Commentary

Movies Are All About Mobile Now

"Does that fancy damned movie app of yours rate audiences along with the film?" my partner asked as we suffered through "True Grit" a few weekends back. Oh, the film was just fine. Surprisingly good, in fact. It was the audience that almost had us walking out. There was more grey hair in this audience than I had ever seen at a modern film, and many of them seemed to think they were in their living rooms. The exchanges among the couples and groups in this theater were louder and more irritating than I had experienced since I took my daughter to Saturday afternoon screenings of "Jimmy Neutron" with gangs of seven-year-olds.

"I don't think any of these people have actually been in a movie theater since they came to see 'the Duke' in the first version of this film," I guessed. Literally, there seemed to be a gang of drunken 50-somethings in the back row having full conversations throughout the film. I shushed them myself a few times, only to get mocked as they loudly quieted themselves later. This is something I did not know. Apparently, if you are 50, wear a visored cap everywhere and use smokeless tobacco, you are allowed to act like a 13-year-old until you retire... or kill your liver.

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"I think we're the hippest two people in the audience," she said. "And we're not even vaguely hip. I am hearing emphysema-like sounds all around me. What time warp did your iPhone lead us to?"

Flixster, one of the most popular movie apps available for smartphones, got us there. But the integrated Rotten Tomatoes and user reviews never warned about "True Grit" attracting redneck audiences in northern Delaware. Audience ratings (maybe a quick demographics check?) would be a nice feature. Since when did the Coen brothers become a big draw with this segment...let alone Jeff Bridges -- "the Dude!"

But Flixster already has its hands full just streaming video, according to its Chief Revenue Officer James Smith. "We stream many millions of movie trailers every weekend," he tells me. "The numbers exceed the Web." This is one online genre that is finding its sensible place on handsets rather than browsers. To wit: Flixster boasts over 20 million app installs just in the U.S. market. Those apps help generate over 10 million monthly uniques to the brand overall, and at times over 5 million will come in just over a weekend. That puts the movie discovery genre in the same league as sports and weather on the mobile platform. On most weekends the apps are streaming 3 million to 5 million trailers in the U.S alone. The trailer is apparently the selling point - the deal-sealer. People want to get a sample before they go to the theater, and the smartphone has become the natural platform for the movie-goer's purchase process. In our family, food comes before all else, so the typical use case involves which movie times match the end of dinner. We're usually in a restaurant making a final choice, and it is my job to decipher the movie choices dispassionately for partner and daughter. It is hard to imagine a use case where marketers don't have a better opportunity to influence a choice.

Flixster still gets the majority of its ad revenue from the Web, "but that equation is changing," Smith says. "Mobile is increasingly the lead force in terms of positioning as a company. We are looking to be movie discovery everywhere." The brand really started a number of years ago as a social movie site with strong ties to Facebook. But mobile has the momentum now. Last year, Flixster bought the Rotten Tomatoes review aggregation site, which it is using deftly to differentiate itself from competing movie locators. In fact, the app's content is both a value-add for the user and an opportunity for advertisers. Most ad deals with the studios combine custom social and engagement units with the usual pre-rolls, banners and takeovers. Movie maven that I am, I got sucked into a half hour with Flixster's movie trivia contests. But the basics continue to be most effective. On most weekends there is a full-screen takeover announcing a film opening that leads to trailers. "Consumers are interacting with that at a very great rate," Smith says.

The current stage of development is toward the non-endemic advertisers. Sega, Yahoo, Vitamin Water, Verizon, TV networks and even Old Spice have bought placement on Flixster. Half of the company revenue is already coming from non-studio clients. The key is the use case and the situation, Smith says. "It is interesting to be in front of consumers while people make plans," he says.

The latest big campaign I keep seeing is a localized effort for the daily deal publisher LivingSocial. My Flixster app loads with a banner teasing me with a cupcake deal. "Look it knows you are a freak for icing," my partner chides. And it knows my market, as it offers Wilmington, Delaware deals. "We are driving a lot of people with that," Smith tells me. Tip to marketing creative. Use more icing in the ads.

Flixtser apps are also early arrivals on just about every new platform, from the Google Chrome App Store and Mac App Store to my Google TV. Ultimately, the brand wants to be the ever-present movie review engine informing all manner of choices, including the digital downloads on your TV.

But I wish they would add an audience evaluation rating to this app, because I really did not see that I would have issues with the crowd at "True Grit." I couldn't resist following the grey-haired gang of drunks into the parking lot after the film. As if in a grade-B crime drama, the gang was in plaid flannel shirts, trucker caps and down vests. They peeled into three sub-groups, all of whom were headed toward -- "Oh this is too good to be true," my partner whispered -- three massively oversized pick-ups with grills that resembled cougar maws. The beer bottles literally clanged in the paper bags they toted.

We looked at each other with that comfort that comes from knowing how many of us typecast ourselves into our own movie-lives. "Think we'll l make it home in time for Jon Stewart?" I ask.

"I need some high-cocoa-content dark chocolate," she answered.

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