L.A. Programmers Gather for 3rd Annual Hollywood Hack Day

Hollywood Hack Day - H 2013
Spencer Allen

Hollywood Hack Day - H 2013

Game designer Travis Chen takes home the $2,000 first prize for his mobile fitness game "gogololow."

Hackathons – collaborative sessions that challenge programmers and designers to build the coolest apps they can in a limited amount of time – are commonplace events in Silicon Valley and New York City but harder to come by in Los Angeles. That makes Hollywood Hack Day, which held its third annual event this past weekend, much anticipated among L.A.’s burgeoning tech community.

According to Rahim Sonawalla, a partner at Beats Music who founded HHD with Nettwerk artist manager Ryan Chisholm and Guy Oseary's digital operations head Abe Burns, what sets HHD apart from other hackathons is an encouragement to consider the details beyond the code. Befitting the city in which it's held, this year HHD decided to emphasize presentation, bringing in Jason Clement, Ricardo Diaz and Vaino Leskinen from TBWA\Chiat\Day as mentors to help programmers hone their pitches.

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It’s a skill that will serve the developers well should they decide to do business locally. “Tech people are often working on solutions that Hollywood doesn’t [need],” Sonawalla says, “while the Hollywood system has problems they want people to help solve.”

HHD got closer to Hollywood when UTA stepped in to host this year’s event (previous hosts were Ashton Kutcher’s digital production company Katalyst and the incubator and co-working space io/LA). The agency offered up its new Beverly Hills headquarters for free and provided cleaning services, security personnel and increased bandwidth for the 135 developers and designers engaged in two full days of hacking (and snacking – they collectively consumed 150 burritos from food sponsor Chipotle).

"We're trying to be as far upstream as possible on the innovations that will influence creation and distribution of content," says Chris Day, UTA head of corporate communications.

The developer teams’ newly acquired pitch skills came in handy as they presented their nascent projects one by one on the 15-foot-by-29-foot screen in UTA’s private theater, arguably the poshest venue ever to host a hackathon awards ceremony. In the end, Travis Chen, creative director at the mobile gaming company Scopely, walked away with the $2,000 first prize for the social mobile fitness game gogololow, which uses cell phone motion sensing technology to allow users to compete in real-time physical challenges with friends. Chen, who also won last year’s HHD with the game Typing Karaoke, also will receive an exclusive tour of rocket manufacturer SpaceX’s facilities, which are closed to the public for national security reasons.

gogololow won on its all-around merits, from impressive application of technology to eye-catching visual appeal to a fun and energetic presentation, according to UTA social media head Eric Kuhn, who served on the judging panel alongside Cross Campus co-founder Dan Dato and Launchpad LA partner Jamie Kantrowitz.

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Unlike start-up weekends, where teams must formulate a business plan, the purpose of hackathons is simply to “build something cool.” Several teams were inspired by this hackathon’s unique setting and chose to make apps about the art and business of entertainment. Among them:

  • The judges awarded a $1,000 second prize to a team of out-of-towners for Levers Hollywood, which uses a unique algorithm to predict (Hollywood take note!) opening weekend box office grosses. During its demo, the program was 9.27 percent off of Life of Pi’s actual opening take and only 3.84 percent off for 2009’s Star Trek.
  • Several apps sought to make creating music and movies easier and more accessible. The browser-based audio editor MashTrax received appreciative applause from the audience for its easy-to-use recording and cutting features, as well as a special prize from home audio company Sonos, one of HHD’s sponsors.
  • Up and coming musicians lacking the connections or resources to build their own sites can use Artistsear.ch, which dynamically creates a stylish and informative web portal for any artist. Pulling in metadata from all over the web, Artistsear.ch is a one-stop destination that includes a streaming Rdio player, biographical and touring information, embedded music videos and links to purchase CDs elsewhere online.

Special recognition goes to SpotiCLI, which received API sponsor prizes from both Spotify and the email delivery service SendGrid. Perhaps the most purely geeky among the 37 apps presented, SpotiCLI allows users to access Spotify via a command-line interface (think: the text-based DOS from the pre-Windows days). If you don’t get a perverse pleasure out of ignoring the big round button in favor of typing “play” to listen to a song, you’re probably not a programmer.