Rob Burnett's Crowd-Assisted Movie Might Be the Future of Hollywood

By Sarah Lacy , written on April 19, 2012

From The News Desk

Rob Burnett is either the future of filmmaking or the cheapest man in Hollywood.* Perhaps both.

Forget every cheesy Hollywood-envisioned Web promotion you've ever seen. That includes every time a commercial tells you to "SEE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!" on the Web, every time a movie does a lame promo video on YouTube that never quite goes viral, and most of all, any user generated competitions to promote a movie. Forget all of those things.

Because what Rob Burnett and his writing and producing partner Jon Beckerman are doing is actually really cool. They're using Red Bull Soundstage and the Web to source unknown musicians to fill out the score of their new movie, "We Made This Movie."

But keep reading, because the back story is the real payoff here.

Burnett is the CEO of Worldwide Pants, the production company behind "Late Show with David Letterman." He and Beckerman have made a film about kids in a small town making their own "Jackass" or "Borat"-style movie.

The characters use all the commoditized hardware and Web tools that kids have at their disposal, hoping its their ticket to fame and glory. The catch: They are horrible at filmmaking. But the lead character is so fervent that what there're making will be epic that he has some freshman follow them around with video camera to film a "making of." And -- who'da thought it? -- their messy lives become the real film.

It was important to Burnett and Beckerman that this all come across as authentic, so the real filmmakers (behind the filmmakers behind the filmmakers) mostly used technology that only these kids would have had access to, nary a dolly or a crane. And they cast all unknown teens in the film, people who were also struggling for their big break at fame and glory, just like the characters.

Say Burnett, the result was not only, hopefully, a great movie. It was an experience unlike any he's ever had. They were holed up in a Holiday Inn Express eating Chili's and Outback Steak House. "It was the worst craft services of any set I've ever been on, and they all thought they'd died and gone to heaven," he says. One of the kids started getting noticeably fatter, because he was gorging on all the free food. Most of them weren't even enrolled in the Screen Actor's Guild at the time they were cast.

A true sign of no divas: Everyone in the film was on set for every shot, because they were so thrilled to be in a real movie, they just wanted to watch it happen. It was like watching rookie baseball players at Spring Training, signing every autograph, running down every ball full-force, and mugging for the cameras. "Can you believe we actually get to do this for a living???"

The week before they filmed, the cast all stayed at his house for a week to get to know each other. Burnett is sort of a big kid himself -- he has a hockey rink in his backyard and operates his own hockey league. They have elaborate opening ceremonies and hot dog vendors. He's clearly a believer that creative gold is in the tiny, little details.

Burnett spent the week taking the cast to the beach and baseball games, just hanging out. The movie was about friendship, and he wanted the relationships to seem tight on screen. It was one of the most fun weeks he's ever had in show business.

One of the actors was so excited he made the naive mistake of telling his agent, "We're all just hanging out at the producer's house! It's amazing!"

The Screen Actors Guild had another view: Burnett was breaking an employment contract. SAG told Burnett he had to pay them for that week. Once they got on set, he brought it up to the group in his shoddy room at the Connecticut Holiday Inn, saying he was a little hurt someone called SAG.

The kid immediately fessed up, saying he had no idea that would happen. Burnett said it was fine -- even though they didn't quite have the budget for the extra week of pay. But one of the actors insisted he didn't want the money, and after the movie wrapped he mailed Burnett a handwritten check for the amount.

Burnett goes on and on with stories like this when he talks about this movie. For a grizzled TV vet who sees every movie star in the world come through the talk shows he produces on those endless death-march movie promotions, it was like a shot of adrenaline to the heart. A reminder of why he wanted to do this for a living. A refresher course on just how magical making movies for a living could be.

Basking in the glow of this idyllic experience, the last thing Burnett (along with Beckerman) wanted to do with the movie's post-production was glitz it up too much. So he did two interesting things.

The first was he gave the footage to a high school student, named Haley, to edit a trailer. He'd met her though his daughter a year earlier and had done the cursory Daddy-thing of looking at his daughter's friend's stuff. He was blown away by what she'd done with only Final Cut Pro and some cameras.

A year later, when he was looking for an editor for the trailer, his usual ones were all booked. He had the semi-crazy idea to continue the experiment and just hand the footage over to Haley to see what she could do. His daughters have essentially been Haley's assistants cutting this thing together, and they come home buzzing every day. "DAD! Did you see what we did with that shot!?"

Now, the film needed some music. "It didn't feel right to have these expensive needle drops," he says using lingo that only a veteran movie maker would use. It wouldn't have been practical either: A typical Hollywood soundtrack would cost more than the entire movie's budget and would have unraveled all the other lengths to which the production had gone in the name of authenticity. So Burnett and Beckerman had the idea to just go to YouTube and find some great covers (or something).

That wasn't bad, but it occurred to him that the main character in the movie would have gotten his friends to pitch in and write music. So he wanted to turn to the Web to come up with something cool and original, ideally from the musical versions of the wide-eyed hopeful kids, just looking for a break that had mostly made the movie so far. "The idea wasn't to get bad music," he says. "It wasn't about making fun of what's on the Web. We needed good music that comes at key emotional points in the movie. We couldn't afford to make a joke out of it."

Enter Red Bull's Soundstage, a kind of untelevised "American Idol" where great talent is discovered and nurtured. The program is a slight cut above the quality you can find on YouTube, and aimed at unknown talents who really want to get a break.

Starting now and until May 10, an online contest is open to everyone to create music for four pivotal scenes of the movie. Through audience voting and some producer veto power, four songs will be chose and an "Audience Choice" winner will perform live on the David Letterman show.

It's the first in a series of Web events that will culminate into a freely broadcast online premier of the film in partnership with indie distribution partner SnagFilms, before it goes through the traditional paid channels.

I haven't seen the movie, obviously, but I'm pretty sure I love it already. And, coming from someone who thinks there's zero wisdom in the crowds, that's really saying something.

(*Burnett actually lives in New York. I'm using "Hollywood" like I use "Silicon Valley" to mean an industry, rather than a location.)