LOS ANGELES—How’s this for an origin story: A hot new arrival in Hollywood got his start as a non-fungible token.
Aku, a young Black boy who dreams of becoming an astronaut, was an NFT character created by artist
in February that sold more than $2 million worth of the tokens in a day. Now Aku is heading to the screen through a production deal with Anonymous Content and Permanent Content, a film and TV company founded by singer
It is believed to be the first film and TV deal completed by a Hollywood company for an NFT character.
Anonymous and Permanent are partnering to produce movies and shows based on an asset that has already upended the art and commerce worlds. Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, but it nonetheless represents a symbolic barrier broken in the increasingly intertwined worlds of NFTs, art and entertainment.
NFTs deploy technology similar to the cryptocurrency bitcoin to tag digital assets with a unique marker. Their exclusivity drove the value of the artist Beeple’s digital image NFT to sell for $69 million; and in the music arena, electronic music artists have made millions selling the virtual deeds to songs. The arrival of NFTs in Hollywood has been expected for some time, since studios with beloved characters can leverage the tokens within devout fandoms.
Mr. Johnson used interest in the Aku among the cryptocurrency community to convince Hollywood executives of his appeal. The NFT character is a young Black boy enraptured with the stars. It was created by Mr. Johnson, a former Major League Baseball player and contemporary artist. Aku was inspired by Mr. Johnson’s own nephew and a question he once asked: Can astronauts be Black?
The character started appearing in Mr. Johnson’s paintings but eventually led to a 10-part story about the boy, who wears a backpack and an oversize helmet. When Mr. Johnson premiered Aku on the NFT marketplace Nifty Gateway in February, the former second baseman sold more than $1 million worth of the tokens almost immediately to fans who wanted to see the first chapter. That amount surpassed $2 million within the first 24 hours. Several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of Aku sculptures sold, as well.
“A small Black crypto community mobilized behind Aku at launch and told the world ‘This is a character we want in the world,’” Mr. Johnson said.
By taking an NFT character to Hollywood, Mr. Johnson is blending the broad reach of film or TV with the inherent exclusivity of the non-fungible tokens. The first batch of buyers paid $999 to access chapter one of Aku’s story, with nine subsequent “drops” expected. Early backers of the project will have a chance to weigh in on story direction and creative choices, Mr. Johnson said.
In Hollywood, Aku falling in with one established player and one startup. Anonymous Content is best known for producing movies like the Oscar-winning “The Revenant” and TV shows such as “Schitt’s Creek” and “Defending Jacob.” Permanent Content was founded in November by Mr. Mendes and his longtime manager, Andrew Gertler, to produce movies and TV shows that would appeal to young audiences.
Several months ago, Anonymous started working more directly with artists who might want to move into film or TV, and many of them started by bringing up NFTs, said Anonymous Chief Executive Dawn Olmstead. “About five months ago, I had to Google it,” she said.
Now they rank along aside podcasts and books at her company as ready sources of inspiration for scripts. Aku in particular is such an “aspirational and timely story that he captured first as an NFT,” she said. “It translates perfectly into film and television.”
This is by no means the first time Hollywood has turned to abstract or bizarre corners of the world for inspiration. Studios compete endlessly for new “IP,” or intellectual property, to develop into films and shows. Comic books (“Black Panther”), the toy aisle (“The LEGO Movie”) and podcasts (“Dirty John”) supply characters that come with baked-in appeal and awareness among audiences.
Aku appears to already have a small but passionate group of fans. Ten additional buyers purchased sculptures of Aku. The first one ever created sold for more than $300,000 and is kept in a hurricane-proof vault in Miami, accessible only to the buyer in possession of the NFT code.
The flood of cash led Mr. Johnson to found a company, Aku Inc., that can expand the character into more accessible realms, such as educational programs, he said.
To that end, Mr. Johnson said he specifically intended to demonstrate the character’s appeal through NFTs in order to bolster his chances of securing a film or TV deal. There are few examples of fan support as telling these days, he said, as those who want to be “etched into history on the blockchain” as early supporters of a project or vision.
Write to Erich Schwartzel at email@example.com
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