Jaanus Juss has been staging interactive plays in Tallin, Estonia, for the last decade, using technology to give audience members control over how the plot unfolds. “When you move the weight of the storytelling from the stage to the audience, it’s much more impactful and meaningful for them and they experience it in completely different ways than the writer originally ever envisioned,” the entrepreneur tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Juss had already begun planning to scale the project for global audiences when, in 2018, Netflix released Bandersnatch, a choose-your-own-adventure special from the creative team behind Black Mirror. The attention that the project received was enough to signal to Juss and business partner Hardi Meybaum that there would be an appetite for a new form of interactive storytelling, so they set out to build Whatifi, an app that allows users to watch a film together and decide how the story is told.
Meybaum calls Whatifi — which launches in the U.S. and around the world on Tuesday — “a new category of story hacking.” Helping them in their mission to create collaborative, interactive media is Andreessen Horowitz, which led a $10 million investment into the company that also featured participation from a cadre of individual backers including Netflix CFO David Wells, Supercell CEO Ilkka Paananen, Paypal co-founder Max Levchin and Zynga founder Marc Pincus.
Juss and Meybaum are launching Whatifi as a free app that doesn’t feature advertising, though they say eventually they will look to create a freemium model where users pay to unlock bonus features. After inputting a cell phone number, viewers can invite up to nine contacts to watch an interactive movie together. When the group comes to a point in the film where they must make a decision, each viewer will be given the option to vote on the outcome they want — but the story will only continue once a unanimous decision has been reached. (A chat room within the app allows viewers to chat about the decision and come to an agreement.)
For now, Whatifi is offering just two films, but the founders say they’re confident that the 80 possible endings between the titles will keep new users busy for a while. Anatomy of a Decision tells the story of Junior from his conception at a fertility clinic through much of his life, but how that life turns out depends on which of the 64 different endings viewers choose. As Dead as it Gets is a supernatural thriller directed by Simon Ellis that is set at an old hotel with 16 different endings.
Whatifi — which is based out of Los Angeles and Estonia — is planning to release more titles this summer. The company is also opening a development and production arm, Whatifi Studios, and will commission filmmakers to make projects for the app. One way it will solicit new content is through a script contest, in which screenwriter winners will receive $35,000 and writer-director winners will receive $200,000 to cover production costs.
Though Whatifi’s budgets are small, Juss and Meybaum say they don’t need a lot of money to tell good stories, especially since big action sequences and special effects are less effective on mobile phones. They’re also sticking with largely unknown actors and up-and-coming filmmakers because, Juss says, “the best and coolest ideas come from indie filmmakers.”
It’s a very different approach than the one Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman took with their recently launched mobile video startup, Quibi, which raised nearly $2 billion before its launch and bought projects from a roster of Hollywood stars. But Meybaum suggests that having a fun and engaging experience will be more valuable to Whatifi’s target audience of teens and college-aged students. “They really don’t care how much money you’ve raised or if you have the most famous people from Hollywood and Silicon Valley building the product,” he says. “If they don’t like the product and if they don’t like the content, they already love Netflix and YouTube and will continue watching them.”
Still, it will be crucial that Whatifi finds a way to stand out in a market where YouTube, Netflix, Fortnite and other media already reign supreme. The founders say their leg up will be their ability to blend elements of entertainment and gaming in one app. In early testing in New Zealand, Sweden and Singapore, 90 percent of users who finished a narrative started a new one, they explain. And the average user watched four different endings per movie, suggesting that the content encourages repeating viewing. They’re also hoping that the collaborative nature of the app is a big draw, especially as people continue to limit their in-person interactions during the coronavirus pandemic. “People want to be connected,” says Juss. “They want a reason to do something together.”