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Interview: Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits – Part 2

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In the final installment of our two-part interview with Bill Hunt, the creator of The Digital Bits discusses his site’s landmark Alien Quadrilogy feature, the future of home video, and helping two of Flightpath’s favorite films get the special edition Blu-rays they deserve.

Flightpath: I wanted to ask about the Alien Quadrilogy feature. It was really rich with information and you seemed to get a level of access that I’d never seen before. How did that come about?

Bill Hunt: The backstory on that is, the producer of that set, Charles de Lauzirika, [became] a very good friend of mine. That happened because when the very first Alien was going to be released on DVD, I talked to the people I knew at Fox, and they said, “Next year we’re going to be doing our first special edition, and it’s going to be Alien.” And I put that news in The Rumor Mill on The Bits. I got an email within a couple of hours, basically, from this fella named Charlie, who said, “Listen, you don’t know me, but I’m an assistant. I work for Ridley Scott. I saw this news and I told Ridley, and he had no idea that Fox was going to be putting his movie out. He would love to be involved. He would love to do a director’s commentary and all that kind of stuff for it. So who do I contact to make that happen?”

Flightpath: That’s amazing.

Bill Hunt: Yeah. So I put them in touch with Fox and got them all talking together, and as a result of that, Charlie got his sort of first special edition producing job. And he’s of course since done some of the greatest special editions on both Blu-ray and DVD that have ever been done – Gladiator, Blade Runner, the Alien Quadrilogy, and the Blu-ray version of that – amazing, amazing work.

When he was just getting into that, we sort of hooked up and became friends. So when that Quadrilogy project began to happen, Doogan and I were writing a book about DVD. It was called The Digital Bits: Insider’s Guide to DVD. It was something you could take to the store, find out what the good discs were, and figure out how to hook up your DVD player and that kind of thing. And I wanted to do a feature on what it takes to put a really good special edition together, because I had never really seen anything like that. To me, a good special edition producer is almost like an archaeologist for one of these catalog films, because they’re going back in boxes and they’re interviewing people who worked on these films 20 years ago. It’s this kind of really in-depth research that’s involved. So I told Charlie, “Listen, I think it would be a great topic for a whole chapter of the book.” And he thought it was a great idea, so we went to Fox and said, “Can we have permission to do this? We’ll go behind-the-scenes for the year-and-a-half or whatever it takes to document it all, but we won’t put any of it on the website until the title gets announced – we weren’t going to leak secret information – but we’ll release it in the book. And then at a specific time, when the title gets announced, we’ll do a series of stories on the website.” And they agreed. It was amazing. They signed off on it. So literally, for a year-and-a-half, for every two or three weeks or whatever, I went to commentary recording sessions, and into the Fox archives to look at all the boxes of material. It was pretty extraordinary.

For the very original DVD release, I was at one of the sessions where they were doing the hi-def transfer for the original Alien. I was there in the capacity of doing that stuff [for the book], but also as a friend of Charlie. And it was riveting – sitting in the room with Ridley Scott when he was doing commentary. Ridley would be in the booth doing his commentary, and we’d take a break, and he’d come out and have a drink or something. It would be Charlie, the recording engineer, and Ridley and I, sitting in the room and we would just start talking about the films, and it was amazing. Then he would go back in and complete the commentary. We did that for all the actors involved – Tom Skerritt and all those people – and it was really amazing.

Flightpath: Did that lead to you doing advising on bonus features or anything like that?

Bill Hunt: We do a lot of that. It’s very often not credited stuff. I did get a credit on one of the Alien box sets and a couple of other things. But a lot of it is when the producers are working on these things, and then they have a question [like], “I’ve got two options [for bonus features],” or “I’ve got this content and this content but there’s only room for so much, and I’ve got to choose one.” That kind of thing. Producers or studio people will call me and ask my opinion about things.

A similar thing happened on the Blade Runner set when Charlie was in Warner Bros. working on the first DVD release. I was kind of behind-the-scenes on some stuff there too. These executives at Warner Bros., many of whom I’d known for years at that point, said, “We just don’t know about this. We’re really putting a lot of money and resources into it, but this is a film that has never sold well on any format. We just don’t know.” I turned to them and I said, “Trust me. You’re going to sell just so many copies of this, you’re not going to have any idea.” It was one of the first DVD titles that was ever released – in a real bare bones format – and nothing had been done with it since then. It was one of those legendary cult titles, so it was just ripe for that in-depth treatment.

And then there are a couple of titles that we have actually helped get on DVD. Synapse did a release of the Leni Riefenstahl film, The Triumph of the Will, that we kind of helped happen. And then there was another film called Six Days in Roswell, which was this great comedy/documentary that a friend of mine actually had directed, and he was looking for distribution on DVD. So we put him in touch with a company and sort of helped that happen. So every now and again, we do that.

There’s things that we say on the website and that we reveal, but there’s also a lot of things we hear and learn and information we’re given that we don’t reveal. It’s not necessarily to be controlling of information, or any kind of an ego thing. It’s just that, what we’ve learned over time is that with a lot of these special edition things, if information gets leaked too early, they can actually fall apart. Sometimes when a studio is planning to do a release, they haven’t contacted the director yet, or they haven’t contacted the actors yet. They plan to, but they haven’t done it yet, because they’re preparing the gameplan and trying to pull assets together. A couple of times it’s happened where information has gotten out early, and an actor or an actor’s agent has heard about it and said, “Well, they’re obviously going to be coming to us for something, so we’re going to jack up our price.” Whole titles have been scuttled because of leaks breaking out on the Internet. So we try to be careful not to say anything until a project is well underway. It’s a really interesting balancing act.

Flightpath: There are other sites – I won’t name them – that get into the game of posting spoilers for upcoming movies. I feel like that’s something you’ve resisted, or at least when you get to advance screenings, you’ll give your impressions of the film, but you try not to be a source of spoilers. Is that a conscious decision on your part?

Bill Hunt: Yeah. Very, very much so. I’m kind of a mixed-mind about spoilers. I remember as a kid, how amazing it was to see the ending of Empire Strikes Back and have to wait three years to get the answer to that, because there was no Internet, and magazines didn’t cover it very much. So, yeah, I definitely think those things shouldn’t be spoiled. When I see a theatrical screening of something, I’ll go on the website and review it or talk about it, but I very much try and just give an impression. When I do a little synopsis of the story, what I try and do is just set up the story. I don’t go through and do a recap of the whole thing and reveal everything. I just try to give people everything they really need to know to go in, and that’s it. Give them just enough to get them intrigued or get them interested, or tell them why it’s good, why they should go check it out, and that’s it. Let them go and see it themselves. That’s something we’ve always tried to do, is not ruin it for people.

Flightpath: Where do you see the industry going from here? It seems like the streaming wars are really heating up, and at the same time, they’re still trying to push Blu-ray.

Bill Hunt: Physical media is gonna be around for another 20 years, is my feeling. But what you’re gonna see is, is it’s gonna shift in importance. There’s an inevitable trend toward all-digital – streaming, downloading, that kind of thing – and I think that’s unavoidable, and that is gonna be the future, probably. But there will always be some physical media, in terms of like, a really gorgeous box set with nice packaging and all that, that our generation is going to continue wanting to buy. Physical media will still be around. How are old are CDs? You can still go to the store and buy CDs. We still have them, we still use them. So DVD and Blu-ray, I think, are gonna be around for awhile, and you’ll still be able to buy them. But they’ll be rarer and the importance of that will change toward the digital.

One of the great things about the disc format is, you know, you put the movie on there, and then you’ve got all this extra room. The tendency with the studio is, “Okay, we’ve got all this extra room. Let’s fill it up with good stuff.” You don’t have that concern with a download. There’s really not a lot of reason or incentive to include all of the extra ancillary bonus content as part of the download, because really, most people who download just want to see the movie. They don’t care about all the rest.

The other interesting thing I see happening is, I really kind of see the whole industry contracting in the same way that the music industry has. Look, you can charge $39.99 for a physical disc, and people will buy it. A lot of them will wait for a sale, but you can charge $39.99 for a physical disc. You can charge $99 for a box set. You can’t charge that for a download. At best, you’ll get maybe 10, 15 bucks for a download – at absolute best. So what will happen is, the amount of income coming in will go down. You can say, “It will be cheaper for people,” and all that jazz, and there’s certainly good aspects to it. But one of the concerns I have is, you’ll see a lot less extras; a lot of that stuff will go away. The amount of money coming into the studios from the DVD boom, a lot of that went right back into remastering and preserving and restoring the catalog. That’s kind of changing. A lot of studios are selling their catalogs. Disney let the Miramax catalog go. The financial value of the catalog right now – in a world where DVD is fading and Blu-ray is still only a percentage of DVD – is down. So, money isn’t being put into restoring films as much. Certainly, a big classic like Citizen Kane or Ben-Hur, is going to get the money to do a restoration. But, for example, with Godfather, Steven Spielberg had to step in and help pay for the restoration of the Godfather films. Paramount wasn’t all that interested in spending the money to restore those films. They needed restoration, and Steven Spielberg said, “Listen, I’m going to put money into this, because it’s important.”

One of our guys who occasionally writes for The Bits, Robert Harris, he’s also one of the greatest film restoration guys in the business. He did the restoration on Godfather, he did the restoration on Lawrence of Arabia. A dream project of his has been to restore the original road-show version of The Alamo, the John Wayne film, which is in terrible shape right now. It’s in absolutely terrible shape, and if a restoration isn’t done fairly soon, that film might get lost. That original version. There’s just no money. He’s been trying to get that project going forever, and there’s just no money. The studio’s just not willing to spend the money, and nobody’s stepping forward with the money, and it’s just a really complicated, political thing.

So, that’s kind of my concern. There’s a lot of advantages of digital. But with everything going digital…record stores, video stores, book stores are closing. There’s a whole sort of infrastructure that’s going away.

Flightpath: It’s like an ecosystem that gets effected just from the format change.

Bill Hunt: That’s absolutely right. In some ways there are good aspects of the downloading thing. And I get the convenience – I get all that – Netflix and stuff. But at the same time, it sort of feels like the golden age of this stuff has passed. And as things go more and more to the download side, it gets a lot less interesting for people like me. What we love covering is the special editions and the features and all this stuff, and that really is going to be less important going ahead.

Flightpath: I have one last question for you, and it’s related to this. I wanted to know if you could use your powers and your influence to get a special edition made of a movie that I feel really needs its due.

Bill Hunt: Sure. I do it all the time!

Flightpath: I don’t know if it’s something we would agree on or not, but it’s the Martin Short comedy, Clifford.

Bill Hunt: [Laughs] Nice!

Flightpath: It’s one of my all-time favorite movies.

Bill Hunt: This is part of what I do every day. People email me and say, “Hey, this movie should be out. It should be a special edition.” [Types on computer.] That is an MGM film. I will absolutely put in the good word with all the right people. I will tell you that the odds are really long. [Laughs] There’s a lot of titles that deserve special edition treatment.

Flightpath: Well, the other one I was going to say is Ghostbusters II. It’s also one of my favorite movies.

Bill Hunt: Oh, totally. The first Ghostbusters has been given a really good special edition, but II never was.

Flightpath: They kind of ignore it. It’s not even out on Blu-ray.

Bill Hunt: I think there’s a possibility of that. Clifford‘s a long shot. [Laughs] Ghostbusters II is more likely. But I will put in the good word.

Interview: Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits – Part 1

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For years, The Digital Bits has been a leading source of home video news, thoughtful reviews and industry discussion, developing a huge following among cinephiles and casual movie fans alike. From the beginning, it has been a champion of film restoration and presenting films with the best picture and sound possible; it helped establish the language of what constitutes quality bonus features; and it has an uncanny ability to offer smart film and disc critiques while addressing the technical aspects of DVDs and Blu-rays in an easy-to-understand manner. Today, its review archive is a treasure trove of insights and information on film and home video releases. In part one of our interview with Bill Hunt, creator of The Digital Bits, we discuss why he launched the site, the events that helped it make gains in popularity, and his new role as Star Wars therapist.

Flightpath: Can you talk a little bit about your life prior to The Digital Bits, and what led you to start the site?

Bill Hunt: Well, I’m originally from North Dakota, and I studied film at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. And right out of that, rather than getting into film, I actually got into video production. Did a lot of corporate stuff. I lived in Minneapolis for awhile after college and did a lot of directing and editing of corporate videos – training things, that sort of stuff. And that actually brought me out to California. In kind of a sideways way, I was doing video out here, and once I was out here I thought that maybe I’d establish some contacts in the film industry, and maybe see if I can’t put my foot in those waters and get involved there.

The interesting thing is that I actually became friends with a lot of people who worked at the studios. I’ve always been really interested in the technology of home video – video technology, film technology – and so when DVD was being developed, I had a lot of contacts at the studios, and so I was following it really closely and I was learning a lot of interesting behind-the-scenes things about the technology. At the time, like many film enthusiasts, I was a big LaserDisc fan. I kind of thought, for quite awhile, that a movie disc format with discs the same size as a CD would probably be a huge hit if it happened. That wasn’t necessarily the prevailing wisdom in Hollywood. There were a lot of people, very early on, who didn’t think that was going to be the case – people that I talked to at the studios.

But when it became clear that DVD was happening, they were developing a format, I started writing about it. I was using EarthLink at the time and I had a free homepage.

Flightpath: And what year was this?

Bill Hunt: This was ’97. Real, real early. When I would talk to these folks at the studios, I would put on this EarthLink site the interesting information I’d heard from them – what discs were being planned, what the technology was all about, what studios were going to be supporting the format. That sort of thing. It initially started as like, an email newsletter that I sent to a few friends, and then I moved that to the EarthLink site. But then within a month, EarthLink called me up and said, “You’re getting way too much traffic. You need to do this as a business.” Because what was happening was, there was really nobody covering DVD. Even Variety and Hollywood Reporter weren’t covering it. Video enthusiasts – Videographer and magazines like that – were sort of talking about it a little bit. But really, there was nobody who was diving into it, especially online. It was a time when there were very few websites devoted to this stuff.

So what was happening was, I was posting this information online, and all the Hollywood people who worked at the studios and the movie directors whose movies were potentially being considered for DVD, and just the whole Hollywood community, jumped on board, and just the whole enthusiast community jumped on board, and traffic just went crazy. So, within a month I bought a domain name and started doing The Digital Bits. I ended up quitting my job doing video production, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

Flightpath: Where’d you get the name from?

Bill Hunt: You know, it’s interesting. I was trying to come up with something that wouldn’t be obvious, which is both good and bad, because obviously on the Internet, if you want to read DVD news or Blu-ray news, you search “DVD” or “Blu-ray.” But my thinking was that everything was going digital. All these things were moving from analog to digital, so digital had to be in the name. And “bits” just seemed like bits of news, bits of information, and it tied into the actual binary bits of digital information. And it all just kinda worked, and it’s good because a lot of other DVD websites have come and gone or had to rebrand themselves later. And we are still plugging away.

Flightpath: What were some of the tougher learning curves in launching the site yourself and developing it? Because as you said, there just wasn’t much around at that time.

Bill Hunt: Yeah, there really wasn’t. Just learning how to build a website – and this was of course, ’97, which was very, very early, so it was very early HTML – that was definitely a learning curve. And it’s still a learning curve, because after I got it up and running, it took off so quickly that I’ve never had a chance to go back and redesign. So I’m actually, right now, doing a redesign that will take The Bits from sort of the original HTML model into blog, database-driven content. Yeah, so I’m just now doing that. And the reason is because, in addition to being the web guy, I was the reporter; I was the main contact with all the studios. So there just was never enough time, and that’s what I’m doing now.

Flightpath: I was going to ask about that. That’s one thing I always kind of liked about The Digital Bits. I feel like I’ve been visiting it as long as I’ve been interested in DVDs and movies, but you know, it’s always kind of felt the same. I’m not saying this to discourage you, but I’ve always liked that you seemed to resist the sometimes knee-jerk reaction of websites to redesign every year.

Bill Hunt: Yeah. It was both purposeful and not. One of the reasons it’s taken so long to work on a redesign, is because one of the things I hate about a lot of websites these days is that the blog format tends to really McNugget everything. I used to read the old music magazines – Crawdaddy and those kind of magazines, and the LaserDisc Newsletter, and some of those things – and one of the things I liked is that you’d get one long column in which the person would go from one topic to another, and kind of tie them together, and give you a little context. And so you’d get lots of news, but you’d also get some background information, and you kind of would see how it all fits together. You also got some personality, because there was room to add a little personality to it. That’s kind of always the way I wanted to write and the way I’ve always done The Bits. The problem is, when you go to the blog-driven format, the tendency is for every single piece of news to become a news McNugget. And so you get like 20 posts a day versus one or two good, long, substantial ones. The struggle has been to try and figure out how to adapt to the blog format without losing that personality. You know, everyone is trying to drive up hits and drive up content, and the more posts you do, the more hits you get. So there’s that theory. But my feeling is that, the people who like The Bits and who have stuck with us over the years, like The Bits for what we don’t do as much as for what we do. [Laughs] It’s like you say, there’s personality and we don’t do the McNuggeting. I have no desire to take a press release that I get from a studio about a Blu-ray release and just copy and paste it, and upload it and call that a post. Anybody can do that; it’s just not very interesting.

Flightpath: The problem with shorter content is that you can’t inject as much personality, or really, thought, into something.

Bill Hunt: I think that’s absolutely right. I mean, the news is everywhere. There are a hundred websites that are posting this kind of news. But what people tend to come to us for is perspective, so that’s what we try to bring to it.

So that’s been a challenge. And then I would say that the other challenge has been sort of the business side. Trying to figure out how to dive into the advertising model, and selling advertising and dealing with the other side of the studio – the ad buyers and the media people. One of the most challenging aspects of that has been that in the film industry, at the studios, there’s just a gigantic revolving door. So people go from one of the PR agencies to one of the studios, and then they go back to another studio, and then they go back to a PR agency. So it’s this constant churn of different people you’re dealing with.

Flightpath: Are you doing all of it? Those are very different hats to wear: creative and business.

Bill Hunt: I do a little of each of it. My wife, Sarah, does a lot of the business-end now. I really tend to focus on content and looking behind-the-scenes in the industry, maintaining those contacts, and doing reporting on those issues. We have columnists. For example, Barrie Maxwell, who does our classics column, reviews all the different formats but from a classic film perspective. Adam Jahnke does a lot of our more eclectic, more offbeat things. There’s also Tim Salmons, Todd Doogan, Jeff Kleist, Mark Altman and a few others who cover different things. And another good friend of mine, Matt Rowe, started a site called MusicTAP. So we partner with him on music content. We try and spread things around. But my whole day is spent answering emails, answering inquiries, talking to people in the studios, talking to DVD producers and special edition producers. That really is, I would say, the lion’s share of my day. And that’s hours, some days.

Flightpath: The Digital Bits launched way prior to things like Facebook, Google+ and social media. What did you do to try and spread the word?

Bill Hunt: The answer is we did almost nothing. The real advantage was that we were doing this before anyone else was really doing it, so there were very few other places to go. There were a few other good websites: DVDFile happened around the same time, plus DVD Review, Home Theater Forum. And Steve Tannehill’s DVD Resource Page was doing its thing. There were a handful that started around that time, but we were fortunate to be among the first. So everybody in that group, in that interest field, knew who we were, and it kind of spread via word of mouth within the industry and within the enthusiast community. And then certainly that was helped by the fact that we were right in the thick of the original format war, which was DVD versus DivX.

Flightpath: Yes! I still don’t understand DivX.

Bill Hunt: [Laughs] It was so ridiculous. We actually broke the news of DivX. We were the first publication, in print or anywhere, to reveal that Disney and Fox, for example, were going to adopt this format called DivX, which was sort of a pay-per-view flavor of DVD. And then we actually contacted DivX, and within a couple of weeks, we actually went to DivX and did a really substantial feature on the technology. We gave it a very fair shake, originally, and reported all the details of what it was and how it was intended to work and what it meant. After that, we sort of did a separate thing and said, “Well, here’s what we think about it.” And it really just kind of took off from there.

Flightpath: Related to that, was there a specific review or a feature that you ran, which really turned the corner for the website?

Bill Hunt: I would definitely say the DivX thing did, because that format war supercharged interest. Interest was really picking up, in terms of DVD, at the time. That topic just absolutely went everywhere. It was all over mainstream media. Attention coming to DVD was really [borne] out of that controversy about this format war. So I would say that.

And then also, when the Star Wars special editions came back to theaters, which I think was ’97, there was talk that those were the obvious movies to bring to DVD. Those are the movies that everybody would want. And I think it was in 2000 when The Phantom Menace came out, there was this controversy – it came out on VHS, it came out on LaserDisc, but it wasn’t on DVD. It was a huge thing. It’s like, [George] Lucas is very progressive about technology, and these are obvious films to bring out. And so we, along with several other websites, did this whole Star Wars-on-DVD campaign. And Lucasfilm took notice, and they basically said, “We’re gonna do it.” And a year later they put out Episode I on DVD. So we were covering that, and that also was a big landmark event for the site.

But I guess – probably the biggest thing that’s really helped The Bits grow over the years is that we’ve just assembled a really great group of columnists. I mentioned some of them earlier and there have been others as well that made key contributions and moved on. But for example, Todd Doogan coming on board and bringing his experience as a laserdisc reviewer and his time at TNT’s Roughcut – that was a big deal. Adam Jahnke – who started as a writer for Troma – brings a really refreshing and unique expertise and writing style to the site in his Bottom Shelf and Jahnke’s Electric Theatre columns. And Barrie’s passion and knowledge of classic films is as strong and deep as anyone I know. Each of our writers comes from a different place and a different perspective, but we’re all of very similar mind in terms of our love of this stuff and what we’re trying to accomplish. These guys are a big part of The Bits’ success and popularity. Even more importantly for me though, is that they’ve all become really great friends. Hell, they’re like family at this point. So I guess that’s really the thing I’ve gained and appreciate most from The Bits over the years – the friendships with them and others in the industry.

Flightpath: You mentioned Star Wars…it’s funny, because I’m a Star Wars nerd. And I feel like, reading your review of the Blu-rays and all the Star Wars releases where Lucas makes changes to the films, you almost have to act as a therapist for Star Wars fans.

Bill Hunt: [Laughs] It’s really true. It is true. And the funny thing about that is, I’ve said a couple of times, even in my reviews, is that I’m the same way. I grew up with those films; they had a huge impact on my life. It’s taken me years to learn how to sort of separate my practical, just common sense perspective, from the feelings I have connected to Star Wars. But having done that, having been able to do that, now I find that a lot of other people still aren’t able to do that. [Laughs] So in my review, I just try and say, “There’s good and bad here, but it’s not the end of the world. This isn’t rocket science, it’s not brain surgery. The films look good.” There is an aspect of that.

The other interesting thing about this website – tied to both format wars, tied to Star Wars, tied to you name it – is that I get hundreds of emails a day from people. Just readers who have questions or who want help. One of the things I tried to do very early on was to keep The Bits very focused at sort of a mass audience. Widescreen Review is a great publication, but you have to be a real expert and enthusiast to really appreciate all the detail it’s going into. My goal was to always say, “Okay, I want to do two things. I want to expose people who are new to DVD or Blu-ray to the technology, and explain it to them in a way that they can understand, and help them to appreciate it, to get the most enjoyment out of it. And then on other side of the coin, I want to expose people to a lot of films that they maybe haven’t seen before.” One of the greatest things that ever happened to me was in college, as a film major. Growing up in North Dakota, I didn’t have a chance to see a lot of foreign films, or independent films, or art house films. And suddenly, I was a projectionist for the film department, and I was watching [Akira] Kurosawa and Sergio Leone and [Federico] Fellini. That was just an amazing time for me – discovering all these great movies from around the world. So, what I was trying to do, was sort of bring my love of those things to people who may never have seen a [Stanley] Kubrick film or a Fellini film, and say, “You know, you might really be interested in this, and here’s why.”

We didn’t want to talk to the in-crowd, necessarily. We wanted to talk to everybody. We wanted to get everybody into the fold and let everybody share in the fun. Because of that though, we’ve developed a readership where, whenever they have a question or an issue, they start emailing. [Laughs] So, you know, half my morning is spent just going through emails and trying to answer as many as I can.

Flightpath: With great power comes great responsibility.

Bill Hunt: [Laughs] I guess so. I guess so. And the other fun thing about the site is, the longer we’ve been doing it, people just sort of feel like they know you. It feels like a family, to a degree. People have no problem emailing and talking about stuff, I think, because we do put a little bit of our personality into the site. They feel like they know who we are.

Be sure to come back later this week for part 2 of our interview with Bill Hunt!