Among Hollywood-friendly best-selling authors, few rival Ben Mezrich. All of the 25 books he authored since 1997 have been optioned for film, with three of his finance-centric titles making it all the way to the silver screen. His 2009 opus about Facebook, The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal, became The Social Network, which snagged an Oscar for best picture, and his quasi-fictional debut Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, was the basis of 21.
In total, the 53-year-old Harvard graduate has sold more than 10 million books, and the films based on his writings have grossed a half-billion dollars.
More Mezrich books may soon become movies: Stephen Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment just optioned Mezrich’s DaVinci Code-style thriller, Midnight Ride; in October, production started for a Sony movie about the Gamestop short squeeze based on Mezrich’s 2021 book The Antisocial Network; Mezrich’s Bitcoin
“I’m in a situation right now where I can easily sell anything,” Mezrich says. “Simply because I have so many things under production.”
His latest project is a classic example of life imitating art. While working on a Big Short-esque screenplay about a trader, an artist and a scammer looking to get rich quick using non-fungible tokens (NFTs), Mezrich is trying to become the type of entrepreneur he has made a career of chronicling. Since January, he sold 7,000 NFTs, generating nearly a half-million dollars worth of ether at today’s price, and gave away 2,000 more. Anyone with the right combination of three of those NFTs will receive a screenplay token entitling them to a pro rata share of the screenplay’s net proceeds.
Using technology built in partnership with Adam Brotman, the long-time manager of Starbucks’ 27 million-member loyalty program, what the author jokingly calls the Ben Mezrich Platform could eventually do much more than just help writers crowdfund screenplay advances. His work is part of a publishing movement being embraced by mainstream authors and film producers that is poised to become an entirely new way for writers to find their audiences and for readers to read.
“My goal is that the Ben Mezrich NFT project becomes a place where other authors are going to launch book-related projects,” says Mezrich. “And the goal is eventually big-name authors and brand-new authors who maybe would not have had the chance to do something like this are going to be able to rather than just try to send a manuscript off to a publisher, to take the bones of a manuscript, show it to an NFT community, and launch an NFT drop around it. And if people like it, you are essentially having the community fund your ability to write a book that the community then owns or buys.
“I don’t really see us as competing with publishers,” he adds. “As much as Amazon Kindle.”
A native of Princeton, New Jersey, Mezrich graduated summa cum laude with a degree in social studies from Harvard University in 1991 and carved a career out for himself telling mostly true stories about geniuses getting rich. With a venture capitalist’s eye for good ideas, and a journalist’s ear for good stories, he found himself at the right places at the right times to get rich over and over again, but never did, he says. At least, not beyond what his writing brought in. “When I see something that I think is going to be world changing, my first instinct is I want to write about it,” says Mezrich. “Not, ‘I want to be a part of it.’ ”
Click here to subscribe to the Forbes CryptoAsset & Blockchain Advisor.
That means he’s had first-hand tutorials from some of the greatest minds of our time on what they do best. He learned about social networks from Sean Parker and Eduardo Saverin, gambling from MIT blackjack master Jeff Ma and cryptocurrency from the Winklevosses. “They were my teachers,” says Mezrich. After initially framing the Olympian rowers as stumbling buffoons who got lucky with an idea that became Facebook, only to be outmaneuvered by Mark Zuckerberg, Mezrich changed his mind when they became billionaires off their bitcoin investments.
In 2017, from a cafe in the same New York office building where the twins were building their Gemini cryptocurrency exchange, they taught Mezrich how bitcoin became the first technology to automatically prevent a digital object from being copied. “There is a fascination in him and a passion around breaking the frame,” says Cameron Winklevoss, 41, now CEO of Gemini. “Because that’s what he covers.”
“As an artist–and I sometimes consider myself an artist—as a writer—we see value in the works we create,” says Mezrich. “The idea that that value can translate into something digital, truly digital that you still own, is really neat. And so that was the first inkling of it. They were talking to me about it. But I wasn’t gonna do anything about it.”
That changed in September 2021, when Adam Brotman privately messaged Mezrick on Twitter to congratulate him on his forthcoming novel about retailer and meme stock Gamestop. Mezrick and Brotman, who turned Starbucks loyalty program into the juggernaut that last year generated $4 billion in revenue, were independently exploring NFTs as a way to create new communities around creators, and they decided to work together. “In a lot of ways, we formed Forum3 formally around the Ben Mezrich project,” says Brotman. Since then, Seattle-based Forum3 signed Starbucks as a client, helping it build an NFT program called Odyssey that uses digital tokens on the Polygon
Though Mezrich is best known for writing 25 books, he has also written four screenplays, including an episode of the Showtime hedge-fund drama Billions. To show the differences between the traditional and NFT-enabled versions of screenwriting, Mezrich says the Midnight Run screenplay will likely see one of three paths to monetization. Amblin turns it into a movie and keeps nearly everything the film might make. Amblin drops it, and another major studio could pick it up under similar terms or an independent studio could grab it for less up front but Mezrich could keep a percentage of what the film makes starting opening day. Or, Mezrich retains ownership, raising the money and making the movie himself. But that’s very rare.
By contrast, the unnamed screenplay about NFTs Mezrich is currently writing, or perhaps about the FTX debacle where billions of dollars on one of the largest cryptocurrency exchanges evaporated over night, has already generated sales of $460,600 in ether, part of which goes to the author, helping him get paid earlier in the process than is usual and opening the door to funding by fans. “What I’ve essentially done is taken the screenplay and split it in half,” he says. “Fifty percent is going to be owed by the community and 50% is going to be owned by me. And we’re going to do this together. So they’re basically taking part in this work of art. When I finish the screenplay, they all will essentially have shares in it.”
About 3,000 people bought the first NFT for 0.06 eth, or about $97 at today’s prices. Among them, 2,200 minted the second free NFT and 1,800 minted the third, which also cost 0.06 eth. “In the first drop, there were rarity features that could give you more screenplay shares–you could have as many as three screenplay shares. Those are some people who are going to have a much more significant stake in the screenplay than other people. And depending on how many of these NFT trios you collect, you could have multiple stakes.” Without having even written the screenplay, let alone selling it, the project generated nearly a half-million dollars, and a total of 1,800 people now qualify for the screenplay stakes. But there are no guarantees.
“A movie is a spin on the wheel of life,” says Mezrich. “You have no idea. It could spin zero a million times, but you never really know what that spin on life is going to be. Everyone gets to go to the big premiere, we have a work of art that we built together. And hopefully, there’s a big revenue return.” Only 2% of the NFTs have been offered on the secondary market, but they’ve generated 631 ether in volume, worth about $1 million at today’s prices.
In light of the latest drama around the collapse of industry darling FTX, Mezrich is wary of scammers—and of potential fears he might be one. Last year, so-called rug-pull scams, where creators promise benefits to fans of crypto projects, only to stop development after the initial sales, resulted in $2.8 billion in losses, according to data site Chainalysis, though the firm’s cybercrimes research lead, Eric Jardine, expects that number will decrease this year in tandem with a drop in overall volume due to bear-market fears. In March, the U.S. Department of Justice charged two people with a rug-pull that netted them $1 million in a matter of hours. Even further complicating Mezrich’s plans for the platform are doubts about when an NFT might be deemed a security. The maker of the $1.1 billion Bored Ape NFT franchise is reportedly being investigated by the SEC, and agency commissioner Hester Peirce says the panel should provide new guidelines.
Mezrich has taken note. “When our first project launched, there was a very clear opt-in that I don’t think anyone else has ever had,” he says. “But a lot of the laws are not clear right now. And going forward, we might see some regulation and things might change.”
He isn’t the only marquee writer exploring blockchain applications. Last September, Frances Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope film company launched Decentralized Pictures, a non-profit studio that built its own blockchain, T4L3NT Net, where members vote on film proposals they may fund. The blockchain, based on Tezos
Though the price of FilmCredits tokens associated with the blockchain has dropped from its peak of 74 cents in July to 14 cents today, Roman Coppola–Francis Ford Coppola’s son and a co-founder of Decentralized–says the studio has a half-dozen projects in development, and just received the first of three $100,000 grants from director Stephen Soderbergh to fund overlooked talent. “We want to serve the underserved,” says Coppola. “And you’ve got to give voice to artists from anywhere.”
In August, producer Ivan Atkinson, best known for 2019’s The Gentlemen, launched One Van Films, and is using the Caduceus blockchain to build a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO) that gives fans inside access to film production. Marvel 1985 illustrator, Tommy Lee Edwards, is working on a comic book series called Exordium, and in May, a group of authors, filmmakers and technologists revealed Film.IO, a DAO that lets fans vote on what movie pitches get turned into films; it is slated to launch this winter with more than 60 film and TV projects approved and 8,000 users. “Fans want to and should be able to participate in the process of determining what gets made,” says Film.IO CEO Ian DeWinter. “Because on some level, it’s really getting made for them.”
While Mezrich says he’s been talking to “a ton of people in the movie industry” looking for early adopters, tokenizing screenplays is just part of his vision. “I’m in a great position to sell a movie about the NFT space,” he says. “But in general, I’m a book writer. And so the future I foresee for the Ben Mezrich platform is in books, not movies.” Specifically, he wants to see books published as NFTs.
The Forum3 platform is being designed so that limited first editions could be published before they’re released as ebooks and traded in marketplaces that resemble antiquarian booksellers of old, only with NFTs. Even the idea of book provenance will be reintroduced to these NFT ebooks, where, for example, one might not only have a rare first edition of Stephen King’s NFT book, but the rare first edition of an NFT book owned by a celebrity, maybe even virtually signed by the author.
“The first edition becomes this thing that’s collected that’s revered that people love,” says Mezrich. “I foresee a time when the first edition is going to be 100 NFTs that are dropped with the book. And that is what I’m going to attempt to do for my next nonfiction book. If the book does really well, that collectible becomes more and more valuable. So the community is inspired to see the book do well and is also inspired to sort of see their own part of the book do well.”
“The concept of what is a book,” says Forum3’s Brotman, “in terms of how you read it, how you own it, what comes with that ownership, what kind of community forms around that, how you can engage with that community, how you could share ownership with that community, all of those things are on our mind as something that Ben and Forum3 would like to pioneer more breakthroughs on in the future. This is foundational to our entire relationship with Ben, and goes to the heart of why Ben, and Forum3 and all of us are on the same page.”
According to the terms of the agreement Mezrich made with the NFT owners he now has six months to complete the “somewhat fictional” unnamed screenplay, based on real NFT entrepreneurs. His approach to research has also changed for the project. Instead of doing it in private, Mezrich is interviewing sources on Twitter Spaces. Only Mezrich NFT owners are invited to watch. “My process, I’m doing it live, essentially, to my community,” says Mezrich.
Mezrich is entering an increasingly crowded NFT publishing business. In September 2021, Miami-based Tally Labs signed a deal with Creative Artists Agency (CAA), the firmthat represents Tom Cruise, Beyonce and the LA Clippers, to handle its flagship intellectual property, Jenkins the Valet, which is one of the Bored Ape NFT avatars. In December, Tally signed 10-time New York Times bestselling novelist Neil Strauss to be the first writer on a new Tally platform to publish a book, Bored and Dangerous, about Jenkins, co-written by owners of 6,942 NFTs depicting valet stands, tickets and yacht keys that sold out in six minutes. The original price of these NFTs was 0.06942 eth each, which was about $200 at the time, bringing the total to about $1.3 million.
Instead of using focus groups and research to find books a theoretical audience might like, Tally lets anyone with a Writer’s Room NFT vote on Strauss’ proposals about world-building decisions, character traits and events in his stories. NFT owners can also create their own characters; and license them to appear in the work in exchange for a pro rata portion of 50% of the net profits they might earn from the book. Speculators are now rare, with only 1% of the assets currently for sale. That hasn’t kept more than 7,000 ether worth $9.2 million at today’s price being transacted.
While Strauss’ first NFT book, Survive All Apocalypses, hit digital shelves in December 2021 with a disappointing 892 copies sold, Bored and Dangerous, benefiting from the Tally platform, has made a killing, selling 14,800 units that generated $1.8 million of revenue. It can only be read on Tally’s custom e-reader, which activates a number of features, including being able to discover new content about the other NFT characters licensed for use in the book and so-called easter eggs that traditional e-readers wouldn’t be able to display. In the third quarter this year, the firm received $200,000 in royalties from resales, at an average rate of 5%, implying $4 million in secondary volume.
As with other blockchain assets, book NFTs can be burned (destroyed) after reading or staked (temporarily pledged by the owner) in exchange for interest payments. Burning a book –a less-than-ideal term in this context–might get you a nifty NFT profile picture to use as a social-media avatar, while staking one can result in tokens on the Tally DAO, granting more voting power OVER future publishing decisions.
In May, Tally Labs raised $12 million from Andreessen Horowitz, screenwriter Kenya Barris, film producer Jeffrey Katzenberg’s WndrCo and others to build decentralized storytelling software that lets NFT owners contribute to fiction crafted by well-known novelists. “In a couple of years, we would love for this reader to be like the rails that other books and other NFT-native content is being consumed on,” says pseudonymous Tally co-founder and co-CEO See Ape Follow Ape (SAFA). “But it’s not open source yet. And that’s not happening at the moment. But that’s the thesis when we build technologies, how we can, one, make it reusable for ourselves and, two, how it can be underlying infrastructure for the industry.”
The U.S. publishing industry last year generated a record $29.3 billion revenue, according to the Association of American Publishers, a 12.3% increase over the previous year. Roughly a third of that, or $9.6 billion was from online retail, including digital and physical books. The most recent report by self-publishing site Bowker shows that in 2018 there were 1.6 million self-published titles, up from just 461,438 in 2013.
Since signing Jenkins the Valet, CAA has seen an explosion of interest in similar projects. In August it hired its first chief metaverse officer to manage a newly created metaverse team and is now looking for ways to use NFTs to rekindle interest in physical books—negotiating a traditional book deal based on the NFT sales numbers. In addition to using NFT books as a way for self-published writers to build an audience before they even finish their works, CAA literary agent Anthony Mattero sees it as a way for mainstream authors to get royalties on secondary sales and perhaps give well-known scribes a way to collaborate with their readers. “You get in this writers room, and you’re able to be a character in the book and kind of shape what the book looks like. I feel like things like that. And that community-based writing experience could be new and interesting.”
What all these projects have in common is they’re about more than just tokenizing the final product and selling it to the highest bidder. Like any book, NFT volumes will likely all sell for approximately the same price. Tally used a Dutch auction to establish the price, then refunded the difference to those who paid more at the beginning. It’s what happens before the book is published that’s most different–and what happens after. “We’ve talked again and again about the death of books and how the publishing industry isn’t keeping up,” says Mezrich. “And then suddenly, there’s this revolution going on in the technology that I’m hoping authors and artists and photographers and all these different industries really see as the way to write this wrong and fix what’s happened in the past.”