In 2009, much of the world saw the extent of professional rally driver Ken Block’s talent with the release of the first Gymkhana video. For anyone unfamiliar with the concept of Gymkhana, imagine the high-speed precision tricks and stunts you see performed by street-style skateboarders, but with a rally car.
To date, Block has been front and center for eight more Gymkhana films, which have garnered over half a billion views on YouTube.
In 2010, Block and Brian Scotto, long-time editor of award-winning automotive magazine 0-60, professionally joined forces to create Hoonigan, a brand that has now become synonymous with the lifestyle of car fanatics all over the world. Scotto serves as the brand’s chief creative officer, and has been behind the camera for the duration of Gymkhana’s decade-long run as a viral hit.
On Friday, fans of the brand will see Hoonigan’s next step as a brand and as a media production entity: the release of “The Gymkhana Files” on Amazon Prime Video.
“It’s kind of crazy for us because Hoonigan has grown so much, especially in the past couple of years,” Scotto reflected. “When we started, there wasn’t a cool brand which had a young kind of attitude to it and encompassed automotive enthusiasts in the way that DC Shoes (Block’s previous company) did for skateboarding and snowboarding.”
The first step in Hoonigan creating its desired image was through apparel — an avenue very familiar for Block.
Scotto and Block wanted a look that people would immediately mentally attach to racing and the rally-car subculture. As Scotto can attest, the long-term plan for Hoonigan was always bigger than simply being an apparel company. After a lengthy career in media and the success of the first Gymkhana films, Scotto and Block recognized that they could push the brand further with their respective skills by creating content for YouTube and other platforms.
“We never wanted to call it a clothing company or an apparel company because we always wanted to be more than just the product label,” Scotto says. “We weren’t really sure of where that was going to go. So, we just referred to it always as an automotive lifestyle brand, which is super vague, but it was vague for a reason. We knew we wanted to grow out of it. We weren’t going to go back into traditional media to help promote our brand. Instead, we began to create our own media.”
The media production wing of Hoonigan became known as Hoonigan Media Machine in 2016. In addition to the content promoting its own products, Hoonigan Media Machine has worked with brands like Ford, Can-Am, and Edelbrock to reach the coveted 18-34 age demographic. The success in that area has allowed the team to grow from about eight employees in 2016 to 35 now.
“We’re around 1.7 billion minutes of watch-time on YouTube,” Scotto said. “We’re putting up pretty substantial numbers that are competing with major TV networks. View-duration data tells us that 70 percent of the time, people are watching the whole video too. That’s what we really pride ourselves on. We aren’t generating just a clickbait-type viewership where people watch for a few seconds. Our viewers are becoming a part of the culture.”
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In creating Gymkhana films, the Hoonigan team has learned how to create a series of viral hits not quite like any other stunt videos out there. Scotto claims that the inspiration for these came mostly from skateboarding videos and sports highlights, with some small influence from action movies.
“We wanted to take that skate-video style, which is high action,” he said. “But there’s also this reverence to it, and it’s more about the moment than the camera work. The number-one thing to tell people is ‘don’t film the way Hollywood films. Shoot it the way you would with football games. You have to have all your cameras on all the same time, and it doesn’t matter if one of your cameras sees another camera because you’re there to capture a moment. You’re not there to manufacture.'”
That isn’t to say that Scotto and Block don’t like to add a little extra movie flair to the Gymkhana films. For example, look at the time the guys shut down the Golden Gate Bridge for a stunt in “Gymkhana Five” or the homage to O.J. Simpson’s white Bronco chase in “Gymkhana Seven.”
“We want these to be entertaining so that people connect to it and pass it along,” Scotto added. “Those things are a huge difference between making content that’s viral, versus making content for television. Our viewership is entirely based on you watching it and thinking it’s so good that you want other people to watch it.”
Hoonigan has recently moved onto other platforms as well to follow its target audience. In addition to the recent launch of a Twitch channel, the brand has partnered with Amazon Prime Video for “The Gymkhana Files,” a documentary series shedding light on both the history and rise of Gymkhana, as well as the making of Block and Scotto’s latest Gymkhana film, “Gymkhana Ten.”
“The Gymkhana Files” will run for eight episodes, with two episodes released per week. The last episode, set for release on December 7, will include an early look at “Gymkhana Ten” before it is posted on YouTube three days later.
The new show will be a departure from what the Hoonigan team usually does as it will allow audiences to peek behind the curtain at what goes into conceptualizing and shooting these high-speed stunts.
“We didn’t want to do a reality TV show. It just not what we wanted,” Scotto remarked. “The idea here was to really tell a story of creatively putting stuff together and all the struggles that go with it and not manufacturing fake drama around it. That was always our fear of working with a network. But then when we talked to the folks at Amazon, we realized that they were going to give us a lot of creative freedom and the ability to tell the story the way we wanted to.”
You may be thinking to yourself, “I’m not a car person, so I think I’m out on this.” Scotto urges people to not jump to that conclusion, though, as there are still lessons to be learned from the process shown in the series, particularly for aspiring digital creatives.
“We wanted to do something that would serve our core audience, but at the same time would be extremely entertaining to an outsider. If you’re not into cars, you would still appreciate it from the fact that there’s this struggle of people who are trying to create something,” Scotto stated.
“We’ve never told people what our secret sauce was, like we did here. We’ve shied away from doing behind-the-scenes films and even doing interviews about the process, mainly because we didn’t want anyone to be able to replicate us. We really want it to be in a position where we held a monopoly on that type of film. And, and to this day, we still do. There’s not another automotive viral video that’s even close to the numbers that we’ve created with the Gymkhana series.”
Shooting “The Gymkhana Files” was an intricate operation. A year of filming with five different cars and five different locations later, sports fans, car enthusiasts, and filmmaking nerds alike have something truly unique to check out with this show. As complex and compelling a piece of content as it is, Scotto reminds himself and fans what these films are: commercials and incredible stunts.
“I always joke to people, like, Amazon just made a TV show about people making an advertisement because Gymkhana is basically an annual advertisement for Ken’s sponsors. But at the end of the day it is branded content. It’s kind of cool that we’ve built the show, but they funded a show about us creating advertisements and being able to do fun work in the advertising world.”