A science-fiction thriller starring Anthony Hopkins, the award-winning British actor, will become the first feature film to be distributed using non-fungible tokens (NFTs), taking a new route to skipping an initial theatrical release by controlling access using the blockchain-based technology.
The first 11 digital copies of Zero Contact , which was shot and produced in 17 countries virtually during the Covid-19 pandemic, will be auctioned on September 24 through OpenSea, the world’s largest NFT marketplace.
The film will be accessible on the NFT film distribution platform Vuele, which was established in June by the film’s producer Enderby Entertainment and blockchain developer CurrencyWorks. Since NFTs are unique and offer proof of ownership, buyers will be able to not only watch the film on Vuele, but also trade or sell their copy through the platform.
Another 2,500 NFTs for the film will be offered in October. While the film will eventually appear in cinemas and on other streaming platforms, NFT buyers will get access to cast interviews and outtakes that will not be available elsewhere.
“We expect to achieve deep fan engagement from fans of this genre of movie or the cast and crew of the movie. We also expect to broaden the [scope of] NFT purchasers to [include] movie collectors,” Vuele co-founder Cameron Chell told the South China Morning Post on Monday. “Bringing the whole NFT trading and collecting market into the movie space will hopefully expand both markets.”
The first winner of next week’s NFT auction will also get an additional bonus: the chance to be part of the film for its theatrical release, Chell said. He did not elaborate on how or where the person would be added.
Zero Contact does not yet have a release date in China, where the government strictly controls the release of imported films. Still, Chell said he is “really excited about the potential” to launch the film in the country, both in cinemas and using NFTs. If the film’s NFT debut does well, the studio will look at adding additional subtitles for a broader release, he said.
While the Chinese government has routinely cracked down on cryptocurrency trading and mining, including a large crackdown earlier this year , authorities have encouraged other uses of blockchain. NFTs remain legal in the country, and some Chinese companies, including Tencent Holdings and the Post ’s owner Alibaba Group Holding , have already sought to capitalise on their popularity this year.
Industry-wide, however, new forms of digital distribution have become a contentious topic as movie streaming boomed during the Covid-19 pandemic. Cinemas were hit hard by initial quarantine measures, and the global box office remains significantly lower than pre-pandemic levels.
Decisions from big studios to make their latest films available on their own streaming services on the day of release has angered cinema owners and led to issues regarding compensation for actors. In the most high-profile case, Black Widow star Scarlett Johannson is suing The Walt Disney Co over the film’s Disney+ streaming debut.
While cinemas in China have bounced back faster than in many other countries, the industry was initially angered over digital releases early in the pandemic. When the studio behind the Lunar New Year holiday film Lost in Russia chose to release it last year on ByteDance platforms , including TikTok sister app Douyin, it resulted in an uproar from 22 cinema chains. The operators said the debut “disrupts China’s film distribution mechanism”.
Chell said Vuele’s “view and hope is that NFTs are an accretive to the movie industry”.
“Having NFTs come out first, with exclusive content to a limited audience that’s able to see the movie, will hopefully drive a groundswell [of interest] through word of mouth,” he said. “It should drive theatre and streaming attendance.”
While offering proof of ownership, NFTs alone cannot completely stop the spread of pirated copies of films online. However, Vuele hopes to offer a number of feature films and exclusive content that are collectable, a characteristic that makes NFTs valuable.
“At this stage, films that are star-driven feature films, generally larger budget, [with] large fan bases, those are films that we’re attracting,” Chell said, adding that he hopes NFTs will eventually play an important role in the future of marketing and financing films.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.