Hollywood Is Looking for the Next Mickey Mouse in an App. Here’s Why.

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Hollywood Is Looking for the Next Mickey Mouse in an App. Here’s Why.

Hollywood and television studios shepherd nearly 700 films and 50 major TV shows each year, in the hopes that a couple will resonate with audiences and generate massive profits. Keeping the cycle of content coming, though, is an onerous task, one that devours time and resources and boosts already intense competition between studios.

The process of finding ideas for movies and shows, and parlaying them into scripts, and eventually projects, is known as development, and Hollywood players consider it the secret weapon and path to longevity. You’re only as good as your next project, as the saying goes in the industry.

Major producers and studios, and even the industry wannabes, have development departments devoted to sourcing content: snapping up film rights to books before official publication, scouring foreign markets to repackage work for America, and even scouting hit songs for the tiniest nugget of a compelling story. In the endless quest for the next major hit, Hollywood leaves no stone unturned, even venturing into video games and hit Twitter accounts for ideas. But next on their horizon? Apps — one of the fastest-growing digital sectors, whose momentum continues to crest well into the future.

Successful app makers, of course, are eager to broaden their reach and bring their properties to bigger screens. For example, Outfit7, developer of the hugely popular “Talking Friends” programs, where cartoons repeat what’s said in high-pitched, goofy voices, met with Hollywood to explore a deal 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,” Andy Mooney, adviser to Talking Friends and former chairman of Disney Consumer Products, said.

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 plans to develop an Angry Birds movie for 2015, and to build an appetite for a full-fledged movie, it’ll 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, to turn it into a series. On paper, the increase of partnerships between developers and producers is a no-brainer: movies, television and music have long grappled with a sea change to digital entertainment, and are looking for ways to explore online, streaming and other non-traditional avenues without up-ending old and lucrative business models.


By partnering with mobile, Hollywood can stay relevant, and tap into the remarkably broad audience. For example, Outfit7 said Talking Friends netted over 500 million downloads, achieving 120 million users a month. That massive pool of ticket buyers and TV viewers is an opportunity to promote to for both industries. And unlike films, which have specific audiences in mind, apps have a remarkably broad demographic, spanning gender and age.

Despite the powerful synergy between developers and film makers, Hollywood 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, studios have yet to figure out how to turn video games into successes, despite the blockbuster nature of 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 the player in a central role: decision-making and participation. A story, however, takes the audience out of that pivotal role and puts them 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.

Does Angry Birds or Talking Friends really lure audiences? Would people miss them if they disappeared? Do we 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 a once-formidable audience, studios have significant doubts about the app demographic. It takes significant skill — not to mention clever marketing — to translate games to the bigger screens, and that daunting challenge is, in the end, taking a large but casual audience and turning them into a devoted following.

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 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, want 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 making money, 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.

Is Angry Birds or Talking Friends a blockbuster? That’s the question looming over the industry, and rolling the dice on an answer isn’t something Hollywood takes lightly.

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.

The app largely drove traffic to 10 animated clips. Outfit7 promoted them by sending app alerts as viewers played on their smartphone and tablet — over half of the views originated from the app, the company 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.

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