What does blockchain mean for Hollywood? Web3’s quest to create a New Golden Age of cinema

Mark Fielding
July 10, 2022

Mark Fielding journeys through the nascent film3 sector and, scouting both innovation and areas on which to improve, explores the ways that film and web3 have the potential to be a truly impactful and innovative combination.

“Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul.”

— Marilyn Monroe

Sorry Marilyn, but for all the kisses, Hollywood is more like an oil tanker. It’s not that it's dank, hot, and funded by nefarious megalomaniacs, but rather that it's difficult to change course. Anyone who has watched the dream factory rely on brute force over agility during the digital transformation over the past twenty-five years can attest to that. One of Hollywood’s earliest attempts to stem the flood of peer-to-peer streaming and retain control of distribution was to sue children for a hundred thousand dollars. When that failed – and the ensuing explosion of online streaming sites jeopardised the billion dollar apple cart – studios doubled down on the financial guarantee of sequels (117 currently in development) and superhero movies. It worked, but now web3 is making an appearance on Hollywood the disrupt the dream makers.

A Fistful of Dollars

James Cameron outliers aside, the average Hollywood movie costs $125 million to produce. Indie filmmakers, by contrast, jostle in the dust. According to the American Film Market, the average independent movie costs between $10,000 and $1 million to make. Chump change. Money has always pushed independent filmmakers to the fringes, scrambling for funding, scrambling for distribution, scrambling for survival.

Web3 is oft touted as a solution to this imbalance; NFTs a funding mechanism to nullify the studio dominance that has existed since Nestor Studios first opened its doors in 1911; DAOs a governance model to disrupt who writes, directs, and stars in the film.

It was Thursday, it was raining, and I had just watched Top Gun: Maverick. I felt… cheated, and decided to find out what this web3 alternative looked like. I was immediately caught in a tweetstorm of excitement. Everyone was screaming about paradigm shifts, new eras, change, and freedom.

“We’re at the forefront,” they shouted. “Breaking ground, creating a new cinematic world of storytelling, and vision and IP ownership in the hands of the creators. The traditional Hollywood funding model is dead, dead, dead.”

“My prediction is that within 2 years, nearly every movie will have an NFT fundraising element.”

Some are getting very excited about the about the potential for web3 films to take over Hollywood.

Every screenwriter is told to show, not tell. The audience demands action, not exposition. Claiming the future of Hollywood is a decentralised storytelling utopia is one thing, but who was filming this paradigm shift? I typed ‘web3 NFT movie’ into Google…

… and was immediately asked to hand over £1,100 for an NFT (€1,250/$1,280). Oh yeah, NFTs. Rather than click away, I read on; they wanted me to become co-producer after all. The film was called Plush, the first animated feature-length film to be funded by NFTs. £1,100 might sound like a lot, but co-producers would split an 80% share of worldwide box office profits. Hurrah! Count me in. But then I remembered that 8 out of 10 movies never make a profit. That still gave me a 20% chance of making 80% of something – and something is better than nothing, even if there was an 80% chance it would be nothing.

Plush is the first animated feature-length film financed by an NFT collection.

Details, details. I didn’t invest in Plush, and carried on. Next up was Flinch, an NFT film franchise that gives the community "governance, access, and value". Their mission? “Replace the movie studio with an NFT community that has ownership over a movie franchise.” World changing ambition, but a suspiciously lousy website.

What I really wanted was cerebral yet psychedelic, counter-culture for the web3 counter-culture. To forge a reconfiguration of the movie industry, perhaps first you must reconfigure society. I needed a Merry Prankster and my luck was in. We Are As Gods was a documentary about Steward Brand, the legendary, environmentalist and technologist funded, by minting NFTs on Mirror, the NFT blogging platform. They raised 56 eth (around £57,000 or $69,000) and premiered SXSW 2021, accompanied by an original score by Brian Eno and backed by Stripe Press. Serious business.

“Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.”

— Stewart Brand

I hadn’t taken acid, but I was buzzing for web3. The excitement was backed up with writers, movie producers, and actors building the future of cinema. The more I searched, the more movies I found. There was Callidita, a feature film in pre-production, written and directed by Miguel Faus. Reinforcements came, first from Ash Valley, then Hourglass, the latter a short film about a man who, after getting locked in an "ominous" library, “encounters three manifestations of his inner psyche and soon finds that he needs to sacrifice a part of himself or risk losing it all.” We’ve all been there.

Was I getting carried away? Reality check. These projects were experimental and almost destined to fail – nearly all films do. Ironically, what was missing was… Hollywood. Revolution is best served from the inside and I didn’t believe these movies had the pulling power to change the multi-billion dollar culture of Hollywood alone.

Much like NBA Top Shot and the big-name musicians dropping on LimeWire, film3 needs some shiny bright stars of the red carpet who had turned their backs on the existing model. Tarantino was interested in new mediums, but his NFT project had deteriorated into the ether. I didn’t expect to find his equals, but did find his support band.

“This town needs disruption, and I think we have found a way to do it.”

— Neil Juul

Neil Juul was Executive Producer on Martin Scorcese’s The Irishman and Silence, as well as the upcoming Michael Mann biopic Enzo Ferrari. Not George Clooney, but a very good start. "This town needs disruption, and I think we have found a way to do it," he says, referring of course to the hallowed ground of Hollywood and the NFT newcomers. Neil co-founded NFT Studios, a decentralised film studio that aims to establish itself "not only as an industry pioneer, but as an industry thought leader, merging the structures of traditional film production with the new possibilities now achievable through DAOs."

A Wing and a Prayer, the first movie from NFT Studios, has already been released. It told the true story of Brian Milton. Do you know who Brian Milton was? I didn’t either, but he's an interesting character. Milton retraced Phileas Fogg’s round-the-world trip in a microlight. Captain America never did that.

Don't take it from me, take it from Kevin Smith. “This is where I see a big storytelling future. I’m not saying Hollywood is dead, or the old system is dead. But if somebody opens up a new playground, just because you’re familiar with the old one, itdoesn’t mean you don’t go down the slide in the new playground.” Kevin Smith made Clerks, Mallrats, Dogma, Chasing Amy, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. He released his latest movie Killroy Was Here as an NFT collection and told CoinDesk his movie would “be its own self-thriving franchise within the world of crypto and NFTs, without ever having to step outside of the blockchain.”

He may not be able to speak Welsh, but Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins has taken the NFT plunge too. His film was called Zero Contact, a low-budget thriller that was shot – as one presumes Avatar 2 was – over Zoom during Covid. Perhaps inspired by his friend Snoop Dogg's metaverse, Kevin Hart is deep down the web3 rabbit hole, and he’s the hardest working actor in Hollywood. From Hart’s Twitter feed I learned Reese Witherspoon, another Oscar winner, has a production company called Hello Sunshine, investing in films that feature female-led NFT collections, whilst Sir Ridley Scott is using NFTs to fund The Infinity Machine, a film about Vitalik Buterin, NFTs, and the rise of Ethereum.

I had legitimate proof that Hollywood heavyweights were experimenting – as they should be – and was once again enthused by web3’s potential to change the script. It wasn’t necessarily a new golden age of cinema, but definitely a movement.

The never ending story

Disney, Paramount, Sony, Universal, and Warner Bros control 79% of the movie market in North America; Europe is scarcely different. That’s depressing. How many people in the world can green-light a Hollywood movie? Twenty? Thirty? Whatever the answer is, it’s not enough.

Rather than five studios dictating what we all watch and who makes it, in web3 there could be hundreds – thousands even – of small communities all making films. If the story plays out as intended, not only will fans be able to get the film made, but they’ll be able to write the script, help choose the director and actors, and vote on whether the caterers serve prawn cocktail or smoked tofu at lunch.

Mathew Lillard, one of the murderers in the first Scream movie, co-created The Midnight Movie Club, a decentralised studio where the community decides which projects are funded and who directs them. Moviecoin has a similar vision, using the DeFi protocol Uniswap to fund investment rather than NFTs.

“We strongly believe this model can be an alternative to traditional Hollywood funding,” says Jennifer Esposito, whose NFT film Fresh Kills lets fans influence character-driven content. “It will enable new voices to be heard and seen across entertainment that haven’t had the same opportunity.”

I had taken the blue pill and cast aside any doubts I harbored about NFTs. Speaking of rabbits, White Rabbit is the first IP to debut on Shibuya, a decentralised film distribution platform where holders vote on what direction a film takes. It is this engagement with the movie making process, having an influence on the storytelling and production, that is the most interesting shift fuelled by web3. That £1,100 for a Plush NFT was suddenly much more inviting.

The most recent vote in the Shibuya community chose the Fox to "take the lead", over the Drop or the Lady. We don't know precisely what that means, but that's partly the point. "On to Chapter 3."

Back to the future

I went back and read the Midnight Movie Club whitepaper. Not only would holders get to choose which films they would make, but they would receive exclusive content (live AMAs, audition tapes, and tours of the set), IRL experiences, and access to a community of like-minded film nerds. Even if the movie bombed, the investment could still hold great personal value. A story for the kids. Moviecoin promised ‘profits forever’ and the lowest barrier to entry for an investor in the movie industry. My editor has just told me that half of our readers don't have kids, so I'll mention the Nite School instead, an online campus with AMAs, courses, and on-the-ground film-making lessons.

Indeed, what about the film-makers themselves? Could web3 help screenwriters and directors from underserved and underprivileged communities, shunned by the existing Hollywood model of guaranteed gains and safe choice, break through? Can it give them a platform for their art?

Jordan Bayne, founder of the NFT Film Squad, has coined the term 'film3' to describe this ecosystem of movie-minded creators. Julie Pacino is a fan. I was so deep into film3 Twitter that it was easy to find the trailblazers. Decentralized Pictures, a non-profit organisation founded by Roman Coppola (son of Francis Ford), Leo Matchett, and Michael Musante is combining traditional crowdfunding with their own cultural blockchain and token to empower a community of writers, producers, and directors. It was immersive, collaborative, artistic. Anyone on the platform could be a creative contributor, reviewing movies, evaluating scripts, moderating the platform, and resolving community disputes.

“Through the use of our platform currency, FILMCredits, and powered by incentive mechanisms, our ecosystem enables decentralised participation, crowdsourced curation, and, eventually, autonomous financing. In doing so, it creates an alternative to the traditional system that defines the film industry today.”

In Hollywood, too few people make too many decisions. Web3 provides independent filmmakers, storytellers, and voices with the resources and opportunities to fund films in an innovative way. It gives talent that would never get close to Hollywood via traditional channels an opportunity that can soon become the dream factory's equal. I’m not sure democratic is the right word – and a golden era it certainly isn’t, for now – but web3 opens the doors on a fairer, more enlightened, and more diverse movie making industry. But will it make good films? Cameras are rolling.

“We have developed the MMC Nite School, which will offer the community valuable film-making resources without the crippling tuition fees.”

— Midnite Movie Club

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Driven by an acute awareness that the internet experience of his children will be vastly different to his own, Mark writes about emerging technology, particularly artificial intelligence and blockchain, with one eye always on the future. As an independent writer, he explores web3 for LVMH, metaverse events of RLTY, and writes gaming stories and lore for the highest bidder.

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