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

5/25/11Follow @curtwoodward

When Dave Long first started pitching movie studios on a new way to market their old titles, he encountered a fair bit of skepticism. After all, what could a boardgame entrepreneur from soggy Seattle possibly teach Hollywood about selling its own stars?

Nearly 10 years later, the “Scene It?” brand—which builds trivia games around movie and TV clips—has been adapted to iconic titles like Seinfeld, South Park, James Bond, and Harry Potter. The company that Long co-founded, Screenlife, was acquired by Paramount in 2008 and has sold some 20 million games worldwide.

And Hollywood’s major players, Long says, have a different feeling about visitors from up north. “There is a little mystique around Seattle,” he says. “I’ve had big executives say ‘Hey, what’s in the coffee up there? It seems like there’s a lot of creativity up there.’”

That kind of reception from entertainment bigwigs is helping to fuel an emerging cluster of Seattle companies that are taking innovative approaches to selling entertainment’s products and personalities. These entrepreneurs are building on the area’s traditional strengths in digital media and gaming, with hopes of helping the entertainment industry navigate the fundamentally shifted economics of the digital age.

The roster includes Hark, a startup that aims to spread bite-size chunks of content through the social sphere; Hypershow, a quietly profitable company enabling richly layered digital movies; and Giant Thinkwell, an incubator-stage company that wants to help celebrities of any stripe reach their fans through quirky social games.

Dave Long is back on the job as well. His new company, Exponential Entertainment, is working with the studios to develop promotional digital games—and this time, they’re starting with some major first-run movies.

Building bridges to the star-studded streets of Hollywood still has its challenges, even in a highly networked age. It’s simply harder to build relationships and keep your finger on the pulse of an industry when you’re hundreds of miles away from Sunset Boulevard.

But there are also advantages to being based in the Northwest, says David Aronchick, the founder and CEO of Hark.

“It’s far more cost-effective to work out of Seattle, and you obviously have an incredible depth of technical talent here that allows you to execute very quickly comparatively, and do some really cool things,” he says. “We’re not unique, but we certainly have a lot of cross-pollination because we’re a very migratory city. We pull in a lot of people from all over the place, especially people from on the West Coast. And this is a great place to set up shop.”

Here’s a deeper look at the startups I identified as part of Seattle’s emerging entertainment innovation cluster. I didn’t include folks who produce entertainment-themed content of their own, like the blog publisher Wetpaint, for example. The focus here is mostly on companies that are aiming for business partnerships with the entertainment industry.

Also purposely left off the list was a major name—the Internet Movie Database, or IMDb, which is owned by Amazon.com and headquartered in Seattle. Although it might seem kind of odd to think of it as long in the tooth, IMDb has actually been around for many years, and has been owned by Amazon for more than a decade.

If you’ve got more nominees for Seattle-area startups and early stage companies doing business (or trying to) with Hollywood, send them my way—either in the comments, over on our Facebook page, or via my e-mail address below.

Exponential Entertainment: Dave Long’s new company takes the game-promotions concept to a post-boardgame age. The company has developed an array of online games that revolve around photos, quotes, and other tie-ins to movies—for example, promotional games for the new movie “Bridesmaids” include a “Wheel of Fortune” inspired word puzzle that reveals images from the movie.

Exponential distributes the games on Facebook, MSN, and other websites, along with hosting them on its own Hollywood Player site, where players can earn credits that are redeemed for movie swag. “The studios love it because it’s much more effective than putting a banner ad on somebody’s site for a movie that they’ve got coming out,” Long says.

The company’s co-founder is Bill Cooper, who was CTO at Screenlife. Listed as a board member is Ed Fries, who started Microsoft Game Studios and co-founded the Xbox project. Exponential Entertainment has been around for about 18 months, Long says, operating on friends-and-family investment with an eye toward another fundraising round later this year. A new version of the Hollywood Player site is coming in the next couple of months.

Hypershow: Tim Harader, the president of Seattle-based Hypershow, had the idea for rich, interactive digital movies years ago when he was still working at Microsoft. It just took the technology about a decade to catch up, he says.When it finally arrived, Harader and co-founder Dan Gehred bolted from Redmond to pursue their startup dreams.

So far, it’s looking like a good move: Hypershow is already the software powering Paramount’s new Silverlight Enhanced Movies, adding deep layers of interactivity to movies like “True Grit,” “School of Rock,” and “Waiting for Superman.” The movies are delivered as individual apps on Windows Phone 7 devices, with a next-generation version of the extras and special features you’d get in a traditional DVD or Blu-Ray. That includes the ability to share little clips on social networks, actor bios and other movie information, and even a “Scene It?” mode.

The similarity to the packaged disc experience is no mistake. The goal, Harader says, is to give Hollywood studios a digital equivalent of the high-quality physical model that they can sell for a premium price. That sounds like a bold bet in this age of dirt-cheap digital content, but Harader says the content owners simply haven’t had the ability to control enough of their digital production and deliver a more premium product until now. “A certain segment of the population does like the idea of owning their own content, whether it’s movies or music or books—the fact that they’re electronic doesn’t make it that much different. It’s about the idea of ownership,” he says.

Hypershow’s technology also allows these enhanced movies to be downloaded or streamed to Mac and PC, and additional mobile platforms are coming. But Harader says advancements in home-streaming devices point to where Hypershow really wants to be.

“The fact that Netflix is popular on PCs and Macs is only because it’s not ubiquitous in the living room yet. It’s becoming more and more so, but as soon as all these types of experiences are available in the living room, that’s when it gets much more interesting,” he says.

The company doesn’t view itself as a startup, Harader says—it’s post-product, post-revenue, 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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