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Walmart Expands Entertainment Strategy With Eko Interactive Content Joint Venture

Walmart has set up a joint venture with interactive video firm Eko to develop cutting-edge entertainment and advertising content that the retail behemoth hopes will drive more customers to its digital platforms.

Walmart has made an investment of about $250 million in Eko, a company based in New York and Tel Aviv that counts former CBS senior executive Nancy Tellem among its investors. Eko CEO Yoni Bloch will head the joint venture, dubbed W*E Interactive Ventures.

The plan calls for W*E to develop a range of content for Walmart’s website and its Vudu video service. Some of that might be branded entertainment and advertising-oriented and some may be purely entertainment based. Eko is known for its innovative technology that allows users to select storytelling options as the content unfolds.

The deal with Eko is part of a larger effort within Walmart to focus on entertainment and original content that can draw viewers — and customers — to its sizable digital platforms. Scott McCall, Walmart’s senior VP for entertainment, toys and seasonal items, said the company has no intention of becoming a big player in the production arena. But Walmart does see the need for a more cohesive strategy for using digital content to fuel a deeper level of engagement with its formidable customer base.

“We think this joint venture with Eko allows us to create even deeper and more frequent engagement with our customers with what we’re calling the next generation of storytelling,” McCall told Variety. “Through digital interactive content the customer can view their own personal journeys through this content. We think that’s exciting.”

Examples offered by McCall and Bloch included nonscripted programs such as cooking shows and children’s fare, or an interactive toy catalog geared toward kids who have grown up with smartphones in their hands.

Eko is also in the process of cutting deals with prominent creatives to produce traditional entertainment content using its interactive templates. Eko made a splash in 2013 with a custom interactive video of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” produced for Sony Music. More recently it teamed with MGM for an interactive short-form series based on 1983’s “War Games,” and with Sony Pictures Entertainment for the original short-form series “That Moment When.”

Walmart executives connected with Eko on a recent trip to Israel to meet with new media firms.

The partnership with Walmart is a milestone for Eko, which started in Israel in 2010 as Interlude. Bloch said the potential to test concepts and technological features on Walmart’s massive platforms was a big part of the appeal of teaming with the world’s largest retailer. Eko has secured approval of 15 patents related to its interactive systems, with more than 15 others pending.

“We are taking advantage of the interactivity and the engagement to learn how people want to play,” Bloch told Variety. “This will make for a much more unique advertising experience.”

Eko previously has received investments from Sequoia Capital, Warner Music Group, Sony and Samsung. The Walmart investment also allows Eko to continue to pursue projects unrelated to Walmart. Eko is preparing to open a Los Angeles outpost to strengthen ties with Hollywood’s creative community. Walmart’s investment includes a commitment to buy advertising in certain Eko-produced programs.

“They’re trusting us and allowing us to make the things we believe we be most impactful,” Bloch said. “They are allowing us to the ability to maintain creative control, to supply the technology and creative expertise about what kind of interactivity to have inside a story.”

Much of Eko’s content is designed to be shared on social platforms after individual users add their personal touches to content with their mouse clicks. “It’s becomes something that is much more personal to you,” Bloch said. “You can learn something about yourself and it gives you a much bigger reason to share it.”

The deal with Eko follows the pact Walmart unveiled earlier this week with MGM to develop exclusive original content for Vudu. McCall said Walmart recently restructured operations to bring its disparate entertainment and content efforts under a single leadership team.

“It’s all about Walmart broadening that entertainment eco-system and getting customers to think about us more as part of their daily digital habits,” McCall said.

The changes within Walmart are also designed to make it easier for the entertainment industry to work with the company, he said.

“We want to make it easy for our studio partners and content creators to work with one team,” McCall said. “Hopefully with this Eko announcement we’re going to signal that we’re open for business.”

(Pictured: Yoni Bloch)

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