Interactive video company Eko, which counts Walmart as a major investor, is looking to raise the wattage of its upcoming slate of originals — including “Epic Night,” a college-party adventure from digital studio FBE.
“Epic Night” stars Jacob Latimore (“The Chi,” “Maze Runner”), Sasha Pieterse (“Pretty Little Liars,” “Inherent Vice”), Karan Brar (“Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” “Jessie”) and Jessica Sula (“Split,” “The Lovers”).
Principal photography on the “branching narrative” series began March 26 in Los Angeles and is expected to wrap April 18. All four episodes of “Epic Night,” each running 7-10 minutes depending on choices viewers make in the story, will premiere on Eko’s free, ad-supported HelloEko streaming video site and app in the fall of 2019.
Interest in interactive TV shows has risen since Netflix’s “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” hit last fall. But Eko is an old hand at the format: The company was founded in 2010, originally called Interlude. Now it’s stepping up its productions after receiving a $250 million investment from Walmart to create a joint venture that is developing content for the retail giant.
In “Epic Night,” Latimore is Martin, the “viewer-playable” character, on his last night of college as he faces a balancing act of love and friendship in interactions with his long-time crush Jess (Sula) and best friend Lillis (Brar).
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The production will yield about 120 minutes of total content, so viewers will be able to rewatch “Epic Night” multiple times and get a completely different story. “Epic Night” will present a user decision point every 60-90 seconds, usually between two options, with more than 3,000 different possible permutations, said Benny Fine, co-founder of FBE (previously known as Fine Brothers Entertainment) and an executive producer on the show.
“We have a passion for interactive storytelling,” Fine said. The company conceived “Epic Night” for Eko after kicking around ideas for “what would make a great interactive story about young people having a crazy night.”
FBE was already in preproduction on the project before “Bandersnatch” premiered. “For me it became, ‘I can finally explain to someone what an interactive project is!'” Fine said. “Now I can say, ‘It’s like ‘Bandersnatch’!”
While Fine credits “Bandersnatch” with raising the profile of scripted interactive entertainment, he said there were elements of it that “didn’t feel like a true branching narrative. There were dead ends, like you lost and and had to go back and try again.” With “Epic Night,” viewers will see a full story arc regardless of the decisions they make on Martin’s behalf, according to Fine.
For Eko, it’s one of the biggest projects it has undertaken, and it’s one of the first scripted originals “that targets wonderful talent,” said Marli Scharlin, producer and creative director at Eko. The company is developing a new crop of originals, with the first set to launch starting this summer. Last year, Eko announced a pact with indie filmmakers Mark and Jay Duplass to develop a slate of interactive live-action series.
“Epic Night” is directed by Andrew Rhymer (“Plus One,” “Pen15”) and written by Scarlet Bermingham and Sierra Katow. The series is executive produced by FBE’s Benny and Rafi Fine; producers are JP Quicquaro (“Adam Ruins Everything,” “Plus One”) and Lisa Steen (“Sundowners,” “Stepdaddy”).
The project is more complex — and time consuming — than producing a traditional linear series, FBE CEO Marc Hustvedt acknowledged. “It’s an entirely different production workflow. The script looks entirely different,” he said.
In addition to its own platform, Eko’s original shows like “Epic Night” also will be distributed on Vudu, Walmart’s video-streaming service, although details are still being worked out, said Daniel Laikind, Eko’s VP development and production. Walmart’s investment in the company includes a commitment to buy advertising in certain Eko-produced programs.
“Most important, we are trying to build HelloEko as destination,” Laikind said, adding that Eko’s embeddable interactive-video player can be hosted on third-party sites (including Instagram).
Eko originals will feature a new interactive-ad format, which the company calls “sparks.” Just like Eko’s series, the ads will present different content to viewers based on the choices they click on.
Past Eko projects include an interactive series based on MGM’s “War Games” and comedy “That Moment When” (starring Milana Vayntrub, best known for appearing in in AT&T commercials) from Olive Bridge Entertainment and Sony Pictures Entertainment. The company also has worked with BuzzFeed to produce interactive video quizzes and interactive recipes for its Tasty brand.
Investors in Eko, in addition to Walmart, include former CBS senior executive Nancy Tellem, who serves as chairman, as well as Warner Music Group, Sony, Samsung, WPP and Sequoia Capital. The company, based in New York and Israel, garnered attention in 2013 for its interactive music video for Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”
FBE was co-founded by Benny Fine and his brother Rafi Fine, who rose to YouTube popularity with their “React”-format videos. The company produces 20 serialized shows on YouTube, generating over 300 million views per month. The 85-employee FBE additionally has developed and produced programming with Nickelodeon, truTV, WB’s Telepictures, LeBron James’ SpringHill Entertainment and YouTube Premium.