Case Study: Byron Hurt: HIP-HOP: Beyond Beats and Rhymes
“Next time, I think I’d use the Internet to market the film leading up to the release…. I’d come up with a much more strategic and efficient way of making sure that a large number of people had my film on their brain, so that when the film finally comes out, it’s familiar to them, and I’ve whetted their appetite.” —Byron Hurt
Byron Hurt has been discovering one of the dirty secrets of digital marketing: the more accessible you make your work online, the more accessible people expect you to be personally.
With nearly 1500 friends on MySpace, and over a million YouTube plays of the trailer for his film, HIP-HOP: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, Hurt has carved out a high profile on the Web. The only downside, he says, is the volume of email that fills his inbox as he travels the country to promote his film, which questions the glorification of violence and the degradation of women in the hip-hop genre.
“It’s overwhelming—I’m drowning in emails,” Hurt says. “People are asking me how can they see the film, and people want suggestions and advice if they’re aspiring filmmakers.”
Since the film screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006, Hurt has been learning about how to use the Web to fill seats at screenings, promote the PBS broadcasts, and sell DVDs—even if he hasn’t yet found a solution for the email deluge.
Finding New Audiences
Despite getting a coveted slot at Sundance, Hurt wasn’t sure that his core audience would be paying attention to the buzz that the festival generates every January. He wanted to be sure that the African American audience, and all fans of hip-hop, knew about the film when it aired on PBS, and also when it played in theaters—for instance, in a series of screenings the Sundance Institute presents at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
In advance of the film’s Independent Lens premiere in February 2007, Hurt set up his own MySpace profile, which includes a photo slide show and a series of blog entries. He also hired Kounterattack Design, a New York City firm, to build the website BHurt.com, which includes an event calendar of screenings and talks, as well as links to buy the DVD. When the film screened in London in January 2008 at the British Film Institute, he says that his MySpace friends helped spread the word to people who lived there.
But Hurt says that the key promotional decision he made was to hire a New York PR film called Akila Worksongs. The firm, run by April Silver, has an email list of about 10,000 subscribers who’ve expressed interest in hearing about cultural and political events. “It’s viral,” Hurt says. “People forward the emails. April’s list was particularly useful to getting the word out to African American audiences.” He credits the emails with helping to sell out every one of the film’s showings at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “There was no other major marketing,” Hurt says. (He’s less sure of the email campaign’s impact on the initial PBS broadcast, which he says reached 1.3 million viewers.) Hurt paid the PR firm out of his own pocket; the cost was several hundred dollars.
As Hurt took the film to universities, he’d also collect email addresses, which were included in the mailings that Akila Worksongs coordinated. (All the names that Hurt collected, though, remained his property, listed in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.)
Hurt didn’t post the film’s five-minute trailer on YouTube himself, but when the Media Education Foundation did, in October 2006, it quickly began racking up views and comments (more than 800). “Some people email me and say, ‘I saw a clip of the movie on YouTube, and I bought a copy,’” Hurt says.
Several other videos are posted as “video responses” to the trailer on YouTube, including a two-part group discussion of the film, shot in New York City as part of Hip-Hop Culture Week 2007.
ITVS stepped in to enable Internet users to upload their own video, text or audio in the hip-hop genre, creating a “community engagement” site that was launched six months before the film’s PBS broadcast. ITVS also gave grants to PBS affiliates around the country to encourage more solicitation of user-generated content and partnered with YouthTV to hold a contest for younger hip-hop fans.
But the film’s online popularity also led to piracy. In online comments, a few viewers acknowledged having downloaded illegal versions of the movie from the file-sharing site BitTorrent and the full version of the movie also showed up on Google Video, apparently recorded from a WNET broadcast in New York. Hurt says he’s bothered by it, but hasn’t had time to request that it be removed.
New Distribution Opportunities
Media Education Foundation handled the packaging and production of the DVD. Hurt sells copies of the DVD at each screening for $20.00, and the Media Education Foundation handles online sales (a DVD for home use is $19.95, and a university version is $295.00). Hurt hasn’t yet explored making the film available as a digital download— though he says Media Education Foundation may do that at some point in the future.
“For me, there’s just too much to do, and that’s not really my area of expertise,” Hurt says. In early 2008, he was still touring colleges like Brown University and the University of California at Santa Cruz, screening the film and giving talks.
Opening Up Production to Participation
Hurt says he’s interested in new ways to get audience members involved in a film while it’s still in production. “Next time, I think I’d use the Internet to market the film leading up to the release,” he says. “I’d have clips from the movie, constant updates—very short stuff you could just click and view, without having to spend a lot of time reading a lot of content. I’d come up with a much more strategic and efficient way of making sure that a large number of people had my film on their brain, so that when the film finally comes out, it’s familiar to them, and I’ve whetted their appetite.”
But before he makes his next feature-length documentary, Hurt is planning to make a stand-alone short film made for the Internet, funded by the National Black Programming Consortium and ITVS. Entitled Barack and Curtis, it compares Barack Obama’s masculinity to the rapper 50 Cent’s. “It’s supposed to be very viral, very YouTube-able,” Hurt says. “The idea is to get people talking online.” He put some of the raw footage up on YouTube, along with two different versions of the trailer, and was embedding some of the new video content in his regular email newsletter.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act allows owners of copyrighted works to request that unauthorized versions be removed from websites—as when a full-length version of HIP-HOP: Beyond Beats and Rhymes was posted on Google Video without Byron Hurt’s permission.
Information about sending a “takedown notice” can be found at: