Joseph Gordon-Levitt likes when buttons are being pushed.
The actor — decked out in a black suit and tie, with a petite red circle pin on his lapel — had taken the stage at the historic Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles last summer as part of his latest title hyphenate. Greeting him was a glowing sea of phone screens and cameras affixed to raised arms, fulfilling the unusual pre-show request: "We'd like to remind you at this time to please turn on all recording devices.
"Are we recording?" he shouted to the 2,000 attendees, gripping a camera on a monopod that he used on himself (in true "selfie" form) and the audience during the night.
Just as the actor's already prolific film career underwent a significant growth spurt last year — he wrote, directed and starred in the critically lauded "Don Jon" and secured a deal to produce the big screen adaptation of comic book series "The Sandman" — the 32-year-old auteur also found time to moonlight as an avant-garde show runner.
"HitRecord on TV" is the result. At a time when television is redefining its identity and people are creating content with the help of digital tools, "HitRecord on TV," which premiered over the weekend, aspires to be an agent of change in the digital world. The half-hour show for Pivot, the recently launched cable network from Participant Media targeting millennials, is a medley of videos, shorts, songs and other creative vignettes harvested from Gordon-Levitt's open-collaborative production community, HitRecord.
It's a digital soup that Gordon-Levitt, who serves as host and who executive produces alongside Jared Geller and Brian Graden, likens to a modern-day version of "The Muppet Show" or "Sesame Street" for adults. Others have not been as flattering. The New York Times' Jon Caramanica described the show as a "vanity project masking as generosity."
The hitRECord website has been a platform for writers, musicians, illustrators, animators and filmmakers since its launch (hitrecord.org) in 2010. The site encourages participants from around the world to build on one another's work — "remixing" as Gordon-Levitt describes it — to create content. It's a return to our roots, he suggests.
"If you go back to early human beings," he said, "the origin of people telling stories or singing songs or painting images was probably quite communal and collaborative."
Short films from the site have been screened at the Sundance Film Festival, and books and albums have been released as well. There have even been tours. But the TV show has always been a target.
"This has been a long time coming," said Gordon-Levitt, four months after the L.A. show, at the hitRECord offices in Glendale, where he and his team were hustling to finish edits on an episode. He began filming hitRECord segments with his late older brother, Dan, in 2005, before opening up the hitRECord concept worldwide five years later through its website.
"To finally get to bring it to this grand of a scale, to do it within the mainstream media and present it to a broader audience, it feels good," said Gordon-Levitt. "I think Dan would dig it."
Just how broad the reach will be is unclear. Pivot is available in 40 million homes, but a tally of the network's average prime time audience since its August debut is unknown (the network is not on the list of Nielsen's reportable cable networks). Online reception of the series, however, indicates there's at least some curiosity.
The first episode of the tent pole series was made available online two weeks ahead of its premiere on YouTube, iTunes and other digital platforms (including Pivot's app) and had amassed nearly 723,000 views at the time of publication. The network, ahead of the show's Saturday premiere, renewed it for a second season.
"We like to do entertainment that inspires at Pivot," said the network's president, Evan Shapiro. "Pivot is meant to be a disruptive force in the entertainment landscape. Just the very nature of ['HitRecord on TV'] is so unusual and unique. ... It's very much in keeping with the brand that Pivot has been building."
Each episode takes on a different theme — and its various interpretations — including space, money and trash. The way it worked: Gordon-Levitt released what he termed "Regularity" video requests on the hitRECord site, asking the community to submit content to fulfill that day's appeal.
Some were as simple as sending in photos or footage from the various theatrical shoots — at Orpheum Theatre, the Troubadour in L.A., the Masonic Lodge, the Hollywood Forever cemetery, etc. A staff of more than a dozen editors would sift through the hundreds of offerings that would then get pieced together.
"The hitRECord community has been an integral part of this whole process," Geller said. "We see what resonates on the site. It helps us decide what should make it in."
Its first installment fittingly tackled "The Number One" — among the unique interpretations was a personal story submitted from Scotland of a woman with night blindness who sees stars for the first time. The story was performed by actress Elle Fanning.
"That's a story where if I hired a roomful of writers here in town and said, 'OK, write me a good short film about somebody's first time doing something,' I wouldn't have gotten something so profound," said Gordon-Levitt.
It's a decidedly different outlook on the TV-making process from his tenderfoot days starring in the NBC sitcom "3rd Rock From the Sun" — "I was a snobby little know-it-all and didn't feel connected to the human race. As I've gotten older, I feel quite a compelling need to create connections between people, and to myself. That's what this is."
Sitting in the open-space layout of the collaborative command post in a white T-shirt (with a "Sesame Street" print) and jeans, Gordon-Levitt appears more relaxed than weeks earlier when pacing around a white board full of colored text, trying to determine if the episode run time could be fudged to avoid tweaking the integrity of segments.
The relative calm allows time to speak earnestly.
"When you say to an established television company of any kind, 'So, what we're going to do is take contributions from thousands and thousands of people from all over the world — over the Internet — no, they don't sign a piece of paper, they just check a box agreeing to our terms of service that gives us the non-exclusive rights to use what they've contributed' — it's a scary thing," he said. "Companies don't like legal issues or insurance issues."
The hitRECord business model traditionally has called for putting half of any profits back into the company and the other half toward compensating its contributors.
"The majority of checks are for several hundred bucks, which can mean a new camera or new microphone or new guitar for some people," Gordon-Levitt said. "That's a big relief for some people."
With the television endeavor, a change was made — the money would be distributed before a sign of profit. For every episode, about $50,000 is set aside from the budget.
The sum is split among the artists who've contributed to the episode, with the pay scale related to the contribution's prominence, Gordon-Levitt said. Should the show turn a profit, it will then be split later as per usual. The show is entirely paid for by Pivot and Participant Media.
The first episode features the work of 426 contributors — a chyron informs viewers of the stats ahead of each segment. It's a robust number that outpaces the staffing of traditional half-hour shows.
"If it inspires others to play along with us, that would make me happy," said Gordon-Levitt. "It would mean more work to sort through the next time around," he said with a smile. "But I'm game."
'HitRECord on TV'
When: 7 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
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