Mobile movie marketing braces for a jolt

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Warner Bros. Pictures is offering voice messages from Emma Roberts, the star of its slated June release "Nancy Drew." Recently, Paramount set up a multimedia mobile WAP, or wireless application protocol, site for its March release "Blades of Glory." But most movie distributors haven't had much use for promoting their films via cell phones. Web sites, streaming video and traditional media still get the message out, and cell phones have been notoriously multiplatform and unreliable when it comes to marketing.

That all changed in January, when Apple unveiled its iPhone, a $500 piece of equipment that, when it is made available to the public, will incorporate a music player, camera, Web browser and e-mail. Suddenly, other cell phone manufacturers have to play catch-up. "This could be the year of mobile," Warners senior vp interactive marketing Don Buckley says.

Audiences are ripe for the picking, if the right material comes along. According to research firm eMarketer, 76% of the U.S. population used cell phones at 2006's end, but only 38% of those subscribers have sent a text message, and 11% or fewer have purchased ringtones or downloaded games. Mobile users with handsets capable of playing video and browsing the Web make up an even smaller percentage, though their numbers are growing. They're a segment that mobile-content company Jamba hoped to tap last year by releasing a series of humorous ad-free "Borat"-related videos to mobile phones in 17 countries and six languages. (Jamba is majority-owned by News Corp., parent company of "Borat" distributor Fox.)

High-end mobile users "tend to be on the cutting edge, so they are the type of people that movie marketers want to reach," says Lucy Hood, CEO of Jamba and former president of Fox Mobile Entertainment.

Adds Christian Anthony, co-CEO of digital-media ad agency Special Ops Media, "Mobile has been used more for associating your brand with a cool, emerging digital platform."

For now, the most obvious application for mobile is providing local playtimes via SMS, or short message service, text messages in response to queries sent by phone. "SMS is quick, short and inexpensive and can get this information faster than any regular phone call," says Chris Geromini, executive vp at Terry Hines & Associates, an ad agency that specializes in generating movie showtime listings.

Such accessibility has long been part of the Asian and European landscape, where mobile culture already is deeply ingrained. In the U.S., movie-marketing budgets use the same pot of money for cell phone spends that they do for all emerging media. Measuring return on investment or usage in such areas can be a challenge, unlike determining click-throughs with Web site banner ads and search marketing.

But change might be afoot: Hood expects tech-savvy audiences to flock to cell phone marketing once the phones catch up to the possibilities. As she notes, "(High-end users) love viral communications, are connected to their friends, are early adopters to trends and early in finding out what's cool .... We've seen downloads in the millions. That's a fact any film company will take note of."

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