Now Hear This: Hark Racks Up Hollywood Success (and Profits)

6/21/12Follow @curtwoodward

From its earliest days, sound-sharing website Hark.com had its sights set on Hollywood. And these days, the Seattle-based startup is hitting the mark—it’s profitable, counts a growing audience, and has inked licensing partnerships with several big-name studios.

But, like countless entertainment industry hopefuls before it, Hark found that the road to show-business success wasn’t always smooth.

The story starts in 2007, with a bit of pop-culture frustration. David Aronchick, a former Microsoftie, had a line from a classic `80s movie stuck in his head. “My buddy and I loved this quote from War Games: ‘Shall we play a game?’” he says. “But sadly, it was just impossible to find on the Web.”


Shall we play a game?

Sites for sound clips and movie quotes have been kicking around the Web for years, of course. But they’ve typically been of the shady-looking, Web 1.0 variety, with low-quality sound and questionable origins.

Aronchick wanted to create a clean, well-lit corner of the web that would allow people to indulge their obsession with sound bites and quotes from movies and TV shows. He was getting early validation in the form of venture financing from Redpoint Ventures.

But building a high-quality site required buy-in from the guys who owned the content, and they weren’t exactly keen on the idea.

Aronchick

It wasn’t that studio execs were monopoly-addicted technophobes, Aronchick says. “They just couldn’t wrap their heads around it and say, ‘Boy, there’s clearly money here, the money’s going to be worth the trouble … and its not cannibalistic,” he says.

So, it was time for plan B. That meant building the site into a place that people would use to share and listen to sound bites, speeches, and other bits of audio.

Instead of movie quotes, they decided to focus on sounds in the public domain—and, with a presidential election heating up, that meant a lot of political audio.

Hark plugged along, building visitors to the site and amassing a body of sound clips. Just like any other site operating under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, they’d pull something down if a copyright owner objected, CEO and co-founder Aronchick says. But they were still looking for a way to get in the door with a studio.

Around that time, the rollicking road-trip comedy “The Hangover” became a major surprise hit. When the film came out on DVD, people started uploading quotes to Hark and seeking out their favorite lines. And Hark saw another chance.

“We said ‘Hey Warner Bros., we’re seeing content from this movie come up. We’re going to assume that it’s not you uploading it. And let us know what we should do,’” Aronchick recalls. “`But rather than take it down, we have a proposal. Why don’t you do a marketing campaign around this, where we help push the DVD and help take all of this inbound search traffic and show off this content in a curated way?’”

This time, the studio bit. And Hark was on its way to the business Aronchickhad always envisioned.

Today, the startup has marketing deals with five studios—it just announced a new arrangement with Universal Studios to cull audio gems from the studio’s large library of movies, including “Animal House,” “The Breakfast Club,” and “Bridesmaids.” Previously on board were Paramount, Lion’s Gate, CBS, and Warner Bros.

Hark now counts more than 60 million visitors a month to its site, Aronchick says, and more than 30 million people a month see the content inside Facebook. The company continues to be profitable on a traditional web-based advertising business, sharing ad revenue back to its licensing partners. The company also done promotional campaigns for major video games, and Aronchick expects to cut more deals “not just in the Hollywood space, but literaly in every space where people have done the hard work to create content and capture content out there.”

A big key to the Hark pitch is the ability for sound clips to get into the social networking streams of everyday Web users in an organic way: fans want to share their favorite sound bites with other people. At a time when advertising on Facebook and Twitter are still not considered a sure bet, that’s a compelling idea.

“The question is, what is the most likely thing for me to do all of those social activities with? Is it the IMDB page or the studio-branded page or anything like that? Or is it the actual media itself?” Aronchick asks. “And more than anything, if you’re doing that with the media, that’s where things are really likely to pay off. And that’s what we see.”

Along the way, Aronchick says Hark has learned some valuable lessons for digital upstarts hoping to work with the entertainment industry. Lesson one is to drop any sense of techno-superiority and deal with the Hollywood folks as smart businesspeople.

“Anyone who says Hollywood people are stupid doesn’t understand Hollywood very well. They are very savvy,” Aronchick says. “So many times, tech companies will walk in and say, `Well, everything you’re doing now is idiotic. I’m going to replace it all.’ And that’s just foolishness.

“Let’s just assume for the sake of argument that these guys are semi-rational people. There’s going to be some logic for why they’re doing what they’re doing, and it is almost never the case that they have no idea what the hell you’re talking about. They’ve looked at it, made the decision, and not moved.”

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

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