Movie Apps: interactivity, investment, engagement and ?

I was recently asked to expand my remarks about apps produced to promote and market movies, after my post mentioning the Stifler App from American Reunion that I first learned about in Professor John Weller‘s graduate seminar on digital marketing at UCLA TFT.

I began by looking for other movie apps and also by trying to understand, in a more rigorous way, what an app was. Short for application, an app is a program accessed via the internet that’s downloaded to a portable device–say a smart phone or an iPad– where it then mediates between the developer/server and the client/user. In this way, an app obviates the need for every update to the program to necessitate a download to the client’s device. Instead, the update to an application (the program) happens invisibly and nearly instantly. I’ll let Wikipedia continue the thought:
“Web applications are popular due to the ubiquity of web browsers, and the convenience of using a web browser as a client, sometimes called a thin client. The ability to update and maintain web applications without distributing and installing software on potentially thousands of client computers is a key reason for their popularity, as is the inherent support for cross-platform compatibility. Common web applications include webmail, online retail sales, online auctions, wikis and many other functions.”

I start from the functional assumption that an app developed in conjunction with a feature film is intended to extend, enhance and exploit the movie and movie marketing experience to build engagement, interest and consumption, whether tickets to the theatrical exhibition, purchase/rental of the DVD or the desire to see the sequel or the next installation in the series. Like any good advertising and promotion, such an app should provide information about the “product;” it should convey something of the nature of the film experience; and lastly, it should engage the curiosity and interest of the audience (or viewer or player) such that a consumption decision is brought closer to consummation.

Let’s take a look at some movie apps and assess this hypothesis.
I searched “movie apps” and “apps for movies,” as well as “apps” in conjunction with the name of some prominent Summer releases to see what emerged in the results. I found examples that will, I think, inspire some conclusions as well as beget a few more questions.

First, I encountered the apps that are about movies generally rather than a specific flic.

Flixster, bills itself as the #1 app for showtimes, trailers and reviews. Fandango provides the same information but also offers ticket purchase. The TCM (Turner Classic Movies) app delivers schedules, photos, trivia, movie history “and more” for classic movie lovers and viewers of its proprietary cable channel. IMDb, “mobilizes” the internet movie database, an essential tool for industry professionals and fans alike. Lovefilm is a streaming movie rental concern in the UK that ranks high in the “movie apps” search results.

I next searched by titles: MEN in Black III has an app: the “mib iii” app is, in the words of the developers: “The official game of Men in Black 3, putting players in charge of the agency.”

Dark Shadows has two apps, both of which seem lackluster, by comparison with the Stifler App. The first is a photo filter, that gives all your pictures the Tim Burton (and his cinematographer) treatment; The second app is a mobile scroll, which appears to be backgrounds and fonts for your texting pleasure.

Prometheus has an app: “The recently revealed Facebook app page shows an interactive “starmap” where delving deeper into it you can find new Prometheus stills and other goodies.”

Battleship’s app is “AUTHENTIC! EXPLOSIVE! AND FREE!” and “Inspired by the BATTLESHIP movie.” It’s a game where you “play as the Human navy or mysterious Alien forces. Sink every enemy ship – the fate of the world is at your fingertips!”

Avengers, too, has an app, one built by a Vancouver start-up, “Loud Crow Interactive…tapped by Marvel Comics to create an interactive comic app to mark the launch” of the film. “This is the first fully interactive comic book,” says Tom Mara, Loud Crow’s director of sales and marketing.

Films like Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Moonrise Kingdom did not have apps, not, presumably because of the expense–which can be modest, or not, depending on the development process– but perhaps because the marketing department did not see the clear and obvious benefit.

Which begs the question of what exactly that benefit it? For summer [would-be?] blockbusters, like MIB or Avengers or Battleship, an app seems to be part of the standard list of promotional features. Games are common and perhaps obvious choices for films that are themselves inspired by games and or comic books and are likely to inspire additional games or comic books.

For a film like American Reunion, an app can engage with and extend the world of the film through the memorable verbal stylings of a defining character like Stifler. (Stylings that were too provocative to be approved by Apple. Happily, Android had no such compunctions.) The Stifler App transcends its film, in the best way, endowing this unlikely anti-hero with cultural currency and longevity. Upload this app to express your inner fratboy!

For Dark Shadows, whose gothic soap-opera conceit has been made-over into a Tim Burton experience, aesthetic qualities of the film –its cinematography and production design– constitute the basis of the app’s appeal.

And of course, for the movie apps first described, essential marketing information– showtimes, reviews, tickets, trailers, posters, etc. etc.,–is the point and the payoff.

What I will hazard to say given this by no means comprehensive survey of movie apps, is that the situation remains fluid and developing. Different movies inspire radically different kinds of apps, with radically different modalities, sophistication and interactive possibilities. There is as yet no “standard” or formula for a movie app, as there IS a standard or formulaic trailer. What does appear to be certain, however, is that the movie app–however it is designed for a given film–is quickly becoming a standard feature of the movie marketing arsenal, and represents a new arena for audio-visual creativity and audience engagement.

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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