Commentary

That's App-ertainment: Sony, Warner Bros. Go Direct to Mobile

"What was a matinee?" Cue the Lawrence Welk music. I am about to feel ancient again. Only six years younger than I, my fiancée somehow missed the tail end of the movie house era of double bills, cartoons and Tuesday night dish giveaways. So when I drop the term Saturday matinee in passing, she is at a loss. Her childhood had multiplexes. Mine, even in northern New Jersey suburbs in the mid-'60s, had Saturday afternoons at the Rivoli, where the enormous screen sat atop a real stage. Box seats and art deco ceilings and sconces made the theater feel palatial. The chandelier seemed to embrace more than half the sky. Movies weren't a thing to consume; they were a place you went, and that place offered an experience with a discernible arc.  

Yeah I am sounding old. Of course, long before VHS, DVDs and digital downloads, divestiture and the demise of Main Street had begun the long proves of impoverishing the theater as experience.  

This is a history worth remembering as we move to the age of digital distribution where there seems to be a kind of prejudice among the digerati that always favors the new channels like VOD, Netflix or iTunes.  There is something to be said for Hollywood's experience in entertaining people, a quality that is absent in the new channels we like to think are smarter and more fleet of foot than those tired old media models. Mobile and tablet apps may actually give the movie makers themselves another crack at the consumer and recreate a bit of the magic that is lost in a digital catalog of box art and pop-up synopses.  

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As movie studios watch their disc sales businesses shrink, some are getting tired of the iTunes/Netflix middlemen and looking to go straight to the consumer on emerging platforms. As we reported last week, Warner Bros. launched its own film rental experiment on Facebook. But both Warner Bros. and Sony seem to be making even more creative plays on mobile devices. 

"The Dark Knight" downloadable iPhone/iPad app lets user purchase the full film for $9.99 but get a rich collection of extras not available with the Facebook rental. The additional scenes, storyboards and trivia contests add a fair amount of value to the purchase, considering the reasonable price for the digital download. Taking a lesson from iTunes digital extras, the studios seem to understand now that they have to sweeten the digital download deal and make it feel more like a DVD. Warner Bros. is relying on individual film apps like the initial ones for "Dark Knight" and "Inception." Better this than leading with the studio brand. Only graying moguls actually believe that consumers shop for films according to their distribution brand.  

The WB play raises an interesting question about leveraging apps for media distribution, however. Do we want dedicated apps for each title? Would a music lover really want an app for every album? It seems to raise some issues of storage and media organization. And each studio/label surely would have its own structure for media backup, etc.  

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is taking a smart approach to app-based movie promotion by hiding its own brand behind a general movie lover's app. The new My Daily Clip app doesn't even name Sony except in the small print. Instead, the app gives the movie lover a lengthy three to four-minute clip of new and classic releases, along with an iTunes buy button, social network sharing and a trivia question.  

And to its credit, Sony is thinking of entertainment first and movie sales second here. I was skeptical when I first saw the press release last week, but the app is refreshing for an old movie whore like me. In the first week I have gotten lengthy bits (not trailers) of "Cat Ballou," "Philadelphia," "Dr. Strangelove," "The Wedding Planner" and "The Other Boleyn Girl." A pop-up trivia questions each day keeps a running score of my prowess. A calendar lets me backtrack and review the clips I missed. The app even looks ahead and tells you what clips are coming throughout the month. Sony calls it "the ultimate daily distraction," and that is about right. The app reminds users why we love movies. It advertises an experience.  

I have no idea what will be the best model for movie studios to use mobile, but it is refreshing to see them experiment in ways that actually deliver value to the fans. These executions do raise questions about the nascent digital distribution mechanisms that have arisen and how barren they sometimes feel. As I found in the "Bambi" Second Screen app that synchronized with the new Blu-Ray release, Disney was able to bring a level of sophistication to the second-screen experience I hadn't seen before. These designers understood where the audience would be and what they likely were feeling or attending to at any given moment in the narrative. That is what all seasoned and great entertainers always knew. Even great movie houses knew this in their design and programming. Is there a hint of that in your Netflix queue? Do these guys even care to know why movies continue to entrance us, let alone consider how that knowledge might enrich their product?

One of the surprising qualities of mobile, whether on smart phones or tablets, is its unique immersiveness. An intimate device can dominate our senses in ways that even a TV screen or desktop LCD cannot, even if the screen size is diminutive. The app environment gives the media maker the opportunity to shape an experience that is richer and perhaps more involving than simply showing a movie.  Thinking of mobile as just another distribution channel misses so much opportunity to do more than continue the historic path of commoditizing and further impoverishing what the great American critic Gilbert Seldes once called "The Lively Arts."    

The digital revolution has bred an unfortunate reflex to diminish and dismiss all aspects of big media's history as outmoded and merely quaint, ephemeral as hearing a golden oldie on the radio. We do so at our peril.  

Of course, what does an aging crank like me know? According to my partner, even my word choice is ancient. "A 'golden oldie?'" she mocks when I use that phrase. Great, even my vocabulary for nostalgia is outdated. I think I just felt another part of my body drop.  

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