Seattle Goes Hollywood: Four Startups Aiming to Help Studios, Celebs Embrace the Digital Age

5/25/11Follow @curtwoodward

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and profitable. “We’ve been going out and talking to people about some expansion capital, really,” he says. “We just need now to manage our growth.”

Hark: One of David Aronchick’s favorite movies, Mel Brooks’ classic Western spoof “Blazing Saddles,” hasn’t been in theaters for decades. And aside from promotions tied to the re-release of updated versions, there isn’t a whole lot of marketing muscle put into those old titles. But couldn’t a studio boost sales from its back catalog by getting soundbites, video clips, and images in front of movie buffs when they’re online and looking for a few minutes of entertainment?

That’s the idea behind Hark, a database of movie and TV audio snippets primed for discovery via searches and sharing through social networks. Hark started out as Entertonement, focusing on providing free ringtones to MySpace users. The recently renamed site is still built around a trove of audio clips, but Aronchick, the founder and CEO, sees the potential for a future expansion into video, photos, and other content that can help movie and TV studios reach their fans.

“There are millions of searches every month for that kind of content, and it’s a company like Hark that helps them make money off that … whether it’s leveraging it as an advertising platform, selling DVDs, or selling digital media itself,” Aronchick says.

Hark accumulates its content in two ways. Studios can contribute all the snippets and information they want, whether through their own digitized systems or even by sending Hark “a stack of DVDs,” Aronchick says. Individual consumers can also upload their own favorite bits of pop culture and tag it with metadata.

Building a comprehensive database will be key for Hark, since it wants to reach consumers right at the moment they’re thinking of a classic line from their favorite movie. “They’re already primed to click on an ad that’s relevant for them, or buy a DVD that’s relevant for them. And it’s our job to make it happen,” Aronchick says.

Giant Thinkwell: Hatched at a Startup Weekend competition last year, this startup wants to turn celebrities into social-game avatars as a way of building a connection with their fans—and making money.

The original Startup Weekend idea was a game where players nurtured a baby version of John Stamos’ “Uncle Jesse” character from the old TV sitcom “Full House.” Giant Thinkwell couldn’t strike a deal with Stamos, but that hasn’t stopped co-founders Kevin Leneway, Kyle Kesterson, and Adam Tratt from taking their playful ideas into some heady pop culture territory.

Based at the TechStars/Founder’s Co-op offices in South Lake Union, the company is working at the intersection of three huge social trends: The collapse of traditional profit centers in entertainment, the rise of social networks as a connection and revenue platform, and the Warhol-esque distribution of fleeting fame among an ever-wider swath of people.

“You see this proliferation of stars across different niches. It’s like this long tail of celebrities who can be celebrated because of the Internet. And all these celebrities, whether they’re actually famous or just fame-ish, want to make the most of this opportunity,” Tratt says.

The concept actually was given a boost recently with Zynga’s partnership with Lady Gaga, who gave fans exclusive previews of her new album through Zynga games, including a Gaga-themed section of the Facebook-based game FarmVille.

“We think there’s thousands and thousands of other people who are looking at that and going, ‘Huh—I want to find a way to engage my fans in gaming,’” Tratt says. Giant Thinkwell already has a Facebook game called Celebrity Baby Jackpot, where players try to advance in the world of paparazzi, and has a deal in the works for a new game.

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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