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NBCUniversal Hackathon: Fresh Eyes Tackle Industry Challenges

Nerds help us.

Photo by: Rachel Murray/NBC

The challenges are familiar to everyone in the entertainment business: How do you create buzz for a new film release? How do you help movie buffs discover what film to watch next? And how can you keep audiences talking about a show during the off season?

Comcast’s NBCUniversal* group chose an unusual way to bring fresh eyes to these problems: It asked nerds.

The studio invited about 300 developers, marketers and designers to tackle seven challenges over the course of a weekend hackathon, offering the lures of free food, caffeinated beverages and $25,000 in cash prizes. Some who showed up at the Sheraton Universal City in Los Angeles on a gray Saturday morning said they were just as intrigued by the opportunity to lay their hands on tools for building software applications.

“This is my chance to get them to help me. It’s like having a private tutor,” said Mat Tyndall, founder and chief executive of the San Francisco startup Tinj, which is developing a new type of rating system for viewers. “That’s one of the reasons I came to the hackathon in the first place.”

Such gatherings of programmers, who meet over the weekend in crash collaborations, are commonplace in Silicon Valley or New York. In Hollywood, though, these marathon coding sessions double as a recruitment tool for media companies that struggle to compete for top talent with sexy startups like Snapchat and Whisper, or established technology players Google or Facebook.

Longtime media consultant Mike Vorhaus of Frank N. Magid Associates said the main draw for entertainment companies has been stability and a reliable paycheck. That’s no longer true at a time when major studios such as Sony Pictures Entertainment or Warner Bros. are undergoing layoffs.

“That’s a problem for a traditional media company,” Vorhaus said.

NBCUniversal Media Labs Chief Technical Officer Sanjay Macwan said the hackathon is part of a broader plan of fostering a culture of innovation, in part, through collaboration. He has solicited input from academic research groups such as the MIT Media Lab, and visited Los Angeles’s incubators and accelerators to identify the region’s top talent.

The hackathon allowed NBCUniversal executives to work side by side with these outside innovators — developers, designers, venture capitalists. The company’s first hackathon in New York this summer yielded an idea that NBC plans to implement next year — and three hires.

“It’s best to engage those best minds to create a richer consumer experience,” Macwan said. “A hackathon is a vehicle that helps us do that very effectively.”

The winning entry from the Los Angeles event, “Top 3 I Want to See,” creates a simple way for consumers to use Fandango to share their top movie choices — and in the process, serve as film marketers.

* NBCUniversal is a minority investor in Revere Digital, Recode’s parent company.

Updated at 3:15 p.m. Thursday to correct the spelling of Mat Tyndall’s name.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.