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Eko, Walmart’s Interactive Video Partner, Will Fund Dozen-Plus Pilots From FBE (EXCLUSIVE)

FBE, the digital entertainment company founded by YouTube’s Benny and Rafi Fine brother duo, believes choose-your-own-adventure videos are the future — and it’s struck a new pact with Eko to produce at least a dozen interactive pilots that could turn into full series.

Eko is the interactive-video platform developer whose backers include retailing giant Walmart, which plunked down $250 million to form a content joint venture with Eko. The New York-based company has already teamed with FBE on the production of “Epic Night,” a four-episode branching-narrative series about a college-party adventure.

Now Eko is funding 12-plus interactive TV pilots produced by FBE. Those will span scripted and unscripted formats as well as game shows and social-driven experiences. Based on how well the pilots perform, Eko can opt to greenlight them into full series with production funding. FBE has started development on several pilots and shooting is expected to begin later in July.

“This is not a fad,” said Marc Hustvedt, CEO of FBE (formerly known as Fine Bros. Entertainment).  “I think interactive content – specifically where the user has choice and agency in the story – is a big new opportunity.”

FBE has established Interactive Content Lab to expand the studio’s interactive storytelling capabilities by developing, funding and shopping new formats. The lab is headed by executive producer Dane Reiley, a producer whose credits include “Billy on the Street” and “The Eric Andre Show,” and he’s eyeing building out a team of 12 staffers to focus on interactive content.

About the Eko-funded pilots, Reiley said FBE is looking at them as R&D projects. “It’s ways to bring audiences into new experiences and makes them part of the action,” he said.

Interactive content — or “choice-based entertainment,” as some refer to it — is far more engaging than traditional videos, according to the companies. “You can’t be playing on your phone while you’re playing with an interactive video,” Reiley noted. Interactive programming also spurs higher repeat viewing rates.

Recently, Netflix has jumped into the interactive-video game, with “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” released late last year, among other projects, and YouTube has turned its focus to the format for originals as well.

FBE’s “Epic Night” just finished production in L.A. and is slated to premiere on Eko’s free, ad-supported HelloEko streaming video site and app in the fall of 2019. In the series, viewers control the decisions of Martin (played by Jacob Latimore) who struggles to balance love and friendship in interactions with long-time crush Jess (Jessica Sula) and best friend Lillis (Karan Brar). Sasha Pieterse (“Pretty Little Liars”) also stars.

All of the FBE-produced pilots also will be on Eko’s platforms. As for the business opportunity, “We are looking at various ways to integrate brands to monetize this content – with interactivity, either a contextual ad or brand integration based on your path,” said Ivy Sheibar, VP of business development at Eko. Eko original shows also will be distributed on Vudu, Walmart’s video-streaming service. Walmart’s investment in the company includes a commitment to buy advertising in certain Eko-produced programs.

Rafi Fine, co-founder of FBE, said he’s been working on creating interactive entertainment for more than 10 years, including by using YouTube annotations (a feature that’s no longer available). The Fine Brothers rose to YouTube popularity with their “React”-format videos. “We’ve seen this need from the audience,” Fine said. “People want to be involved even more in the content. It’s so much more than people leaving a comment or giving it a like.”

The FBE episodes on will be promoted across FBE’s network of 20 serialized shows. “We have a variety of ways we’re planning to help the audience understand they can go to Eko to see interactive content from FBE,” Fine said. “We understand how to get an audience to move but not overwhelm them.”

Meanwhile, Eko is working to boost its slate of originals. Last month it inked a pact with Refinery29 to develop interactive content based on R29 properties, including a scripted adaptation of Refinery29’s “Money Diaries” personal-finance column, podcast and book. Eko also announced a pact with indie filmmakers Mark and Jay Duplass to develop a slate of interactive live-action series. Past projects include an interactive series based on MGM’s “War Games.”

FBE’s programming generates over 300 million views per month with over 34 million subscribers across its YouTube channels. The company also produces content for TV networks and streaming services.

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