Mobile phones emerging as new video distrib channel

'Mobisodes' are becoming increasingly important

Mobile mobisodes: We've come to think of movies as the Big Screen and television as the Small Screen, but there's now an even smaller screen that's emerging as a new way in which to distribute entertainment content.

That screen, the so-called Third Screen, is the one on our mobile phones. It's a unique medium in that it's always with us no matter where we are. Our mobile phones, keys and wallets are the three things that virtually everyone takes with them when they leave the house. With the advent of new technology and larger phone screens, distributing entertainment content via mobile phones is now on its way to becoming an important new business for Hollywood.

A case in point is the Beta or soft launch May 21 of Famous Frames Mobile Interactive's model digital studio. FFMI, a first-wave new media company that produces, acquires and distributes original graphic content, has its first mobisodes of five new animated series available for free viewing online at www.FFMI.com. There are, for instance, new animated features starring The Three Stooges -- the first appearance by the legendary Moe, Larry and Curly in 50 years -- under the banner "The 3D Stooges." Among the site's other content is "CyberRacers," a CGI action thriller series of three minute mobisodes produced with the Asian animation house Morph Studios.

FFMI is a sister company to Famous Frames, Inc., the country's leading talent agency specializing in storyboards and comp illustrators for advertising, motion pictures and theme park entertainment, which is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary.

For some insights into how Hollywood and the mobile phone marketplace are working together, I was happy to have the opportunity to focus recently with Mark C. Miller, CEO of FFMI and President of Famous Frames, Inc , and FFMI president Steve Schmidt. In 1988 Mark and Janine Miller launched Famous Frames. In 2004 Famous Frames Digital (F2D) was created to produce animatics, animation, 3D and digital art and to extend Famous Frames into the next generation digital era.

"With Steve we created (in 2005) a whole new company, Famous Frames Mobile Interactive, as a digital new media studio," Miller explained. "What we are able to do is create our own graphic content of all kinds -- mobile movies, animated messages, games, graphic novels -- and through our own digital distribution platform we also have the ability to distribute it to broadband and mobile wireless devices.

"We originally just started as a mobile storefront selling wallpapers and ring tones, the very basics of this new industry. We were going through an aggregate phone provider out of Colorado. Before we could even launch, they were sold to a Canadian company and almost immediately they were sold to a Japanese company. While they were getting their business plans in order that's when we explored the possibility of building our own platform, which Steve oversaw, and that is our 'nGen.' My definition of a studio is an entity that can produce its own work and has the ability to distribute it. That's what makes us a new media studio."

"In addition to FFMI branded content and content that we originally produce," Schmidt added, "the nGen platform, standing for Next Generation content distribution system, is intended as a distribution mechanism for partners. So we have content partners and content providers who are using and will be using our nGen distribution system to distribute original content in association with us. Our model is a new media digital studio for next generation Hollywood."

Asked why the mobile phone business is a good one to be involved with these days, Miller replied, "I think mobile's time has come. When we first started this the question was, 'Will people want to watch graphic content on the phone?' And often we were told, 'No, that is not the case.' But the iPhone totally changed our industry because now we can deliver our content and you see it in DVD quality. It has become an accepted form of entertainment where you can watch anything you want any time anywhere. People have become more selective. They are the ones in charge now. You don't have to watch what the few networks are offering when they are offering it. So the consumer is king in new media. We still have a long way to go, but we have more and more products being delivered on the mobile side and within the year it is going to become accepted. Advertising budgets are heading that way. There's far more graphic content being offered.

"Presently, most product offered for new media is rehashed from other forms of media. You see them on TV. You see them on cable. At the very end, they throw them on this trash heap of new media. What we're doing is turning that distribution platform upside down. We are creating original high quality content for new media and then we're exploring the more traditional channels of Hollywood."

"I think we are at a tipping point," Schmidt told me, "in that the download speeds that make data delivery possible -- which is to say (make) quality mobile video possible -- are just now coming to the point where the quality and speed of mobile video is sufficient for a breakout in the market. I always compare it to the breakout in the market on the PC side when we saw dial-up go broadband and then there was the boom of online video because the quality was there. The consumer no longer had to wait (a long time) for the download.

"Next February the country goes digital completely in terms of (television) transmission and that will be an accelerator as well as the wireless carriers each scrambling to out-compete each other in next gen 3G and 4G delivery speeds. The system that I think we all need to watch is the Sprint system with their new (Samsung touchscreen) Instinct phone, in particular, which is meant to be a phone 'killer,' as they call it, very much like the iPhone. But unlike the iPhone on the AT&T platform with its slow delivery speed, Sprint will be (providing a) much higher delivery speed. Sprint has just entered into a deal to deliver through WiMax the next generation competition to the carriers through their footprint that will be high speed in North America and then going beyond that."

There also is, Schmidt noted, "a breakout on the size of the mobile from the traditional brick phone (where) the 4 to 3 aspect ratio is giving way to a wide screen. You see that with the iPhone. Everybody when they first tilted it sideways was going, 'Whoo! Now we get it!' It's no longer a small screen. It has the wide screen aspect ratio. I think that is the other element that is making the tipping point obvious."

How is FFMI determining what kind of content people want to see on their mobile phones? "Over the years our artists have rendered the cinematic visions of every top industry director or art director," Miller replied. "This gives them the opportunity to really step out on their own, do their own projects and get what recognition they deserve. We built our company on a high level of artistic quality. We are not YouTube for the masses. We are very selective. We built our reputation on this high quality and that's what we're still adhering to.

"Along the way we have gone outside of the Famous Frames group and we've landed some very major projects. We have the exclusive digital rights to The Three Stooges, which we have repackaged as 'The 3D Stooges.' That's animated. The first one is called 'The Grate Debate.' We're bringing up these old Hollywood icons in new modern day settings and trying to introduce them to a whole new generation. We also are working with Morph Studios, one of the top special effects and animation houses in South Korea. We are co-producing together 'CyberRacers,' which is a feature length CGI film, which we'll be offering in three minute mobisodes or package downloads. We've also gotten some products coming from some very high quality content providers. We're going to let the public really decide (about content). That's what new media is about. The public will rate what they want to see and ultimately they are the judges. We are just the first round."

As for when and where people will want to view content on their phones, Miller observed, "I think it's going to become second-nature for people. I think people are going to start viewing on their phones on their bus and train trips, on holidays, in-between their classes -- whenever they have downtime. You now have access to the entertainment that you are going to want just as the Internet has become almost essential to people's lives where a couple of years ago it still was kind of unimagined that such a thing could happen. So I think the time has come for mobile entertainment. I believe it's actually going to be preferred (to have content always available) as opposed to being anchored at a certain time or place with a certain program which you have not chosen. It gives people a lot of freedom and I think that's what it's all about now."

When I mentioned that I rarely watch anything that's available on my own mobile phone's video channels, Miller emphasized, "The channels that are offered you can get other places. What's being offered now for new media is rehashed product from other media. You can watch it on cable (or) on TV and now they've got the mobisodes or repeats, which you can download from iTunes. But there's nothing original yet being made for new media unless it's amateur YouTube quality, which is not what we are about.

"'CyberRacers' is as high quality as anything that has been made for this new media. It's worthy of launching a new medium. That's how people are going to start treating new media. It is going to be an outlet for new content providers who can now overcome these barriers set up by the old Hollywood studios and actually produce their product, send it to the public and let the public decide. Watch 'CyberRacers' and you'll see what I'm talking about. We also have 'Masterminds' in development, which features (legendary Marvel Comics creator) Stan Lee, so that will be an exciting piece that we're looking forward to."

"I'd also point to handheld devices," Schmidt said, "because it's more than mobile phones. You pretty much have to look at the wireless category as handheld digital devices, which is very often used to describe phones that also are players. They're also digital systems that are used for downloading files and the change in memory and the change in the quality of the product makes for a very enjoyable (viewing) experience.

"You're going to have very happy consumers and you won't be looking at (what) people were saying three years ago -- 'You want to do what with mobile phones?' It's driven pretty much by (people) who are now using their mobile phones to upload videos to social sites like YouTube and MySpace. There are now for the first time awards contests like student film contests for video produced for mobile phones and handheld devices with built-in cameras. So the whole notion on the publishing side of people having their mobile phone with them and recording video and uploading it immediately and sending it to news organizations is becoming a very key element of that interest in mobile phones or handheld devices (because they are) ubiquitous and recording everywhere."

With FFMI's soft launch now underway, Miller told me, "We are presently in strong negotiations with certain phone carriers regarding our (official) launch and I would anticipate that around July." Looking ahead, he sees FFMI focusing on animated product, but doesn't rule out also developing some live action material such as short form stand-up comedian segments.

"Our intent is to really make FFMI an artists entertainment community where the public can eventually submit their own material and be rated by their peers," Schmidt said. "I think the beauty of new media is that interaction between the public and the provider."

"We're absolutely looking at our model and partnering and joint venturing with our platform with some major players," Miller added, saying that anything further on the subject needs to wait for future announcements.

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Feb. 25, 1991's column: "At the same time that Hollywood is doing quite well in the face of the recession and the Persian Gulf War, the cash crunch at Orion and MGM-Pathe is casting a dark shadow over an essentially healthy industry.

"Orion and MGM-Pathe, which got into financial trouble in different ways, are both companies scrambling now to raise funds to continue operating. It's difficult to come up with an encouraging prognosis for either studio. Ironically, at the same time that Orion is enjoying its best boxoffice business ever thanks to 'The Silence of the Lambs' and 'Dances With Wolves' and has in 'Dances' the Oscar front-runner, it's busy trying to sell some of its most potentially commercial completed films...

"In MGM-Pathe's case the company released rather than sold its best product. Unfortunately, none of those films performed sufficiently well to provide enough cash flow to fund the marketing costs for the studio's upcoming movies. That leaves MGM-Pathe a likely, if not particularly attractive, candidate for more bank loans...

"If all goes well, Orion will get the best possible price for the pictures it's peddling and (Giancarlo) Parretti will find a banker willing to bail out MGM-Pathe for now. The future, unfortunately, looks rather bleak..."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com
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