technology

Richard MacManus: Blockchain vs Netflix

Richard MacManus looks at one example of how blockchain could revolutionise the creative industries and remove a key intermediary

Last Thursday the second annual Creative Realities conference was held in Wellington, as part of Techweek 2018. Previously called Future Realities, this year’s conference was about the impact of technology on the creative industries.

It was a timely switch in focus, because New Zealand has developed a reputation for tech-savvy companies in the creative sector: Weta Digital, Soul Machines, 8i, PikPok and Parrot Analytics are just some of the innovative local companies making noise in the global entertainment industry.

Virtual reality and augmented reality were especially popular at this year’s Creative Realities. For example, Jessica Manins from Mixt and Adele Gautier from The Breast Cancer Foundation NZ talked about how VR is being used as a therapeutic tool for breast cancer patients.

Later, while in search of a caffeine hit between sessions, I bumped into an architect who told me his firm is looking into using VR. So it was gratifying to see VR and AR moving beyond the gaming crowd and becoming immersed (so to speak) in the broader creative industries too.

Artificial intelligence and internet of things were among the other hip technologies discussed at Creative Realities. A new addition to the technology showcase this year was blockchain, which has been a much hyped trend over the past year. To represent the crypto craze, a US company called SingularDTV presented its vision of a decentralised entertainment industry.

As with many blockchain companies, SingularDTV’s product line is complicated. But basically, you can think of it as a decentralised Netflix. The idea is that creative types will fund and release their movies, music, podcasts, whatever, using SingularDTV’s blockchain platform. SingularDTV raised US$7.5 million for this mission in an October 2016 ICO.

In the week leading up to Creative Realities, I spoke to SingularDTV’s director of business development G. Thomas Esmay. I began by asking him what blockchain brings to the table for the entertainment industry. 

In a word: decentralisation. SingularDTV will remove intermediaries and connect creatives directly to their fans, Esmay said. One of those intermediaries is Netflix, the world’s biggest movie streaming service. SingularDTV will allow movie makers and other creatives to route around Netflix, by releasing and monetising their projects on its crypto-powered platform. 

It will do this via an app called Ethervision, which Esmay said will “look and feel like iTunes”. Ethervision will be SingularDTV’s distribution system for movies, music and other content. 

I must insert a word of caution here. The problem with many blockchain startups is they talk a big game and write a mean whitepaper, but in many cases they have not released a working product. That’s the case with SingularDTV too; Ethervision hasn’t yet been released and there is not even a firm timeline for it. Although at Creative Realities, Esmay promised a beta version by the end of this year – or maybe January. 

Despite this obligatory asterisk whenever I write about blockchain companies, I am impressed with the content partnerships SingularDTV has managed to forge so far. David Lynch (of Twin Peaks fame) and Steven Soderbergh (who directed the blockbuster movie Ocean’s Eleven) are both “executive producing” movies that will be released on SingularDTV. Also coming soon to a blockchain near you is a documentary called Trust Machine, which is about – you guessed it – blockchain itself. Trust Machine is directed by Alex Winter, who starred in the cult 1989 movie Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and who has since made a name for himself as a documentary maker specialising in tech stories (Downloaded in 2013 and Deep Web in 2015).

Winter will release Trust Machine on Ethervision, on a yet to be determined date. The basic concept is that Winter will receive remuneration directly from the Ethervision software, via a “smart contract” regularly executed on the Ethereum blockchain. In laymans terms, that means he will automatically receive a cryptocurrency payment every time someone purchases the movie. 

Esmay said that other creatives will follow this lead. “Anyone in the world can distribute their films, music, podcasts, video games [on Ethervision] and get paid fairly,” he said.

When he spoke at Creative Realities, Esmay took a couple of shots at Netflix. He said that with Netflix, “rights and royalties are signed away” and there is “no data transparency” for artists. Often, he said, Netflix will buy the rights to a movie for a relatively small sum. Even worse, creatives will have no idea how well their movie does – because Netflix won’t share that data. SingularDTV will solve this problem, claimed Esmay, because “all of the value is transparently tracked on the blockchain.”

Another interesting aspect of SingularDTV’s blockchain model is that an artist’s collaborators also get paid directly and instantly. When a consumer purchases a movie or a piece of music via Ethervision, those funds automatically get divied up with the creative team according to the terms of the smart contract. As Esmay put it, “creatives can get paid in seconds, rather than months or years”.

This all sounds grand, but SingularDTV faces a big consumer adoption challenge. The fact is, buying cryptocurrency and storing it in a digital wallet is still a difficult and risky thing for consumers – especially in New Zealand, where banks have cracked down on the local cryptocurrency exchanges. Esmay acknowledged these obstacles, but said Ethervision will accept credit card payments too. The company will then have to convert that fiat currency into cryptocurrency, to allow creatives and their collaborators to get paid according to their smart contracts.

SingularDTV certainly sounds appealing, for artists and consumers alike. However, we must remember that it doesn’t yet have a functional product. Whereas with the other technologies showcased at Creative Realities – VR, AR, AI and more – it was clear there are solid use cases emerging in the creative sector.

Nevertheless, I’ll be one of the first to fire up Ethervision to watch Alex Winter’s upcoming Trust Machine documentary. If it works (a big if, still), SingularDTV will help creatives get paid. Perhaps at next year’s Creative Realities conference, there will be some success stories to tell.

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