In 2015, Ilan Benjamin premiered his choose-your-own-adventure murder mystery Virtual Morality. The three-episode web series challenged the viewer to figure out who killed a popular high school student or die trying.
Virtual Morality instantly became a viral hit, pulling in more than 50 million views—but Benjamin’s initial excitement at his project’s success soon waned. “There was a fundamental problem with this format that none of our competitors seemed to understand, which is that choose-your-own-adventure storytelling is all about plot driven mechanics: Do you go left or do you go right?” Benjamin says. “We realized very quickly that this would not be the next great entertainment format. It hasn’t really arrived the way that people hoped it would, but we do still believe that there is a place for interactivity in entertainment.”
What Benjamin sees at that intersection are stories that bridge the divide between fans and well-developed characters.
That insight has now manifested into FourFront, a content studio producing scripted narratives across social media that have the look and feel of regular posts.
For example, FourFront’s first story that launched last year followed Paige (played by actor Katie Baker), who that discovered all her friends blocked her and she didn’t know why. So she took to TikTok to ask people to help her figure out what happened. Paige’s three-day ordeal stretched across other social platforms as well as an AI-powered chat feature that would send audiences different replies from Paige depending on what they asked her.
Benjamin, cofounder and CEO of FourFront, notes that the company is transparent to its audience that its stories and characters are fictional, through hashtags and prompts. Still, with Paige, 92% of people chose to interact with her, giving advice and sharing their own stories of similar fallouts with their friends. Over the course of three days, Paige’s saga had a 33% retention rate.
“What we discovered was by using TikTok to create a character that audiences would love, we could convert them over to a chat experience where they could really grow close to this character,” Benjamin says. “It was a really beautiful and meaningful experience.”
That trial run with Paige was enough of a proof of concept for Benjamin to expand FourFront’s roster of characters (there are currently eight stories to follow, save for Paige’s which has been discontinued) and to upgrade the technology for its chat feature. FourFront now uses GPT-3, which employs deep learning to create more humanlike messages.
FourFront has been operating under the radar but has still managed to garner 1.9 million followers and 281 million views across its characters’s TikTok accounts. The company also raised a pre-seed round of $1.5 million. “We wanted to build up this universe in secret and make people fall in love with the characters, not fall in love with a company,” Benjamin says.
Mindful and inclusive TV
When FourFront’s team creates a character, it allots them around 20 videos on TikTok to see if there’s interest in their storyline. Based on user engagement around that character, FourFront decides whether to pick up that series. The studio has launched 22 stories but only greenlit nine for a full series.
“It’s kind of like a traditional TV pilot season model, but a little bit on steroids,” Benjamin says. “We let the users decide who is worthy of being picked up for a full season or not.”
Benjamin likens FourFront’s key demo to that of the CW or Brat TV, in that it skews more Gen Z and female. He also notes the genres they’re focused on are romance, coming of age, and comedy.
“We don’t do stories that are thriller or horror or anything like that, because we’re blurring the line between reality and storytelling. We just want to tell stories that are optimistic and good natured, especially with the scary times [we’re in],” he says. “We try to create characters who are aspirational, that fans would look up to, that they would see as meaningful guides into an interesting universe.”
Within those “aspirational” characters, Benjamin wants to be as mindful as possible with how they’re presented to FourFront’s impressionable audience. The character of Paige wasn’t a terrible person, but her storyline leaned heavily on building sympathy for her situation.
“We’ve actually pivoted away from what we did with Paige,” Benjamin says. “We don’t want to make audiences potentially feel like their sympathy is being exploited.”
For example, there’s Ollie, a young transman who discovers his father also transitioned. Or Tia, a young woman who finds out that her boyfriend is African royalty and has to navigate his family who sees a future for their prince without her in it. “As a company, we make sure that all of our content is representative . . . [and] as authentic as possible,” Benjamin says.
To that end, the actors who play these characters also help shape who they are. “I’ve had so much creative agency,” says actor Cameisha Cotton, who plays Tia. “I appreciate being able to be a part of the creative process because I get to improv. I get to come up with what Tia is wearing and what her makeup is going to be and how she’s wearing her hair.”
To keep production as authentic as possible, actors are required to shoot and, essentially direct, themselves. But once they’ve submitted their video clips, the team at FourFront handles posting and all the audience engagement in the comments and beyond.
“Not only have we been creating this universe of characters on TikTok, we’ve also been iterating with a new interactive format,” Benjamin says. “There’s an evolution in entertainment happening from motion pictures, where audiences can’t engage in what we call living pictures with characters who feel alive, who live in our world, who are on social media and react in real time to audience engagements. That fourth wall is completely broken.”
FourFront has tested different iterations of audiences interacting with their characters through Discord, Zoom, Clubhouse, and so forth. But Benjamin says they’re developing their own platform to power live experiences with the intention of licensing their services to other studios. “A perfect comparable would be Fortnite and how Epic Games didn’t just create an absolutely amazing game that people love; it also created the underlying technology, the Unreal Engine, which they licensed to other game developers. That’s a huge part of their revenue model,” he says. “We believe we can do something very similar with a very sophisticated AI that is optimized for entertainment value.”
Benjamin also sees a possible revenue stream of creating a subscription service or ticketing live events with their characters. More than 13,000 people signed up for a live Zoom event with FourFront’s character Sydney. Even though it was free, Benjamin says many people in the comments were expecting to pay. “The engagement was just overwhelming,” he says. “That’s further indication to us that this sort of live platform where audiences can pay a subscription to interact with our characters is a big way that we’re going to generate revenue in the future.”
That level of fandom that these characters engender also opens up opportunities to have them branch out to other platforms. “We definitely want to continue to create great content on TikTok, because it’s an incredible discovery algorithm. But as these characters grow more popular, we can see them working with the traditional creative economy, expanding to YouTube, Instagram, and other platforms,” Benjamin says. “That would allow them not only to continue to generate more content, but also to monetize that content longterm.”
Through FourFront, Benjamin aims to merge audience interactivity and narrative storytelling, the vision that’s guided him from the start. “Why can’t I hang out with Harry Potter?” he says. “That’s the question this whole company began with: Why can’t we allow people to get closer to their favorite characters?”