individual artwork, but cede their claims to the finished projects to the company. And if a project makes money, everyone who worked on it gets paid.

Now, HITRECORD is migrating from the web to television, debuting as HITRECORD ON TV on Pivot at 10PM on January 18. The show itself is a jaunty combination of a live show Gordon-Levitt puts on at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles, where he sings and dances with an appreciative crowd, and a broadcast of HITRECORD projects that Gordon-Levitt is screening for the theater audience. Each show has a theme, though the projects that can result vary widely, from a non-fiction exploration of a biologically unique forest, to a movie that’s a combination of live action and animation about looking at the stars.

HITRECORD ON TV is a charming reincarnation of the variety show, and Gordon-Levitt’s an appealing master of ceremonies who stands out above other curators of the internet, including Chris Hardwick and Daniel Tosh. It helps, of course, that the material he’s curating isn’t just floatsam and jetsam of online culture, but presenting projects crafted by talented people who are invested in a common enterprise, and which in some cases, including a video featuring Elle Fanning, have been supplemented through Gordon-Levitt’s formal industry connections. But as fun as HITRECORD ON TV is, the enterprise is almost more interesting as an experiment in ignoring Hollywood’s norms for content and its business model.

By its very nature, HITRECORD ON TV inverts the Hollywood decision-making model. Rather than Gordon-Levitt greenlighting projects on his own or giving marching orders to contributors, HITRECORD participants pull their own projects together or contribute to projects and prompts they’re excited about. And while Gordon-Levitt has to pick projects for the live shows, he’s reliant on HITRECORD contributors to determine what’s promising and interesting.

“We can look at and watch and listen to or read anything so so much, and the art of picking out those things and having an opinion and having taste is, I think, like I said, an art form like any other art form. So there’s lots of great people with great taste who I trust and who I’ve come to trust in our community, and that’s a huge part of that,” Gordon-Levitt said. “There’s no way that I myself could go through everything that comes in.”

In a smaller setting later, Gordon-Levitt told me that the makeup of the HITRECORD community was also different from the pool of writers and directors who get to make most television.

“Well, it’s certainly true that if you look at the percentage of, say, writers or artists or any other contributors and you look at the gender of HITRECORD contributors versus traditional Hollywood industry, Hollywood is pretty low on females and Hit Record is actually pretty high on females,” he explained. “Our community is certainly a bit more female than male.” Gordon-Levitt said that he hadn’t deliberately set out to correct for Hollywood’s imbalances. But that HITRECORD has evolved that way makes the project an interesting experiment in who chooses to participate in creating art when the opportunity is open to them, and whose work can rise to the top in a community that allows for anonymity.

The pay scale is also an experiment. In 2010, when HITRECORD turned into a production company and left its message board roots behind, Gordon and his collaborators set up the HITRECORD Accord, which stipulates that profits are divided between the company, which gets half of that money, and the contributors, who are paid based on their degree of involvement. Rather than using a formal table to determine payouts, Gordon-Levitt works with a small group of other people to propose payouts for each project, which the entire HITRECORD community can vote on during a two-week period. Gordon-Levitt takes all the feedback into account and makes the final adjustments to the payouts, which are always made public. Because HITRECORD ON TV may not be profitable for years, if ever, Gordon-Levitt sets aside $50,000 of the budget for each episode to be divided up among the artists who contributed to the pieces that air during that episode, who may number in the hundreds, using the same method as the web-only projects.

It’s wonderful to have that alternative model. But as with many alternative payment schemes, the money isn’t yet enough to replace old entertainment industry business models.

“Our first year we paid out forty grand amongst the artists, in 2011 that went up to a hundred, in 2012 we paid four hundred grand,” Gordon-Levitt explained. “The highest paid artist is named wirrow, and he got thirty grand last year. He started the collaboration Tiny Stories, which has led to several books.”

That’s terrific, but it’s also one very modest living, rather than a whole alternative business model. For now, HITRECORD ON TV will stand as an example of what it might look like to meander away from conventional television subject matter, and as a testament of Pivot’s willingness to innovate, rather than as the Future Of The Entertainment industry. And that’s just fine, and well worth a stop on Saturday night.