Commentary

Direct-To-App: Hollywood Tries Freemium

With Netflix dumping a baker's dozen of TV episodes into the screen-isphere all at once, a la carte TV episode purchases now de rigeur and purchasing games by the level through in-app upgrades, it was only a matter of time before someone released a Hollywood feature via the app model. Today we get the purportedly scary (I say that because I am not even creeped out yet) movie "Haunting Melissa" as an iOS app. It is made by Neal Edelstein, who produced "Mulholland Drive" and "The Ring." According to Bloomberg, this project cost over $5 million to put together.

And they plan to make it back 99 cents at a time. Viewers will get the first episode free and then pay for the subsequent episodes or take a $6.99 subscription for the whole film. HD upgrades and versions are available at about twice the price. In a smart promotional distribution gimmick, viewers of the first episode can get the second for free if they share the experience on Facebook. This is a neat social sharing model that gooses distribution just when it is needed and gives the Facebook like some real value.

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The model is so interesting I wish we had a better movie to illustrate it -- or at least one that showed some awareness of the app platform beyond the business model. I haven’t even seen many of these contemporary teen horror flicks of the “Paranormal” stripe to know that this one is hackneyed. Our heroine Melissa’s disappearance is foreshadowed by the opening scene that is narrated by a villain whose face and voice is obscured. Then we are flashed into a long and ponderous, uneventful first episode in which Melissa herself is spooked by stuff we neither can see or much care about. The episode ends with a friend raising the possibility that Melissa’s recently deceased mother is trying to communicate with her. It took twenty minutes for something to happen, and even then I wasn't sure what that was. I don't think my iPad has ever been this inactive.

It is all done with faux webcams and hand cams, a conceit that stopped having the desired effect of hyper-realism about three minutes after we saw "Blair Witch Project" over a decade ago.

The film looks as if it was conceived for another medium and then shoehorned into an app as a last resort. There is nothing here that suggests the makers were aware of the conditions of reception. For instance, end of the one episode does not even successfully market the next. I am not intrigued. Once doesn’t need to dig too deeply into the film’s own history to find good examples of short form serialized drama -- the moviegoing experience of the 20’s. 30’s and 40s were packaged with 12 chapters of 10-minute episodes of the "Perils of Pauline," "Flash Gordon," and countless others. They all shared the most basic of all serial tricks -- the cliffhanger.

Equally out of place is the film’s reliance on dimly lit scenes that don’t resolve well at all even on a retina display iPad. There is a whole bunch of stuff that went on in that first episode I just guessed at because of the muddiness of the view. But more to the point, it struck me quickly that this horror genre is a total mismatch for an app. The lighting, scenery and handheld perspective of the genre demands the kind of thoroughly immersive and very social environment of a movie theater. You not only want a dark environment to enhance the focus and verisimilitude of the screen on your emotions, but you want the screaming audience to feed from.

I could go on about just how un-applike this experience is. There is nothing that allows user interactivity --screenshots, video clipping and posting, forums. They don’t even tell you when to expect the next section of the movie. They describe the release schedule as sporadic.

The problem here is that the "Haunting Melissa’" producers really just see apps as an alternative distribution and monetization platform, not an opportunity to rethink what a film could be here or even how an audience could interact around it.   

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