Can Web3 Remake Hollywood?
The founders of ToonStar left comfortable jobs at Warner Bros. to make a bet on Web3 entertainment. Can they make fan-driven storytelling work where others haven't? Jeff Wilser tunes in.
nZo is a professional wrestler. He was just caught having sex with the mistress of the guy who owns the wrestling league. The owner is furious. So he has nZo kidnapped and tortured. Now nZo hangs upside down from a ceiling.
“Excuse me, nZo sir,” the torturer says. “Now it’s time to electrocute your balls.”
They begin zapping his testicles.
Meanwhile, another gang of wrestlers – from a rival wrestling league, called the WWW (Wrestling Wrestling Wrestling) – hatches a plan to rescue nZo from his testicular torture. They debate the best way to rescue him. Should they break into the prison using stealth? Or with explosives? Or with a mysterious third option called the “DIC punch,” pronounced “dick punch”?
That’s up for you to decide.
The scenario comes from Episode 3 of the animated Web3 series "The Gimmicks," created by a company called ToonStar, and developed by a production team that includes Mila Kunis. Think of it as "South Park" meets wrestling meets crypto. It’s raw and vulgar and a bit uneven. (On a community Zoom that streamed a cut of the episodes, someone suggested doing shots for every line of profanity. Kunis had a quick response: “We’d be dead.”)
Read more: NFTs Take Hollywood: My Week at NFT LA
But "The Gimmicks" is also something more. It could be an early glimpse at the future of community-driven storytelling. What if fans are given creative agency? What if they can help steer the story? Brainstorm with the writers? Create characters?
“Entertainment will be one of the things that will help Web3 go mainstream,” says John Attanasio, CEO and co-founder of Toonstar. “We’re very much committed to that as a company.”
Attanasio has a background in traditional Hollywood. He spent years at Dreamworks and Warner Bros., working on marketing, biz dev and digital content creation. At Warner Bros. he had a wild idea: What if we could help super-fans create their own content? Along with his Warner Bros colleague Luisa Huang, he helped launch an internal incubator to create digital content.
The idea would be to create stories and content that were “complementary” to the larger intellectual property (IP) owned by Warner Bros. Consider Harry Potter. As every shipper of Harry and Hermione knows, there’s an ocean of fan fiction, cosplayers and YouTubers who are eager to create their own Harry Potter stories, and they usually do it for free. Why not work with them to collaborate? Why not empower them to create Harry Potter content that could be “adjacent” to the official HP canon? You can imagine this concept applied to the entire portfolio of Warner Bros intellectual property: Batman and Superman and the DC Universe, Mad Max, The Matrix – the coffers are deep.
Attanasio and Huang fleshed out the idea and they pitched it to the higher-ups.
It never went anywhere.
“People weren’t taking YouTube and building digital communities seriously,” says Attanasio. “We would be in meetings with very senior, senior folks, and they were fairly dismissive.” The studio execs would often say “that’s not real content” or “those aren’t real stories” or “those aren’t real creators.”
They did have a few senior-level sponsors who thought the idea had legs. As Attanasio remembers, one of them said, “You might be better served trying to do something outside the walls of the studio.”
So they followed that advice.
In 2015, Attanasio and Huang left their stable jobs at Warner Bros. to launch Toonstar, which focused on bringing animated stories to Web2 platforms. Why animation? Attanasio felt the tech was really only accessible to the “private club” of larger studios, and it “felt weird that more creators didn’t have access to the medium.”
The iPhone’s camera had helped democratize filmmaking, but animation was only for the deep-pocketed. Toonstar would change that. In a downtown Los Angeles loft, along with a team of five employees, Attanasio and Huang spent two years building the infrastructure.
Then they launched in 2017. The good news was they succeeded in getting amateur creators to use the tech and embrace animation. People could finally animate their ideas! Animation had been democratized!
The bad news is that most of it was junk.
The problem with “user-generated content” is that most users fail to generate good content. One of the animated characters, for example, was a talking turd. Attanasio felt queasy and thought, “This might not be ready for primetime.”
One of Toonstar’s largest investors flat-out told them, “This isn’t working.” The end was near. Maybe the studio execs were right: Those aren’t real stories. Those aren’t real creators. Attanasio and Huang had left those plum jobs at Warner Bros. to revolutionize animation, their colleagues had said they were crazy and now, years later, all they had to show for it was a talking turd.
Just not good enough
“All right, screw this,” Huang thought back then, realizing that to save the business, “we’ve got to do something completely radical.” Toonstar had made a bet on user-generated content. The bet failed. “We knew the tech worked,” says Huang, but the problem was that the “inputs,” or the stories themselves, were not up to snuff.
So Toonstar pivoted. Instead of creating animation tech for the masses, it would selectively work with storytellers. This was a Web2 play. Starting in 2018, the company began to target Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and eventually Snapchat and Tik-Tok storytellers, and injected their content with animation.
Now Toonstar found real traction. It worked with creators like Parker James (8.7 million followers on TikTok) and Amber Scholl (3.6 million followers on YouTube) to create bite-sized animated shorts, such as adapting Scholl’s story about an awkward first date into a charming animated vignette. They racked up tens of millions of views per month.
They brought more eyeballs and the company secured more funding. But it lacked just one small thing: Steady revenue. “People were going to Facebook to watch the content that we were producing,” says Huang, who notes that Facebook earned plenty of ad revenue. “But what about us? What about the people making the content?”
Sure, the platforms had revenue-sharing models. Toonstar tried to play that game, but was frustrated by what seemed like the changing whims of the all-powerful algorithm. Ultimately, Huang found that “it’s just not good enough to sustain a real business model.”
The Web2 model felt broken.
Enter "The Gimmicks."
The third man
John R. Rivera was introduced to wrestling as a five-year-old kid, when his Puerto Rican grandmother was so excited by the matches that she would throw her chanklas (flip-flops) at the TV. Every Saturday the two of them ate Jello and watched wrestling. In 1997, using the ring name Rocky Romero, he made his wrestling debut at the age of 14; he’s been a professional wrestler ever since, currently with the NJPW (New Japan Pro-Wrestling).
While on tour in Japan, mostly just to pass the time, he and his wrestling buddies Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows created early wrestling podcasts – the production value was skimpy and they used their iPhones. Fast forward to COVID-19. With wrestling on lockdown and plenty of time on their hands, they dusted off their old podcast and cranked up the production value, incorporating their wrestling alter-egos “Chad 2 Badd” and “Sex Ferguson.”
They were funny and likable. Their podcast began to get noticed. And soon they were having conversations with Toonstar, which by now specialized in helping creators expand and sharpen their stories. “We knew there was a story we wanted to tell about these lovable losers,” says Huang. She and Attanasio, meanwhile, had been intrigued by the early success of "Stoner Cats," the non-fungible token (NFT)-infused animation project launched in part by Mila Kunis, who also stars in the show. ToonStar pitched "The Gimmicks" to Kunis and team; they wanted in and came on board as founders of the project. (Romero and the wrestlers stayed attached as well, and now they voice their characters.)
The idea started as just a Web3 version of a wrestling promotion. Soon it snowballed into an entire Web3 TV series, with a proper story arc and characters. Toonstar hired “the Daves,” David Wright and David Ihlenfeld, veteran comedy screenwriters who worked on shows including "Family Guy" and "Star Trek: Lower Decks."
The Daves are longtime writing partners who finish each other’s sentences; they live three minutes apart in LA but collaborate almost entirely remotely. And now they had a gig with little precedent in the history of Hollywood. They would write a show in collaboration with a community of fans. “It is kind of scary, for someone who’s used to plotting things out and outlining things to death,” says David Ihlenfeld. “To cede that kind of control is a little terrifying.”
Here’s how it works. Toonstar dropped 10,000 NFTs of “Gimmicks” to the community. They gave them away for free. Each NFT is a wrestling character with a unique look and “gimmick.” It’s up to the NFT holders to flesh out their character’s backstory and bring their own stylistic flourish. (Other 10,000-NFT communities, such as the Bored Ape Yacht Club, have a similar playbook.) The more Gimmick NFTs you own, the more voting power you have.
There’s less chaos than you might think. The overarching shape of the story is developed by the writing team of The Daves, co-creators Attanasio and Huang and the executive producer team of Mila Kunis (who attends meetings and gives notes), Lindsey McInerney (CEO of Sixth Wall) and Lisa Sterbakov (a partner at Kunis’ Orchard Farm Productions).
That part of the creative process, more or less, resembles the normal studio system. The writers write. The execs give notes. The Daves write a six- or seven-page script for each episode (there are 20 in the first season, each around 3 minutes long), but every script is packed with TBDs – “fill in the blanks” that the community of NFT holders will decide. Sometimes the TBDs are inconsequential, sometimes they ripple through the entire show.
Each episode ends with a cliffhanger, and then asks the community to vote on what should happen next. This somehow happens on a weekly schedule. New episodes drop on a Friday, the Gimmicks community has the weekend to vote and then The Daves scramble to incorporate that input into the following episode that airs just days later. None of this could happen without the animation tech that Toonstar spent years building.
But are crowds good at creating art? The “consensus” choice is often safe and boring. No hive mind could create "Hamlet," the Sistine Chapel or even a mainstream masterpiece like “The Dark Knight.” When hordes of fans clamor to have their voices heard, the results can be muddled and messy and mediocre. (Exhibit A: "The Rise of Skywalker.")
“It’s a balance,” says Attanasio, who acknowledges the inherent tension between giving the community agency and ceding too much creative control. He admits that a few of the community ideas have been “cringe,” but says they’ve struck a balance by thinking of creative inputs in two different buckets: prompts and white space.
Many of the choices are prompts: Who should nZo wrestle in the first-ever “prison match”? The Accountant, the Straight Jacket or the Juvie? The Daves suggest the prompts, which gives the show some creative guardrails. This is very much a Choose Your Adventure, a la the interactive "Black Mirror" episode "Bandersnatch."
But the show also permits room for the “white space” of pure fan invention, such as incorporating the community’s Gimmick NFTs into the actual episodes. And two of the episodes are 100% community-created and exist “outside of the canon,” which is remarkably similar to Huang and Attanasio’s idea rebuffed by Warner Bros. all those years ago of empowering fans to create non-official Harry Potter content. And if I’m an executive at Disney or Warner Bros. or Universal, I am absolutely paying attention to Web3 projects like "The Gimmicks" – new revenue streams are just waiting to gush. (The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “multiverse,” in particular, seems ideally suited to monetize fans’ creativity. Kevin Feige, call me.)
This “white space” also gives a window into what "The Gimmicks" community finds so appealing. Ben Collinsworth, based in New Orleans, has a background in traditional film and TV production; he worked on the crews of "Oblivion" and "Planet of the Apes." A longtime wrestling enthusiast, Collinsworth quickly became obsessed with "The Gimmicks" and now owns 95 Gimmicks NFTs, making him one of the largest holders. He spent hour after hour writing backstories for his NFT wrestlers. At first “Gimmicks #6962” was just a blank slate, but Collinsworth felt inspired and dubbed him “Tchoupitoulas Tcharlie,” or the “People’s Champ” and also the face of Sugarcane Wrestling Social, a “combination of live wrestling, music, and great food.” Now Tchoupitoulas Tcharlie will appear in an upcoming episode.
To explain his role in the Gimmicks ecosystem, Collinsworth describes a key wrestling concept called “the third man.” When two wrestlers are in the ring, sometimes a third man – who’s not originally part of the action – dramatically enters the fray and swings the contest. In 1996, for example, in what might be the most famous Third Man twist, Randy Savage is fighting Kevin Nash and then, out of nowhere, from the edge of the arena…in walks Hulk Hogan! The crowd roars. “Hulk Hogan is here! Hulk Hogan is in the building!” the announcers breathlessly exclaim. Hogan then attacks Randy Savage – his former ally! – and turns heel, joining the rival nWo. The Third Man injects a fight with surprise, drama and conflict.
I’m charmed by Collinsworth’s fondness of wrestling history, but at first I don’t understand how it fits into Web3 storytelling. Then he makes it clear.
“I’m the third man,” says Collinsworth.
He clarifies that it’s not just him, personally, but any of the passionate NFT holders who are part of the Gimmicks community – they have the power to crash the ring and change the story. Collinsworth even hopes to see creative and financial upside. “As this gets bigger and as we’re looking down the road, I have other things that I’m trying to put in front of this that will make me money,” says Collinsworth.
How would that happen, exactly?
“Merchandiiiiiizing!” he says with a showman’s panache, quoting “Yogurt” from the movie "Spaceballs." If "The Gimmicks" catch fire and if Tchoupitoulas Tcharlie is a hit, maybe one day he could sell Tcharlie lunch boxes, Tcharlie breakfast cereal, Tcharlie flame throwers.
All of that, of course, feels very much like a long shot. But there are more immediate ways that Collinsworth and his fellow NFT holders can contribute. If you win certain contests on the Discord, you can join a Zoom session with the show creators and give production input. The NFT holders have hopped on brainstorming calls. “They have a lot of great ideas, and we don’t have to pay them anything,” says David Wright with a laugh.
The creators understand this is very much an early Web3 experiment – even a gimmick – and the results are uneven. Take the weekly cliffhangers. They’re not always compelling, and you can sense that the team is still trying to work out the kinks. In the “Karen Con” episode, for example, the crew needs to find Dusty the Dog, a crypto billionaire who happens to be a dog, so they can pitch him on investing in their cash-strapped league. Where’s Dusty the Dog? At the end of the episode, in a booming voice, the wrestling announcer says, “It’s time for you to decide! Where is Dusty the Dog?” The community has three choices: The bathroom, an exclusive afterparty, or a blimp race.
In the next episode, after the NFT vote, our heroes learn that Dusty the Dog is at the exclusive afterparty. That’s where the scene begins. Understandably, the Daves use some tricks and shortcuts to quickly integrate the community choices, such as writing the bulk of the Dusty the Dog dialogue before hearing from the group. So does their input even matter?
At times it can. Take the plight of nZo, the star wrestler who was last seen having his testicles electrocuted. nZo, who is now a wanted man, needs to find a new identity and create a new “gimmick.” What should nZo’s new Gimmick be? The community voted, ultimately deciding on a creepy Willy Wonka-esque look called the Candyman. Ihlenfeld describes this vote as “super impactful,” as the decision affects multiple episodes in the future. “We went back to some of the outlines we had and we’re like, ’Okay, now he’s Candyman,’” says Ihlenfeld. “Interesting choice. Interesting challenge. Now we’ve got to change and follow what they went with.”
Ihlenfeld was at first jittery about ceding creative control, but he quickly swung around. “We did it, and the results have been amazing,” he says. “The community has taken the story in places we never would have thought to go.”
But ultimately, whether it’s Web3 or Web2 or novels or Aeschylus, storytelling is storytelling, and Ihlenfeld says “the same storytelling rules apply.” Conflict. Dramatic arcs. Character payoffs. “People are going to be surprised that these foul-mouthed idiot wrestlers are going to have defined arcs over the course of the season,” says Ihlenfeld. “You’re going to see them grow. You’re going to see these wrestling misfits become a family.”
The DIC Punch
"The Gimmicks," of course, are not the only project to fuse Web3 and storytelling. Sixth Wall’s own "Stoner Cats" is arguably the OG. Or the “Deadheads” allows NFT owners to appear in the animated show. Members of the Bored Ape Yacht Club, in collaboration with author Neil Strauss, are using a clever voting and token system to write a fictitious memoir centered around the Ape “Jenkins the Valet.” (I spoke with Strauss about it in December.)
Dan Harmon, creator of “Rick and Morty” and “Community,” is launching an animated, blockchain-infused Web3 series called ”Krapopolis” that will (presumably) experiment with audience participation. Fox Entertainment is so bullish on Web3 that it plunked down $100 million to launch its own NFT-focused studio, Blockchain Creative Labs, which CEO Charlie Collier said will help “art meet brands meet technology.”
The possibilities are fascinating, but even some of the creators are still fuzzy on exactly how, or if, Web3 will solve that nagging old problem of monetization. Take Joe Powell and Ryco Newton-Block, two stand-up comedians who hatched the idea for “Roads to Rome” way back in 2017, a show they describe as “Bojack Horseman meets Rick and Morty.” First they pitched the show through the normal Hollywood route, hoping to find an agent who could sell it to a studio or streamer. Like 99% of aspiring screenwriters (myself included), they soon tired of the chicken and egg paradox – it’s tough to get an agent without a credit, and it’s tough to get a credit without an agent. Newton-Block describes the process as a “wild circle jerk.”
So they set out to animate and produce the pilot themselves, stream it on Web2 and build a following that would bring them eyeballs, funding and proper distribution. Then they learned about NFTs. They pivoted to a Web3 model and hoped to sell 1,000 Roads to Rome NFTs, which would raise around $100K to $150K in capital and fund the first three episodes. They weren’t looking to get rich. They just wanted to cover the show’s costs. So far they’ve sold 433 NFTs with a floor price of 0.05ETH, meaning a current value of roughly $40,000. “When Ethereum slashes [its price] by 66%, that really hurt us,” says Newton-Block.
The comedian found that in the early days of the NFT space, “everything and their mother sold out,” which gave creators plenty of capital and margin for error. Those days are gone. He’s still bullish on the potential of Web3, but realistically, he knows that “you need capital to continue going.” After that first infusion of cash from the NFT drop, where does the money come from? “Eventually, there has to be some kind of monetization outside of Web3,” says Newton-Block, such as merchandising or licensing to traditional streaming services.
The CEO of Sixth Wall, Lindsey McInerney, acknowledges that because it is so focused on creating content and building communities, her company is “still working on what the revenue model looks like,” and suspects that “the revenue will take care of itself.” Fair enough. But for all the well-chronicled problems of how Web2 failed to sufficiently compensate creators, it’s not yet clear how Web3 – even if it gains adoption – will prove to be the solution.
At this early point, that might be too much to ask. The goal is play and experimentation and fun, and by that standard "The Gimmicks" are thriving. Toonstar announced a partnership with Hot Topic, the pop culture retail chain with 800 stores, which suddenly makes Ben Collinsworth’s ““Merchandiiiiiizing!” vision seem less far-fetched. Sixth Wall is working on an upcoming Web3 sci-fi fantasy project called “Armored Kingdom” that incorporates elements like trading cards, animation and digi-physical comic books. “What does an entertainment franchise look like when you have no rules from day one?” asks McInerney. We’ll soon find out.
But in the meantime, we’ll close with the exciting resolution of how nZo, with his testicles being electrocuted, escapes from the prison. Do our heroes rescue him with explosives? Stealth? Or the DIC punch?
The answer, of course, is the DIC punch.
This throwaway joke has become a rallying cry for the community. In the debut episode of "The Gimmicks," the Daves needed to brainstorm a “finishing move” for a wrestler. “What’s the most fun, animated finishing move that you’re not going to see in reality?” Ihlenfeld asked. The Daves had a solution. A dick punch. It really wasn’t complicated. As Ihlenfeld puts it, “He just punched him in the dick.”
Then it became something more. Attanasio and Huang had the idea to turn the Dick Punch into something grander, the DIC punch, which stands for Decentralized Inclusive Community. They soon wove the concept into the community structure of "The Gimmicks." Now the DIC joke is everywhere. Users can send each other “DIC punches” and a scoreboard keeps track of the leaders. They recently celebrated 1 million DIC punches.
“The way they turned this stupid joke into an actual something is just mind-blowing to me,” says Ihlenfeld. They even wrote a standalone episode where a British journalist, obsessed with the mystery, goes on a dark journey to track down who threw the very first DIC punch. (Incredibly, the journalist is voiced by CoinDesk Managing Editor Ben Schiller.)
The DIC punch, at heart, is a gimmick. And like the show itself, it’s lowbrow on the surface but has a deeper, more inclusive meaning. It’s self-aware and smarter than it sounds. On the show, the DIC punch is cheerfully used by the underdog, ragtag group of wrestlers who are going up against the big machine – a mainstream wrestling league (the Federation) with deeper resources, a bigger fan base, and entrenched power.
There are worse metaphors.
As one Gimmick character says early in the season, “We need to get a f**k-ton better if we’re going to compete against the Federation.” And they do get better.
Will life imitate art? Will this kind of Web3 storytelling get good enough to become mainstream?
The answer to this larger question, at least in part, is also up to the community.
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