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Joseph Gordon-Levitt part III: an Act of War
They say trilogies rarely work and they say it for a reason
I’d sort of forgotten about Joseph Gordon-Levitt, HitRecord, and the whole promise of writing a Part III.
The one line synopsis recap so far goes something like this: I did a deep dive to find out why Hollywood A-Lister and Good Looking Man Joseph Gordon-Levitt was posting a series of bizarre prompts on his social media which led to JGL emailing me and then standing me up for dinner.
I had a Part III planned, but it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be and I got sidetracked by maniacal Megachurches, the quest for immortality and the identity of God. These three topics all paled in comparison to another piece about Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but I’m only human.
Then a few weeks ago, JGL declared an act of war:
The New Zealand flag flying in my face was clearly directed at me, and I was fuming. A rage built inside me and I angrily punched away at my keyboard and formulated this reply:
The comments under my comment lit up like JGL’s beautiful eyes. “Are you trolling me” out-ratioed JGL’s original post. At the very least he should employ me for HitRecord.
Replies rolled in: “This time he actually has to be, right?” asked Taliesin Potter. “Shots were definitely fired by JGL” said Deahn Grice. “When is the cliffhanger that is David and Joseph going to resolve?” yelled Nathan Sparkle.
“Fuck it”, I thought. Suddenly I was Logan Roy, running on nothing but saliva and adrenaline. It was time for Part III.
What Happened Since Part II
Well, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and his HitRecord business partner Jared Geller read both pieces, and the comments under my tweet about them. Some people had commented saying they’d had a great time on the platform, and others spoke of bad community management, unreasonable work expectations, and an overall lack of clarity on what the hell HitRecord was.
Jared read all those comments, took them pretty seriously, and wrote to me:
“It deeply saddens me to know there are people out there that had a negative experience with HITRECORD. I remember most of the times that were referenced and it pains me to know that we failed our community.
On a brighter note, those stories did bring about change. I believe most if not all of the instances I read about occurred before or around the first season of our first TV show. And a number pretty big changes were made as a result of these kinds of experiences. And changes and improvements are still being made.
To be clear, me saying this is not an excuse or invalidation of feelings or absolution of sins. It was by learning of and from those instances that necessary changes were made. (So, by all means listen to everything people have to say)
Some of the stories on the Twitter thread I was familiar with. Others not. But, I do plan to reach out to all of those past community members directly to hear more about their experience and see what other learnings might surface. (Didn’t seem right to publicly engage on that thread.)
The other thing is, and I know you probably know this: there are many, many people who have had very positive experiences on HITRECORD. Some have been around from the beginning to experience our evolution. I’m afraid I didn’t see many supporters on the thread, but, there are a mighty many :)
What were those bad experiences people talked about? Well, over the last month I’ve talked to about 10 people who’d left HitRecord. I’d note most of them were from the early days. They’d all left years ago — between 2013 and 2016.
They all struck me as young creatives who’d found the platform via Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s celebrity. Some of them rushed to the website after watching Inception, in the same way people found HitRecord just this year after watching Mr Corman.
“I was on hitRECord from roughly 2006 to 2015. Found it when following the cast of 3rd Rock from the Sun on Twitter in 2006,” said Tiffany.
In January of 2010, Tiffany says she re-mixed the announcement that HitRecord got G-Tech as a sponsor for Sundance. She got a tonne of compliments from the moderators. “I fell for the ‘help the community’ — that it would be amazing to show this video at Sundance before the screenings.” Then she was approached to work on a music video they’d be shooting and creating at Sundance:
“This is the project that broke me. I’m working three days without any sleep. When I mean “without any sleep” I mean, I did not sleep for three days. At all. I was working on animating the entire music video. Collecting the visual assets off of the HitRecord site, sifting through contributions, and putting this together as fast as I could.
Hours before the screening I was getting changes, I would send the wrong files and mix things up. I had not slept in days. I had one final scene to animate. Then they dropped me and went with someone on-site to do a couple of scenes that I wasn’t doing fast enough.”
Another of the early adopters of HitRecord was Cass:
“I joined hitRECord after they visited my college campus in April 2011. I actually got pulled on stage to talk with Joe about film cameras, and really bought into the whole idea of the “collaborative production company.”
At that point, the site was still pretty small, and projects grew fairly organically — a member of the site would have an idea, post it, and then other people would jump on.
If Joe thought that it was something that could be monetised, he would highlight it and ask other members of the community to contribute to it.”
That resulted in things like this special feature found on the Inception blu-ray, a film JGL starred in. Buy the blu-ray, and you get one of the productions made collaboratively via HitRecord:
Other monetised projects included things like videos and songs that were presented at live shows, or HitRecord books. Then Cass started to notice a few things that gave her pause:
“One of the stickier points of the site has to do with copyright and intellectual property rights. While the site required all work uploaded to the site to be original or in the public domain (or a remix of something already on the site), there was little oversight when it came to making sure work was not stolen.
There was a fairly high profile incident in which one member had uploaded multiple stolen pieces of art that were then used in paid productions. This was only uncovered when several members of the site (including myself), not the staff working for hitRECord, discovered it and brought it to their attention.
This included hours of unpaid labor on the part of community members, including tracking down the original artists to make sure they were compensated for their work.”
Cass left the site as HitRecordTV launched in 2014. She noticed there were a lot more people flooding to the site, and productions happened “much less organically.”
“It turned into Joe telling people things like “hey we need a voice artist,” and a bunch of people posting recordings hoping to get selected,” Cass told me. In the end, she just kinda got burnt out by it all. The site that had started as something fun had turned into something else:
“In 2013, [an executive music producer on the project] emailed me on a Monday about recording a trombone part for a song that was part of a paid production in partnership with Levi’s.
At that time, my trombone was on the other side of the country, so I paid to have it overnighted since he needed the recording by Friday. I found out later they contacted another trombone player on the site with the same request and promise that it would be part of a paid production.
I ended up making less than $20 for the work I put in.”
Not exactly scandal, but a bad time. Again, this happened back in 2013. Joseph made it clear to me via email that he thinks things are very different now:
“In our monetised productions, for any parts of the creative process that require more “work” than a simple, fun, creative prompt, we either have our team do it internally, temp hire an industry professional, or temp hire a community member.
I think part of the confusion may stem from the fact that this admittedly isn’t always how we did things. We learned a hard lesson a few years ago that made us overhaul our process.”
This is one of the things Cass worked on before she left: the special feature found on the Don Jon blu-ray.
It’s kinda genius: Most projects JGL stars in see a corresponding creation crowdsourced from HitRecord. His fans are essentially a street team creating content to further promote his work. This is the latest piece promoting Mr Corman.
Cass looks back on her time there with mixed feelings: “I’m grateful that I made many friends on the site, and that it did give me a creative outlet at the time, I also hate that I spent as much time doing work for free or for pennies.”
As I spoke to some of these users, they told me they were also talking to Jared, who’d started reaching out to apologise for their earlier experiences.
Earlier on, Jared had expressed concern to me about some of the things I’d published, and some things being mentioned on Twitter:
“I do admit to being concerned about the accuracy of what you end up publishing. I noticed a number of inaccuracies both in your original piece, and in peoples’ comments online.
I know you know that loosely framing certain information can garner more likes, retweets, etc — but, they can also be extremely difficult to correct after the fact and damaging in the long term.”
It was a bit of a zinger, but I’ve had worse things levelled at me in the past. As to the inaccuracies, the only one I’m aware of was when I claimed HitRecord had won an Emmy this year, when it was in fact last year.
But here’s the thing: Jared was being totally reasonable. He openly admitted that they’d fucked some stuff up: “I remember most of the times that were referenced [on Twitter] and it pains me to know that we failed our community.”
I’ve been through the HitRecord website and small print, and it’s super clear about payment structures and what’s expected. Who moderates the community and how it’s best to contribute. Of course, there’s always going to be a slightly weird vibe as a celebrity is directly interfacing with hungry creatives who probably like his work, and probably want an “in” to the industry.
And that creates certain expectations. As one former user I spoke to put it: “When a company is built on capitalising on prosumerism, parasocial relationships, and the cult of celebrity, anything that shines light on that is going to be met with resistance and more spin to keep it going.”
Speaking of which — I got a phonecall a few weeks ago:
It wasn’t a shock, it had been planned. And look — spoiler alert — the dude was reasonable as heck. He wanted to make himself available for questions. He was very clear I could print whatever I wanted. He wanted to hear from disgruntled users and learn from them.
He had an earnestness in his voice when he urged me to talk to people who’d had a great experience there, too. He talked for ages. At one point I had to put my phone on mute and start cooking dinner. It was like a live podcast. He reminded me of a Golden Retriever. I wanted to pat him.
The call ended. A week or so later, I got an email from him. Like me, he’s been mulling all this over. While I stew about HitRecord, he stews about me. We are two soups simmering on a hot stove.
“I wonder if you’d consider including a positive take on HITRECORD as well. So many people really get a lot out of it. For example, I’m thinking of a particular community member, she first joined a couple years ago doing one of the super easy photography prompts she saw on social media (yes, the ones that you’ve been mercilessly ridiculing :)
From there she moved onto writing prompts, voice-acting prompts, and eventually starting her own projects, and rallying the community to make all kinds of collaborative art together. She’s from a smaller town in the middle of the US, where she says she doesn’t find a lot of encouragement for her creativity, but on HITRECORD, she’s made some good friends, and really come out of her artist shell.”
It’s my belief that while HitRecord is strange as hell, a lot of people probably do love it. No, JGL is not holding a gun to my head as I type that. Early experiences for some were not pleasant. They left and didn’t come back. A new crowd swarmed in to take their place.
“We’ve tried all kinds of things, all aimed at getting people creating and collaborating, and I’ll be the first to acknowledge that we’ve had some missteps and tough lessons along the way,” JGL told me. He says he wants to “inspire even more creativity and collaboration.”
“It’s probably natural to be cynical or skeptical about my intentions at a time when everything’s commodified, but for me, it really is that simple.”
I think it’s fair to say JGL and his team have listened to the problems and attempted to rectify them — including expectations of its users. It is weird? Yes. Is it a scandal? No. Is it mining information to train an all-powerful AI? The jury’s out, but JGL says negative.
I did ask JGL to appear on a podcast conversation about this. He politely declined. As revenge for this, I text him every other week or so to invite him to events. To his credit, he always replies. He’s polite, and always has an excellent excuse. And here’s the thing: I believe his excuses.
Those excuses are just for me. I think txts should remain private. I have my limits.
How does this story end?
To be honest, I’d hit a dead end in how to wrap this thing up. It all felt so unsatisfying. I emailed my old boss Jono. He replied saying “He sounds nice. Maybe you should just join HitRecord and turn Webworm into a platform for call outs for voiceovers.”
The fact is, I was faced with a problem I rarely encounter: I’d met the villain of my story and he was actually quite nice. I want to hate him — standing me up for dinner and so on, but he’s a father doing night shoots. While I’m lazing around nude on the couch at 7pm, sad and alone, he’s probably out working with Leonardo DiCaprio or Zendaya.
I also realised how much journalism has changed since I started in a New Zealand newsroom back in 2005 (yes, I am a dinosaur). Back then, a journalist could simply abandon a story if it didn’t turn out, and the audience would never know. I could turn up to an event or protest and call the 6pm producer and just say, “Uh sorry but it’s really boring out here, nothing is going on.”
But now everyone publishes everything as they go along, so you don’t have the same option to back out so gracefully and just do something else instead.
And so there are two problems that don’t allow you to abandon a story: First, everyone has come along with you on the process. There’s no wiggling out of it. You have to complete the narrative. Secondly, many readers grew up in a world where complete stories were the only ones that made it to publication — so they expect a resolution.
There is no resolution here. There is only an App run by a celebrity, and a social media team that continues to create a truly puzzling social media presence around him.
And I’m here for it.
PPS: At the end of his last email to me, Joseph Gordon-Levitt admitted to his act of war. I appreciate his honesty:
PPSS: Have a video of Joseph Gordon-Levitt singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” as Axl Rose.