Save on Streaming Android 13 Best iPad Best Samsung Phone Best Password Manager Sony Headphones Deal Gym Membership Savings MLB 2022
Want CNET to notify you of price drops and the latest stories?
No, thank you
Accept

How NFT Brands Plan to Become the Next Disney

Creators of successful NFT brands are betting that the next Mickey Mouse can originate on the blockchain.

Convention goers standing, sitting and walking in front of a wall-size NFT.NYC sign
NFT.NYC is the biggest NFT convention in the world. This year's show, from June 21 to 23, was the fourth one ever. 
Noam Galai/Getty Images

It's a rainy Tuesday evening in New York, and I'm dawdling along in the most serpentine line I've ever stood in. Leading towards Time Square's Palladium Theater, the queue wraps around three blocks and takes over an hour to get through. It resembles a line for a Drake or Kanye West concern; there are more men than women, but not by much. Everyone is young. Everyone is more stylishly dressed than me. 

It's a party hosted by Doodles, an NFT brand known for its cartoon artwork. Once everyone's inside the Palladium, Doodles' CEO announces Pharrell Williams as Doodles' new chief brand ambassador, before treating the crowd to a surprise performance by The Chainsmokers. What bear market? 

Just one hour earlier, I was in a hotel lobby chatting with an NFT trader. He'd gotten into nonfungible tokens a few months ago. He'd already lost about $100,000. That bear market. 

Welcome to NFT.NYC 2022, the biggest NFT convention on the planet.

This year's convention, the fourth ever, took place from June 21 to 23, amid the biggest crypto market crash in years. Ether, which sustains the NFT industry, is down 67% since the new year dawned. It's a crucial time for the burgeoning industry, and not just because of crypto's collapse. We're in the gestation period of NFTs evolving from blockchain oddities to real-life entertainment brands. Events like NFT.NYC give "Web3" teams a chance to prove that NFT culture can produce more than scams and that legitimate companies creating real products can be built in this space. 

Doodles CEO Julian Holguin addresses the crowd at the NFT brand's NFT.NYC party, where it announced Pharrell Williams as its new chief brand officer. Holguin is the former president of Billboard.

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

Take the most salient example, Yuga Labs, creator of Bored Ape Yacht Club. Yuga has raised hundreds of millions of dollars by selling Bored Ape NFTs, and it's using that cash to create a big-budget video game. The goal is to bring in players who've never uttered the words "nonfungible token." The plan is clear: If the Bored Ape Yacht Club brand converts enough new hearts and minds, the value of the NFTs that inspired it will skyrocket in response.

If crypto firms want to become the next JPMorgan, NFT brands want to be the next Harry Potter or Disney. That's the idea. In practice, the market is rampant with ruthless speculation and only a small percentage of NFT projects have founders with intentions of fulfilling promises.

With $25 billion spent on NFTs last year, we're at the point where we should start seeing product road maps sketched out on Discord evolve into real-life action plans. 

As evidenced by Times Square parties headlined by Madonna, Tame Impala and The Chainsmokers, top creators headed into NFT.NYC cashed up. NFT investors, however, may not be as well off. With the Federal Reserve tightening interest rates, speculative assets like crypto and NFTs have been hit hard. Ether, the cryptocurrency at the heart of NFT technology, has tanked nearly 70% since the beginning of the year and is taking NFT valuations with it. Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs trade for a quarter of what they were fetching in April.

A blow-up Bored Ape Yacht Club character at New York's Pier 17.

A huge Bored Ape Yacht Club character was inflated by New York's Pier 17 for Ape Fest, a three-day festival featuring Amy Schumer, LCD Sound System, The Roots, Eminem and Snoop Dogg.

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

But the big surprise from NFT.NYC was how unaffected everyone seemed to be by the brutal market. Everyone I spoke to -- even the guy down $100,000 -- was enthusiastic about the industry's future. A few were blue about their short-term pain, but everyone was resolute that things would thrive long term. 

The prevailing sentiment was that the market crash was a good thing. "I'm glad the bubble has burst, I'm glad we're in a bear market," said Colin Brady, a former Pixar animator, whose AMGI Studios is behind an NFT collection called My Pet Hooligan. I spoke to Brady as he demoed The Rabbit Hole, a My Pet Hooligan PC and console game the team is developing. "There's so much deadwood on the tree, we need a giant wind to blow 95% of it away." 

There's a ubiquitous slogan in NFT circles: Bear markets are for building. When the economy goes back up and crypto revives, the premise goes, the companies building legitimate products now are going to see the benefit. 

But what's actually being built? 

New York monkey business

My first NFT.NYC appointment was with a cartoon ape. 

Last May, someone bought a Bored Ape Yacht Club NFT, and the copyright that comes with it, for $1,000. They gave the simian a backstory to match his concierge vest and chauffeur hat. They named him Jenkins and made him the Yacht Club's valet, a trustworthy soul other Bored Apes tell their secrets to. 

On July 11, Jenkins will become the star of a novel, Bored and Dangerous. Running over 200 pages long, Bored and Dangerous follows Jenkins as he gives a tell-all story to a reporter about the Bored Ape Yacht Club. It's written by Neil Strauss. A former New York Times and Rolling Stone reporter, Strauss is author of several best-selling books. The best known is The Game, which became a bible for budding pickup artists. 

Bored and Dangerous embodies much of what proponents claim as benefits of Web3. It's not just that a character was created out of NFT art. Jenkins has his own NFT collection called the Writer's Room, where each of the 6,942 NFTs act as keys to a Discord group. People in the Writer's Room were able to cast votes on which way Strauss took the story. One of the first votes was on what Jenkins' motivation for telling his story was. Options included owing bad debt to financiers, fear of losing his job, potential trouble with the law or -- the winning option -- that he'd become convinced that the fate of the Yacht Club was in his hands. 

Jenkins the Valet.

Bored Ape Yacht Club #1798, or Jenkins the Valet. 

OpenSea

Bored and Dangerous is also a business opportunity for Bored Ape holders, who were able to license their primates to the Jenkins team. The majority of the people who did so also wrote canon background characters for their ape -- like one robot ape that was sent from the future to destroy the Ethereum blockchain -- which Strauss integrated into the plot. If Bored and Dangerous makes a profit, everyone who licensed an ape will see a cut of it.

Jenkins' owner was hosting a party for Writer's Room holders on the first day of NFT.NYC. I slid into the Valet's DMs the week prior, asking if I could attend. Hundreds of Jenkins holders crammed into a trendy Tribeca Mexican restaurant for the shindig. I had an awkward realization upon arriving: I didn't actually know Jenkins' owner, or even what their name was.

It turns out Jenkins has two owners, two childhood friends who go by VJ and Safa. One of the party's attendees explained this to me, and added that only Safa was at the party. Unfortunately, since Safa goes by a pseudonym -- Safa is short for See Ape Follow Ape -- the helpful stranger didn't actually know what he looked like. Neither did any of the other attendees I asked. 

"There's a joke that the best NFT utility right now is more NFTs," Safa told me when I eventually was able to talk to him and VJ, via Zoom, the next day. "At what point do you just stop?"

The Bored and Dangerous book will first be released in NFT format, but the plan is for it to eventually be available in hardback at Barnes and Noble and Amazon. Regardless of whether it ends up getting any mainstream traction, it's an early example of an NFT collection creating a tangible product.

"A lot of people are very concerned about 'we need to get the mainstream into [NFTs],'" Strauss said to me in a phone interview. "I've never seen the embrace of the mainstream improve a cultural trend. I've only seen it kill it."

A longtime crypto advocate, Strauss explained that he was driven to the Jenkins project by curiosity, and an attempt to etch a space in the blockchain for Web3 writers. The big surprise of the project, he said, was how attached he became to the Writer's Room.

When he arrived at the party, he sought out all the Writer's Room holders who created ape characters he particularly loved. He asked to take pictures with two: Dark Mass and Buddy Hemp. 

"I really want to meet some of the other characters," he said. "I walked into the party and they said, 'Oh you just missed Captain Trippy,' and I'm like, 'Fuck, I gotta meet Captain Trippy.'"

Stay cool 

Jenkins' Writer's Room party was the first of many hosted by NFT creators throughout the week. These are typically open-bar events for holders, who are entitled to bring guests. The biggest is Ape Fest, a three-day extravaganza for Bored Ape owners that featured guests like LCD Soundsystem, The Roots and Amy Schumer. On the final day, Eminem and Snoop Dogg appeared to debut a new music video clip that features their Bored Apes. Other NFT groups put on shows with the likes of Madonna, Tame Impala and Quavo. 

Then there's Cool Cats. Instead of an extravagant party with an expensive headliner, founders Colin Egan and Evan Luza (or Clon and Elu, as they're known online) erected Cooltopia. Open to the public throughout the day, it was a family-friendly activation that featured games like a treasure hunt and a floor-is-lava obstacle course. Attendees earned points for playing these games, and could redeem them for merch and food. 

Most of the people who attended, according to Egan, were members of the general public. When the doors opened on Tuesday, he said, there was a rush of kids and families who surely had never heard the name Cool Cats before. It hints at the team's ultimate ambition.

"The pie-in-the-sky [plan] is a theme park. We don't know when or how, but we're figuring it out," said Luza. He added that stores along the lines of Build-a-Bear are another goal, and that they've been in talks for a TV show. 

"NFTs and the blockchain were our inception point, and NFTs are something we're always going to do, but we're going to be continually decoupling from that." 

A colorful obstacle course featuring a cartoony blow-up demon

Cooltopia, an activation created by NFT company Cool Cats. It featured several games, including this "Fur Is Lava" timed obstacle course. Like every other room in Cooltopia, this was built around a rare Cool Cat NFT -- the devil Cool Cat. 

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

When NFT enthusiasts try to sell the concept, they often argue that the technology is beneficial for artists. Cool Cats is arguably the most prominent example of that. Egan had been doodling The Blue Cat character in cartoons since 2013, posting them on Instagram and attempting to sell prints, to little avail. Luza, who now acts as Cool Cats' brand manager, convinced him to put Blue Cat on the blockchain a year ago. Over $300 million has been spent on Cool Cats NFTs since. 

The team has amassed millions in royalties, illustrating the potential upside of crowdfunding via NFT sales. But there is a downside. The NFT market runs almost entirely on speculation and hype. As Strauss put it to me, there's a segment of the crypto and NFT market that looks an awful lot like gambling addiction. That means people who buy NFTs can often be more interested in announcements that drum up hype than they are in legitimate brand building. 

"We're really a startup that launched a year ago, if you zoom out a degree, we've made some great strides," Luza said. "We've been in talks with anything from a TV series to games to licensing, but that's also the frustration with the NFT space a little bit. There's this irrational expectation of 'OK, what are you doing next week?'"

"There was too much noise" over the past few months, Egan said. "Honestly, something like a bear market is nice because it kind of makes everything settle."

Cool Cats display featuring a blow-up character with a block-shaped head, plus a fake fountain

Cool Cats creators' ultimate goal is a theme park. They've been in talks to make a TV show and video game, too.

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

Over the next few years, there will be several high-profile media releases born out of the blockchain. A fantasy-themed NFT collection called Forgotten Runes Wizard Cult is using some of its profits to finance an eight-episode anime series written by the creator of John Wick. Reese Witherspoon's production house has plans to make a TV show and movie for World of Women, an NFT collection focusing on female empowerment. 

What all these projects share is a goal of ending up with a brand that the general public doesn't necessarily know originated on the blockchain.

The big bear 

As I was riding down the Marriott Times Square escalator on NFT.NYC's last day, there was a guy holding a massive clipboard with a tally on it. As people strode past, he'd ask if they thought ether would tumble below $800. Most people bet ether was going down. The crypto crash is unlikely to reverse anytime soon, and most at NFT.NYC knew it. 

If the bear market truly is for building, it'll be a positive. NFTs have for the past year been a speculative bubble, where scams and dodgy creators have been able to thrive.

But NFT.NYC itself wasn't short on grift.

It began with the convention itself. Last-minute tickets cost as much as $2,000, yet it was a messy event. Dispersed among several venues around the Times Square area, the three-day event advertised 1,500 speakers. Many were founders or CEOs of companies few had heard of.

To cram in all those speakers, some solo presentations lasted as little as 10 minutes, with multiple-speaker panels getting around 25 minutes. The schedule wasn't finalized until days before the convention started, and some speakers pulled out at the last minute. It wasn't Fyre Festival, and it wasn't a scam -- but it was chaos.

In response to those criticisms, NFT.NYC co-founder Cameron Bale said the show's schedule was intentionally published a week prior to accommodate last-minute changes. Bale added speakers come from countries around the world, and that many of the pullouts were due to COVID travel restrictions. "Our first core value is to give the community a voice by putting as many passionate thought leaders on stage as possible," Bale said of the inclusion of 1,500 speakers.

The marketing tactics employed by some brands around the convention were comically unscrupulous. An anti-NFT protest broke out in New York, with people waving signs like "God hates NFTs." It got plenty of play on social media, but ended up being a marketing stunt to promote an NFT collection. 

Snoop Dogg briefly caused a rush of excitement when he appeared at the convention, though he was soon unmasked as a celebrity lookalike, hired by a small crypto firm with a stall at the conference, donning the name tag "Doop Snogg." (Hilariously, the real Snoop Dogg turned up later at Ape Fest.) 

QR codes that could be scanned to mint new NFTs were littered all around Times Square -- but savvy NFT investors at the conference knew that actually scanning those codes was asking for trouble. 

Sketchy tactics at an NFT convention isn't a shock. The undampened spirits, however, were a legitimate and consistent surprise. I wondered how it could be that 100% of the people I spoke to were so unperturbed by the crypto collapse. It dawned on me that there's a selective process: People who've been wiped out are unlikely to fork out hundreds of dollars for an NFT convention ticket. 

A Bored Ape Yacht Club owner said it best. "If you're financially solvent, things are OK right now." Then, as his face contorted into a pained wince, "if you're not..."

Correction, July 1, 2:45 pm PT: An earlier version of this story stated NFT.NYC panels lasted as little as 10 minutes. Solo presentations were 10 minutes, while panels were as short as 25 minutes.