Fortnite, Twitch... Will Smith? 10 Digital Players Disrupting Traditional Hollywood

6:00 AM 11/1/2018

by THR Staff

From a movie star turned YouTube personality to a Hollywood mogul reimagining digital video, The Hollywood Reporter highlights this year's biggest, most buzzed-about movers and shakers in the online space.

From left: Alex Blumberg, vp new show development Nazanin Rafsanjani, Matthew Lieber and executive producer, scripted, Mimi O’Donnell were photographed Oct. 18 at Gimlet Media in Brooklyn.
From left: Alex Blumberg, vp new show development Nazanin Rafsanjani, Matthew Lieber and executive producer, scripted, Mimi O’Donnell were photographed Oct. 18 at Gimlet Media in Brooklyn.
Winnie Lau

What does it mean to be "digital" in 2018? Is Netflix, which will release hundreds of film and TV projects this year, still digital? Or, with its $134 billion market cap, is it simply the second-largest media company in the world? And what about Disney? The $170 billion entertainment conglomerate is planning one of the most buzzed-about subscription streaming services of the year. Does that make it digital?

Tech companies that were once considered disrupters — like YouTube and Google — have grown into media giants in their own right. In 2017, online advertising reached $209 billion, for the first time surpassing the TV ad market. So, in this new media environment, where virtually every studio is launching its own streaming service and every tech company is getting into the TV show-producing business, exactly who is disrupting who?

This year's Digital Disrupters list cuts through the confusion by focusing on the people straddling the very edge of the digital wave, the startups that could one day grow into the next generation of giants. The folks on these pages are developing new online technologies (like Yoni Bloch and Nancy Tellem's interactive streaming platform), experimenting with new storytelling techniques (like Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman's upcoming shortform video play) and inventing whole new ways to make money (like the microtransactions in Tim Sweeney's Fortnite). Then, of course, there's Will Smith. Old media or new? In his case, both. 

Profiles written by Natalie Jarvey, Patrick Shanley, Jeremy Barr, Bryn Elise Sandberg, Rebecca Sun, Lindsay Weinberg and Ashley Cullins. 

This story first appeared in the Oct. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

  • Yoni Bloch and Nancy Tellem

    CEO, Eko; chief media officer, Eko

    Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images; Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images for Variety

    Someday soon, streamers like Netflix and Amazon will likely offer content that lets viewers pick their own plot twists in interactive adventures — and that someday just got a little closer. In October, Walmart invested a reported $250 million in a new joint venture with Bloch and Tellem's Eko, a startup laying the technological foundation for the future of interactive streaming. "It's a deal that puts more money than ever before into this platform," says Bloch, 37, a former recording artist in Israel who started Eko in 2010 as a way to create interactive music videos (like the one where viewers can choose various TV personalities mouthing the words to Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone").

    The New York and Tel Aviv company, which in 2015 tapped CBS veteran and longtime adviser Tellem as chief media officer and executive chairman, will help Walmart create original interactive content — think a cooking show or toy catalog. Eko is also expanding into ambitious interactive storytelling, partnering with Sony Pictures Entertainment and talent like Mark and Jay Duplass on developing what could turn out to be a whole new species of pick-your-plot programming. Says Tellem, 64: "What we're trying to accomplish here is really being embraced by Hollywood."

    THE PIECE OF TECHNOLOGY THAT MAKES ME NOSTALGIC

    Tellem: "The transistor radio makes me think of simpler times."

    THE INTERNET TREND I WSH WOULD GO AWAY

    Tellem: "Social media has become an unhealthy obsession. While in concept it is supposed to bring people together, the users have become data and there are no limitations on the use of that data for a manipulative and dangerous purposes."

    THE THING GEN Z IS INTO THAT I DON'T UNDERSTAND

    Bloch: "Tide Pods and influencer marketing, but I'm coming around on one out of two."

    MY FAVORITE HOLLYWOOD PORTRAYAL OF THE FUTURE

    Bloch: "Probably Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I love a good Hollywood future, but when most of them seem like bleak dystopias, it's really nourishing to see such a human and emotional vision of how we might use and experience the technologies of the future, for better or for worse."

  • Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman

    Chairman, Quibi; CEO, Quibi

    JB Lacroix/WireImage; Drew Angerer/Getty Images

    People may snicker at the company's name, but they once laughed at Hulu as well, and that turned out OK. Quibi — a combination of the words "quick" and "bite" — is what Katzenberg and Whitman are calling their subscription service for shortform content that will stream "chapters" of less than 10 minutes each, designed with the on-the-go viewing pleasure of 25-to-35-year-olds in mind. "Every morning you leave home with a TV in your pocket and you have all these in-between moments," says former Hewlett Packard CEO Whitman, 62, explaining why she and Katzenberg are betting on the short attention spans of younger consumers.

    With $1 billion in seed money from Alibaba, Goldman Sachs and all the major studios, including Disney, Fox, Sony and Viacom, and orders for series from creatives like Jason Blum, Antoine Fuqua, Guillermo del Toro and Lena Waithe, Quibi is scheduled to launch as a two-tiered subscription service in late 2019 or early 2020 ($5 a month with commercials, $8 without). In the meantime, it's rapidly staffing up its headquarters in Hollywood's Media District. Among first big hires is former THR editor Janice Min. Says Katzenberg, 67: "This can and should be a new golden age of storytelling. My dream is that we'll come back here 10 years from now and we'll have been through the era of movies, the era of TV, and now we'll be in the era of Quibi."

    WHAT I DO WHEN I WANT TO DISCONNECT 

    Katzenberg: "I don't know. I've never wanted to."

    Whitman: "Hike, ride, ski, fish and spend time with friends and family at our place in Colorado." 

    WHAT I LEARNED ABOUT TECHNOLOGY FROM MY KIDS

    Katzenberg: "My grandchildren may not even use the word 'television,' and if they do, it'll mean something totally different to them." 

  • Bobby Kotick and Nate Nanzer

    CEO, Activision Blizzard; 'Overwatch' League Commissioner

    Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Blizzard Entertainment; Chris Saucedo/Getty Images for SXSW

    Whether it's an actual athletic pursuit is debatable, but there's little doubt that video gaming is becoming a supersized spectator sport. When, in 2016, Kotick, 55, and his team at Activision Blizzard decided to create a professional league for their game Overwatch — a first-person shooter with more than 40 million players — they attracted backing from investors including NFL owners Robert Kraft and Stan Kroenke and had no trouble finding an audience, both at live events (where thousands pack stadiums to watch gamers fiddle with joysticks) and online. The first season of the Overwatch League, in which 12 teams competed throughout 2018, culminated in July with its Grand Finals pulling in more than 10 million online viewers (it also broadcast on ESPN and DisneyXD). Next year, with 20 teams competing, should be even bigger.

    "With our first 12 teams, we were selling a vision and a plan," says Nanzer, 39. "This year, we're selling a successful product." New franchises have been valued at $30 million to $60 million, and analysts anticipate that those numbers could increase over the next few years, with total global e-sports projected to exceed $1.5 billion in value by 2020. "What we're really looking to do next year is continue to expand the audience," says Nanzer, adding that he wants "to create a product that's accessible to both e-sports fans and fans of more traditional sports."

    MY FAVORITE HOLLYWOOD PORTRAYAL OF THE FUTURE

    Nanzer: "Demolition Man."

    THE INTERNET TREND I WISH WOULD GO AWAY

    Nanzer: "Food pictures."

    THE INVENTION I WISH I COULD TAKE CREDIT FOR

    Nanzer: "Alexa. It's the only adult voice my kids listen to."

  • Emmett Shear and Ninja

    CEO, Twitch; Gamer

    Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Esports Arena Las Vegas

    One day early this year, Ninja (aka 27-year-old professional gamer Richard Tyler Blevins) was playing Fortnite on Twitch — as he does virtually every day, all day — when he got a message that Drake was now following him on Instagram. “My entire chat [room] started freaking out,” Ninja recalls of the moment. “I ended up following him and Drake DM’ed me and asked to get some games in.”

    Flash-forward to March, when Ninja and Drake actually did get together — remotely, at least — to play Fortnite on Twitch, the Amazon-owned streaming site that offers viewers real-time peeks at other people’s video gaming. More than 650,000 tuned in to watch, a new record for the 7-year-old platform and a huge boost to its biggest star.

    Within months, Ninja’s Twitch following blew up from 500,000 to more than 11 million, he appeared on the cover of ESPN The Magazine (the first e-sports athlete to do so) and he partnered with Red Bull to host a New Year’s event that will stream for 12 straight hours from Times Square.

    "I just don’t burn out," Illinois-based Ninja boasts. "I keep trucking, man." While Ninja may be Twitch’s most famous streamer, he isn’t the only personality on the service, which has been aggressively courting internet stars and media brands to make more videos exclusively for its 15 million daily users. Even more ambitious, Twitch is also moving into non-gaming content, like hosting Doctor Who marathons. "[Viewers] are conversing with each other in Twitch’s chat about what’s happening, creating a completely different experience," says Shear, 35, explaining the appeal of watching a campy British sci-fi series on the site.

    Still, for Ninja, Twitch will always be about gaming. He’s not all that interested in parlaying his newfound fame into a career in Hollywood. "The whole spiel of living there and being in that world? I’m going to pass on that."

    THE INTERNET TREND I WISH WOULD GO AWAY 

    Ninja: "The negative comments." 

    Shear: "I like internet trends. They usually don't live long enough for me to want them to go away. Whatever happened to planking?" 

    MY FAVORITE HOLLYWOOD PORTRAYAL OF THE FUTURE

    Shear: "Iain Banks' novels set in the Culture universe. They're not a film yet, but they should be."

    THE INVENTION I WISH I COULD TAKE CREDIT FOR

    Ninja: "PlayStation."

  • Alex Blumberg and Matthew Lieber

    Co-founders, Gimlet Media

    Winnie Lau

    The podcasting boom hit a few bumps in September — podcast network Panoply cut its editorial department and BuzzFeed got rid of its in-house production team — but the two guys who started Gimlet Media, producer of such podcasts as Reply All and Heavyweight, say they couldn’t feel better about the industry. “Some say there is a bubble in podcasting and it is beginning to deflate,” says Lieber, 39. “Nothing could be further from the truth.” The co-founders point to the 120-person company’s move to a new office in downtown Brooklyn, which Lieber likes to call “the biggest podcast production facility on the planet,” as a sign of its upward trajectory. What’s changed, they contend, is that “dabbling” in podcasts no longer works. “When you focus on audio, it’s a great business to be in,” says Blumberg, 51, the former co-host of NPR’s Planet Money. “We’re one of the few media companies that’s not pivoting to video. We’re where we want to be.”

    But Gimlet is pivoting to Hollywood. The company — which has raised more than $27 million from investors including WPP and Lowercase Capital — has established an entertainment arm, Gimlet Pictures, to translate its audio stories into moving pictures. Its latest adaptation, the psychological thriller Homecoming, based on Gimlet’s first fictional podcast, debuts Nov. 2 on Amazon with a cast including Julia Roberts and Bobby Cannavale (Catherine Keener and Oscar Isaac voiced the original, which has more than 10 million downloads). Though it comes on the heels of the cancellation of the company’s first TV show, ABC’s Alex, Inc., Lieber isn’t worried. “I wouldn’t say Homecoming is make or break for us,” he says. Another adaptation is already in the works: An episode of Reply All is being adapted into a feature film, with Robert Downey Jr. attached to play notorious 1920s scam artist Dr. John Brinkley.

  • Michael Paull

    President, Disney Streaming Services

    Greg Doherty/Getty Images

    Live-streaming a single sporting event is complicated enough. Try live-streaming 10 or 12 at the same time on the same platform. That's what Disney's ESPN has been doing since April, when it launched its subscription streaming service, ESPN+. "When you have dozens of live events going on, having to capture, encode and stream them all, in real time — operationally, it takes a really well-oiled machine to make that happen flawlessly," says Paull, 47, whose job is to develop the tech that makes flawless happen (he worked on Amazon's video team before becoming CEO of Major League Baseball's BAMTech streaming business in 2017, just months before Disney purchased a majority stake valuing the company at $3.75 billion).

    So far, it's mostly a platform for slightly niche sports, like soccer and boxing — the streaming rights to big-ticket events like NFL or NBA weren't available — but it's already picked up 1 million subscribers, who pay $5 a month. Paull's next project: helping launch the highly anticipated Disney subscription service in 2019. Compared to ESPN+, Paull thinks it will be a cakewalk. "Based on what we've seen, doing live events is harder than doing on-demand," he says. "So I think many of the mechanisms we've put in place to operate in that environment are going to be more than sufficient for the SVOD service."

    THE PIECE OF TECHNOLOGY THAT MAKES ME NOSTALGIC

    "The Sony Walkman. It was the first time that I had the opportunity to listen to my music, anytime, anywhere."

    MY FAVORITE HOLLYWOOD PORTRAYAL OF THE FUTURE

    "The Matrix. It was visually stunning and the special effects were incredible."

    THE THING GEN Z IS INTO THAT I DON'T UNDERSTAND

    "Snapchat. I've used it, I've played with it, and I don't get it."

  • Tim Sweeney

    Founder & CEO, Epic Games

    Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Samsung

    It's not just that his company is behind the most successful multiplayer shooter game ever to appear on the internet — with 78 million active monthly players — but also that Sweeney, 47, has figured out a way to monetize Fortnite to the tune of $1 billion in revenue this year. Epic, which is valued at almost $15 billion after a major investment round of about $1.25 billion, announced in October, has devised a revolutionary strategy: Make the game free to download, support it for cross-play on multiple consoles so that gamers on Xbox can compete against friends on PlayStation, and then suck up tens of millions of dollars a day from in-game microtransactions.

    The tiny charges — usually for cosmetic upgrades to the game's avatars and other digital tchotchkes — are small change to players but add up when multiplied across the game's huge fan base. In July alone, for instance, Fortnite pulled in $316 million worth of microtransactions, per Super Data. Not surprisingly, the business model is being rapidly copied across the industry, with games like Assassin's Creed and Call of Duty implanting new microtransaction features. If professed Hollywood fans like Illumination's Chris Meledandri aren't already thinking about ways to lure its millions of players back into theaters with a film version of Fortnite, they should be.

  • Shane Dawson

    Vlogger and documentarian

    Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival

    After YouTube star Jake Paul got kicked off his Disney series Bizaardvark — following a series of stunts, like setting furniture on fire in his jacuzzi, that sparked a public nuisance lawsuit from his Beverly Grove neighbors — Shane Dawson decided to dig into the dude behind the bro. Dawson, 30, a YouTube sensation in his own right with more than 18 million subscribers, made an eight-part, eight-hour docuseries called The Mind of Jake Paul that included, among other things, interviews with Paul's friends and family, a discussion with a therapist about whether Paul has a personality disorder and finally a chat with Paul himself. It's racked up nearly 140 million views since it went online Sept. 25 and turned Dawson into the Ken Burns of online influencers.

    "This feels like a fresh start for me, making things I'm not embarrassed of," says Dawson, who's spent most of the past decade on YouTube doing things like movie star impersonations and music video parodies ("The Shane Dawson from eight years ago is cringe-y," he admits). Over the past year, along with his producing partner Andrew Siwicki, Dawson has trained his documentary lens on other digital stars, like Tana Mongeau and Jeffree Star. But his dream subject is Kelly Clarkson, although he isn't convinced the singer would "take my call."

    MY FAVORITE HOLLYWOOD PORTRAYAL OF THE FUTURE

    "Wall-E, where they're all eating in pods and floating around. I know that was supposed to be a cautionary tale, but God, that would be great."

    THE INVENTION I WISH I COULD TAKE CREDIT FOR

    "Keurig. Everybody loves a Keurig."

  • Will Smith

    Actor and vlogger

    Jun Sato/WireImage

    Yes, that Will Smith, the movie star. Throughout 2018, the two-time Oscar nominee and action hero has been pivoting to a new career as a social climber, proving you're never too old to reinvent yourself for the digital age. For his 50th birthday, for instance, Smith teamed with YouTube to videotape himself bungee jumping from a helicopter over the Grand Canyon and the live stream on his YouTube channel. It got 17 million views. The Bright actor joined Instagram only last December, but he's already racked up 24 million followers, dwarfing Tom Cruise's 2.7 million and Mark Wahlberg's 10.8 million. Not all Smith's vlogs are action-packed; he also posts personal videos about his family, such as A Smith Family Vacation, which has garnered 13 million views in just the past three months.

  • Miquela Sousa

    Influencer

    @limiquela

    Her account doesn't look much different from that of any other 19-year-old aspiring model, with the usual mix of selfies and #TBT posts, except that her skin tone is way too glossy and her bone structure isn't like anything found in nature. But since her first post in April 2016, this CGI character, developed by a mysterious downtown L.A. startup called Brud, has become an internet sensation, amassing more than 1.5 million Instagram followers and attracting partnerships with designers like Prada and Giphy while modeling fashions by Chanel and Diesel. Miquela isn't the only artificial Instagrammer — in a bit of postmodern performance art, she spent much of 2018 feuding with another Brud CGI creation, the Trump-supporting Bermuda, who "hacked" into Miquela's account in April, supposedly wiping all her posts — and she won't be the last.

    Her success has inspired startups working on ways to cash in on virtual humans, from customer service droids to digital doubles for celebrities. And she continues to attract fans: She released a new single over the summer and was recently "seen" hanging out with Tracee Ellis Ross in L.A. when the Black-ish actress attended the American Music Awards. They posted a photo together on Instagram.

    THE PIECE OF TECHNOLOGY THAT MAKES ME NOSTALGIC

    "Do fidget spinners count? Where'd they go?"

    MY FAVORITE HOLLYWOOD PORTRAYAL OF THE FUTURE

    "I love the way Her portrays a futuristic version of L.A. More accessible public transportation? Empathetic AI? High-waisted pants? I'm there."

    THE INVENTION I WISH I COULD TAKE CREDIT FOR

    "Fries."