If you’re under 45 and lived in Washington during the Obama years, there’s a good chance you have a mental image of a typical Brightest Young Things event. An Olympic swimming pool’s worth of PBR. Thousands of millennials dancing their butts off. And balloon sculptures. Definitely balloon sculptures.
But if that’s the extent of your interactions with the nightlife website turned event producer turned corporate-branding consultancy, you might be a bit surprised to hear about BYT’s latest project: an ambitious true-crime festival, called Death Becomes Us, that capitalizes on the surge of interest in murder-mystery stories like Serial and Mindhunter.
On November 3 and 4, the festival will bring authors, podcast creators, and TV personalities to Lisner Auditorium for an examination of murder most fun. Among the participants will be BuzzFeed Unsolved and How Did This Get Made?: True Crime Edition, and BYT is in talks with authors such as David Grann and Harold Schechter as well as streaming-video outlets.
So how does this undertaking connect to BYT’s less tweedy events? “Everything is content, right?” says the group’s cofounder, a former architect named Svetlana Legetic who, after 12 years as the company’s head coach, is contemplating how to take BYT to the next level. “That’s what I tell everyone—all we do is content.” But, she says, “a lot of our content has moved away from the let’s-have-fun-tonight kind of vibe.”
That process really started with the Bentzen Ball, an annual comedy festival that BYT has produced with comic Tig Notaro since 2009. The event has grown into a favorite for both audiences and performers, who are attracted to what Legetic describes as “a four-day comedy camp without the pressure of selling 1,200 tickets or whatever typically comes with coming to DC and sitting in a hotel room alone.” This year, Bentzen is making a bit of a political statement by inviting only female and non-binary headliners to perform.
The Death festival will be BYT’s most ambitious project yet. Legetic spent much of May traveling between DC and New York, selling potential participants on the idea of a crime festival aimed at the same kind of “interested and interesting,” as she puts it, audiences who have made the Bentzen Ball such a success. “The goal is to build something that feels like an intersection of pop culture and true crime,” Legetic says. Another goal: to prove that Brightest Young Things can mature into a business with broader appeal—still bright, of course, but maybe no longer quite so young.
A lot of our content has moved away from the let’s-have-fun-tonight kind of vibe.
There’s no sign on the door to BYT’s light-filled one-room office in a coworking space overlooking McPherson Square, just a large sticker that reads MYSPACE.COM: A PLACE FOR FRIENDS. It’s a joking reference to the company’s origins on Legetic’s Myspace page in 2005, before BYT became a Blogspot site based around a calendar of fun things to do, then a standalone publication. “The goal was to always feel like a friendship” with readers, Legetic says, and that feeling of intimacy connected with locals looking for excitement in an increasingly busy nightlife scene. It didn’t take long for BYT to evolve into a proper web publication covering the Washington arts scene.
The group threw its first party the night Obama was elected in 2008, and soon the events operation took off. BYT’s parties at the Phillips Collection, the National Geographic Museum, and various Smithsonians helped popularize the idea of after-hours museum events, which now happen all over town. Most recently, it turned the Air and Space Museum into a tribute to 2001: A Space Odyssey, complete with a monolith made of balloons, and June saw the opening party for Capital Pride, featuring lasers, DJs, and performers from several continents.
One of Legetic’s savviest moves has been packaging BYT’s millennial pull for corporate clients who crave access to young urban consumers, and the company has done creative consulting work for REI, Red Bull, and Lululemon, among others. It’s a healthy revenue stream, and BYT now has eight full-time employees and turns a profit, all without ever having taken on investors or loans. In many ways, it’s one of the city’s most punk businesses.
But ultimately, BYT’s success is due to one thing: Washingtonians just dig what it does. “I think there has to be a sense of discovery about everything,” Legetic says. “If you don’t learn about something new or find something new or try something new at a BYT event, we’re not doing our job.”
This article appeared in the July 2018 issue of Washingtonian.