All photos: Emily Cohen
The crowd at the Warner Theater, predominantly young women, sat with bated breath as the minutes ticked by. I say “crowd” and not “audience” because the HitRECord tour involves collaboration between ticket-holders and actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt (JGL), the evening’s master of ceremonies. No one knew exactly what to expect from JGL – Tuesday was the first evening of his six city tour – but that did not stop their shrieking when he took the stage. For the next hundred minutes, JGL guided the crowd through his participatory content creation website, showing HitRECord highlights and having them create spontaneous video. The evening was more of a pitch than a performance, and JGL’s genuine charm was not enough to overcome the event’s shortcomings.
Wearing a t-shirt and jeans, JGL took the stage with a video camera on a stick. The large screen behind him created an unlikely mirror: by broadcasting the camera’s feed, we could see the actor’s perspective in addition to ours. He kept asking, “Are you recording?” and told us that the raw we shot that night would be part of an larger video on HitRECord. He actually repeated the entrance so more people could record it the second time.
The opening minutes felt weirdly egalitarian – JGL loosened the divide between stage and orchestra – and the vibe was infectiously positive. Moments later, he invited a woman on stage who caught his eye with a tweet and a HitRECord hash tag. She told him how she finished studying abroad in the Amazon, and she wanted to fight on behalf of natives who have their livelihood threatened by a dam. He asked her, “Are you going to start collaborating for us on HitRECord?” and she said, “Yes.” She was giddy as she left the stage – who could blame her – and the crowd shared her enthusiasm.
The rest of evening fell into a pattern: we watched the HitRECord highlight reel, and then JGL would come out and interact with the crowd some more. He invited eager collaborators on stage for auditions. They danced, talked about “The Road” as a theme, provided voice-over work, and sang. Emily Cohen, BYT’s photographer for the evening, was the first person to try-out for an alliterative voice-over, and she had trouble getting through the testy tongue twister (“It’s hard,” JGL quipped afterward).
For a while, sheer enthusiasm made up for technical snafus. During the dance try-outs, for example, the house had trouble getting the right video feed on the screen. But as the evening continued, the process became more important than the product. It didn’t matter that the riffs about The Road were rote, that closing song was unintelligible, or that JGL’s wasn’t paying attention to where his camera was filming. Members of the crowd still stampeded the stage when they were invited to sing. But when it comes to the quality of content, this kind of spectacle is problematic.
HitRECord’s novelty is that anyone can collaborate. Join the site and soon you can edit a short film, or provide different voice-overs for the same footage. The problem with this model is how shared ownership leads to a less unique product. Many of the short films were a mash-up of Wes Anderson and Edward Gorey. The video collages were like audition tapes for a Deathcab for Cutie video; “tiny films” that barely lasted twenty seconds and deserved even less thought. With each subsequent round of video, the crowd got more and more restlessness. They wanted for another chance to touch/see JGL, and didn’t care to sit through another precious cartoon that is already streaming on the HitRECord website. At times, crowd chatter was louder than the cartoon’s audio.
Content ownership is important. It’s the reason the crowd loves JGL: without independent and major film studios, complex entertainment like Looper and 500 Days of Summer wouldn’t be possible. While JGL founded the company with his brother in the early aughts, his celebrity is what subsidizes his website and its subsequent tour. Throughout the evening, JGL tried to make the case his approach to collaboration – phone cameras and all – will change how we create content. Yet what distinguishes his site is hardly different from the way videos typically develop. Even without a cynical tour, the proliferation of a meme on YouTube or Tumblr is an organic process, just like a HitRECord video. The underwhelming evening at Warner Theater included some big news: JGL announced HitRECord will soon become a TV show. It’s an exciting project until you realize that HitRECord TV will be a twee riff on Tosh.0, except the host of the latter does not look so good with his shirt off.