Finding the Next Mickey Mouse in Mobile
Film studios are looking to apps to turn into TV shows and movies, but they need to overcome significant obstacles to develop the next franchise, and bridge the 500-mile gap between Hollywood and Silicon Valley.
The Endless Hunger for Content
The U.S. film and TV industry shepherds nearly 700 films and about 50 major TV shows to audiences every year, in the hopes that even just a few will resonate with audiences and generate massive profits for studios. Keeping the cycle of content coming, though, is an onerous task -- one that devours a lot of time and resources and boosts already intense competition between studios.
The process of finding ideas for shows and movies and parlaying these into scripts and eventually projects is known as development, and it's considered the secret weapon and path to longevity by every smart Hollywood player. You're only as good as your next project, as the saying goes in the industry.
Every major producer and studio -- and even the industry wannabes -- have development departments devoted to sourcing content for films and TV: snapping up film rights to books even before their official publication, scouring foreign markets to repackage work for American audiences, even scouting hit songs for the tiniest nugget of a compelling story. Hollywood leaves no stone unturned in the endless quest for the next major hit, even venturing into video games and hit Twitter accounts for TV and movie ideas. Next on their horizon: the app market, one of the fastest-growing digital sectors, whose momentum will continue to crest well into the future.
A Sitcom About a Flatulence-Plagued Dog
Many successful app makers, of course, are eager to broaden their audience and bring their properties to bigger screens. App developer Outfit7, for example, which makes the hugely popular "Talking Friends" apps, where cartoons repeat what you say in high-pitched, goofy voices, met with Hollywood to explore movie and television deals based on its popular characters, like the impudent cat Tom and the intestinal gas-riddled dog Ben.
"The studio system is waking up to the power of mobile as a form of franchise creation -- that the next Shrek or Mickey Mouse could start as an app," said Andy Mooney, adviser to Talking Friends and former chairman of Disney Consumer Products.
Outfit7, of course, isn't the first app maker to dip its toes in Hollywood's pool. Rovio, the studio behind Angry Birds, nursed ambitions to parlay its app empire into a full-fledged media franchise. The publisher took time to build up Angry Birds beyond apps, expanding to highly profitable and visible toys, clothing and traditional board games -- and, more importantly, proving that the app had legs.
Rovio met with Hollywood, and as a result, plans develop an Angry Birds movie for 2015. To build the appetite for a full-fledged movie, it'll first release an animated series, consisting of 52 short two- to three-minute segments, for TV this fall.
But Angry Birds isn't the only game with a media deal in the works. Disney snapped up Swampy, the reptile character at the center of the "Where's My Water?" game, in hopes of turning the app into a series. On paper, the increase of partnerships between app makers and Hollywood producers is a no-brainer. Media like movies, TV and music long grappled with the sea change towards digital entertainment, looking for ways to explore online, streaming and other non-traditional avenues without up-ending old and lucrative business models.
Hollywood can partner with mobile to stay relevant, and tap into the remarkably broad audience that apps garner. Outfit7, for example, said Talking Friends netted over 500 million downloads, achieving 120 million users a month. That's a massive pool of ticket buyers and TV viewers, and the opportunities to market and promote to them are huge for both industries. Unlike films, which have specific audiences in mind, apps have a remarkably broad demographic, spanning gender and age.
Do You Care About Pig-Battling Birds and Rude Talking Cats?
Despite the powerful synergy between the app makers and Hollywood, movie executives are approaching partnerships with caution. The trepidation is a legacy of failed films based on non-traditional content. Outside of the "Tomb Raider" and "Resident Evil" franchises, Hollywood has yet to figure out how to turn video games into successes, despite the blockbuster nature of many titles.
Part of the issue is the nature of the material, and translating that into a story that's sustainable for two hours or a TV season. Games are active first-person experiences that involve you in a central role: decision-making and participation. A story, however takes you out of that pivotal role and puts you in a passive role, which saps the pleasure for its fan base.
Some, too, question whether apps are merely fads, picked up in a rush of enthusiasm and dropped when the next thing comes around. Hollywood executives, in evaluating properties, look for significant emotional attachment that audiences have in characters and stories. That's why books and comics are rich sources for film -- the stories already have audiences invested in the characters and conclusions. So they'll follow these characters and stories to any medium.
How attached, really, are audiences to Angry Birds or Talking Friends? Would they miss them if they disappeared? Are you care what happens next? Hollywood is rolling dice on these questions, but as mobile and social gaming powerhouses like Zynga take major hits in their struggle to sustain once-formidable audience numbers. Hollywood has significant doubts about the app demographic. It takes significant skill -- not to mention clever marketing -- to translate apps to the bigger screens. That daunting challenge is, in the end, taking a large but casual audience and turning them into a devoted following.
Scrappy Start-Ups vs. Big Movie Machines
Beyond creative challenges, Hollywood and Silicon Valley are uneasy bedfellows. Temperamental and philosophical differences exist between the two industries: Silicon Valley values the ethos of the start-up, with its quick and constant refinement and product schedules, and more egalitarian -- in name, at least -- hierarchical structure. Hollywood, meanwhile, is still run very much like it was in 1930s. Power is consolidated at the top, so it takes a very, very long time to bring anything to the screen.
Of course, the potential to earn money eases points of tension, but even these discussions are fraught with minefields. App makers like Rovio, for example, wants to keep subsidiary rights like merchandising, but Hollywood often demands the rights as part of its negotiations. Both industries know multiple sources of revenue are important to overall profits, and divvying up those streams will be a contentious issue between those two industries.
Those differences also rear their heads over challenges in marketing. Apps are known for their remarkably wide audiences -- for example, Talking Friends pulls in a 50-50 split of men and women. It also draws a remarkably ranges of ages; most of its fans are between the ages of 13 and 44, broad even for casual apps.
Yet Hollywood historically made and marketed movies for specific audiences, divided between gender and age lines. Rare "four-quadrant" films -- movies that appeal to men and women and young and old -- are reserved for blockbusters, which center on tried-and-true franchises, sequels and major properties with built-in audiences. Four-quadrant films are a massive investment in both their production and marketing, but they often guaranteed studios significant returns. Are Angry Birds or Talking Friends blockbusters? That's a major question looming over the industry, and rolling the dice on an answer is not something Hollywood takes lightly.
Looking Ahead, But Maybe Not a Broad-Enough View
In the end, the marketing reach of the two industries will bring movie and app executives closer together. The signs are promising: a "Talking Tom" series garnered 83 million views on YouTube and Disney.com, according to Disney Interactive.
And the app largely drove traffic to the 10 animated clips. Outfit7 promoted them by sending app alerts as you played on your smartphone and tablet -- over half of the views originated from the app, Outfit7 said.
Of course, Talking Tom is a digital experiment, and concrete proof of the growing success -- and synergy -- in online and media entertainment. Perhaps app producers and Hollywood are approaching partnerships from the wrong end. Rather than shoehorning content into traditional forms like movies, they need to pioneer ways to deliver stories to an audience whose viewing habits are shifting due to mobile.
How about packaging a TV series as a subscription-based app? Embedding shows into an immersive social experience? In other words, explore and discover the best kind of stories for a digital landscape, and marry app makers' talent for innovation with Hollywood's creative resources in storytelling. There's no end to the hunger for compelling characters, but how audiences relate to these stories will change as media continues to evolve.
In the end, however, movies will always be marquee events, the Holy Grail of success for media. To turn your story, book, game, song, and even app into a movie is the greatest imprimatur of success, a sign that it's reached all levels of culture. But as Hollywood raises the stakes to produce hits in the digital age, that star becomes even higher -- and ever more perilous to reach. ♦
Categories: Features | Media Mind