Alongside the recent speculative frenzy around NFT crypto collectibles, which helped drive $2.5 billion worth of trading volume in the first half of 2021, some projects are attempting to use blockchain-generated tokens to transform established entertainment industries. Now, a group of well-known actors are using NFTs to fund a weed-themed online cartoon series that will be exclusive to token holders… or “TOKEn” holders, rather.
Stoner Cats hails from actress Mila Kunis and her Orchard Farm Productions, based on an original concept by animator Ash Brannon and editors Sarah Cole and Chris Cartagena. Beyond Kunis and husband Ashton Kutcher (the actor and tech investor), it also features famed voice actors such as Chris Rock, Jane Fonda, and Family Guy’s Seth MacFarlane. The series is about an older woman (Ms. Stoner) who, suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, starts using medical marijuana. But as she hotboxes the house, her cats catch the high and start talking, with seemingly wacky adventures ahead of them.
Only NFT holders will be able to watch the series—and the entire first wave of “TOKEns” sold out in 35 minutes on Tuesday, with 10,420 tokens going for 0.35 ETH (about $800) each. That’s some $8.3 million in total. Each token takes the form of a randomized image, similar to CryptoPunks and other popular NFT collectibles, but also has utility in the form of access to episodes and interactive community features.
Now the tokens are selling on secondary markets, with rare NFTs commanding an enormous premium. An NFT depicting Ms. Stoner sold on the OpenSea marketplace for 30 ETH on Tuesday, or about $68,700. The creators also get a royalty from those sales: 2.5 percent of the sale price, lowered from the planned 10 percent following community blowback. Yesterday’s sale also boosted Ethereum fees in the process, and Dune Analytics reports that $785,000 worth of ETH was wasted on Stoner Cats minting transactions that didn’t even go through. The first episode of the series, which launches on Thursday afternoon, hadn’t even dropped yet.
As the NFT market blew up this spring, a rush of celebrities, athletes, and influencers flooded the space with their own branded collectibles, generating millions of dollars in some cases. Given that, the collaborators behind Stoner Cats anticipated skepticism around the project, particularly with such big names attached.
Morgan Beller, General Partner at venture capital firm NFX and previously co-creator of Facebook’s Diem (formerly Libra) stablecoin, told Motherboard on Tuesday that Stoner Cats was already creatively formed well before she helped the NFT element come to life.
“They didn’t start from a place of: ‘We are celebrities, we want to get into NFTs because it’s the thing to do,’” she said. “They were looking for alternative funding options to make the show a reality. NFTs were one of the ideas, but it started in a place where they had a problem and NFTs ended up being the solution, versus a hammer in search of a nail.”
“We were unexcited about what our Hollywood prospects were with it,” said Lisa Sterbakov, who is Kunis’ production partner at Orchard Farm. She said that working in the traditional studio system can homogenize potentially controversial content, so they sought a different approach. Sterbakov recalled to Motherboard how NFTs came into play: “Mila yelled over at Ashton and said, ‘Hey, can we do this as an NFT?’ And he said, ‘Of course we can.’”
There’s another piece of the puzzle that has been catnip for cryptocurrency and NFT fans: the inclusion of Ethereum co-creator Vitalik Buterin as the voice actor for Lord Catsington. Beller said that they wanted to incorporate someone well-known in the crypto scene, and that she and Kutcher already had another meeting scheduled with Buterin, who will donate all of his proceeds from the show to the aging-focused SENS Foundation.
“‘Vitalik is showing up at your house in an hour, so we should probably ask him,’” Beller recalled telling Kutcher. “When you think about things the internet loves, you’re like: OK, Vitalik as a cat who is animated and gets high? That should be a hole-in-one.”
Stoner Cats has been successfully funded following Tuesday’s initial NFT sale, with another 3,000 NFTs set to roll out over the course of the season as additional cats are introduced. Beller confirmed that the show will be exclusively available to the 13,000+ NFT holders with no wider release planned in part due to legalities around the token ownership angle.
If Stoner Cats ultimately proves out the NFT funding angle, Sterbakov’s hope is that future projects can scale to reach larger audiences. She also believes that NFTs can help elevate diverse and little-known creative voices from the community, even if this particular venture raised more than $8 million on the back of established celebrities. “Name value means a lot, and when it comes to the creator front, it’s really hard for an emerging voice to really get seen,” she said. “We love the idea of being able to farm up new talent.”
That ties in with one of Stoner Cats’ longer-term goals, which is to establish a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO) to let token-holders vote on and even propose new projects. If Stoner Cats’ NFTs are 100% sold (seemingly including the additional batches of NFTs), then Orchard Farm and NFT firm Big Head will co-develop a DAO and commit to developing at least one animated project per year over the course of three years.
“NFTs are so fascinating because it’s a mechanism that connects the creator with the audience and fans in a way that hasn’t been possible in the past,” said collaborator Maaria Bajwa, Principal at Kutcher’s Sound Ventures VC firm. “[A DAO] is like a decentralized version of the traditional studios that we have today, and there’s something really exciting about that.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Ash Brannon as an editor and Chris Cartagena as an animator. Motherboard regrets the error.