Universal builds site to master mobile destiny

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Universal plans to launch its own Web site in November offering branded mobile content in an effort to take greater control of marketing and merchandising from mobile carrier decks.

"We want to be master of our own destiny more, to have an environment we control," said Jeremy Laws, the Los Angeles-based senior vp at Universal Mobile Entertainment.

The studio will first launch the site in Europe to coincide with the theatrical release of "American Gangster" and will soft launch it at the same time in the U.S. Universal plans a bigger stateside push in March, with the release of "Wanted," Laws said.

Universal is the latest company to attempt an end run around the so-called "decks" of prepackaged content run by such carriers as Verizon, Sprint Nextel, Vodafone and Orange. But with those, "we're basically beholden to the way operators want to merchandise our brand in their own shops," Laws said.

In contrast, the "off-deck" site will put Universal squarely in charge of the look, feel and presentation of its content. It also will give it a greater share of revenue. News Corp.'s Fox Mobile Entertainment tried something similar last year with the Web site Mobizzo, which has since been folded into Jamster, part of the conglomerate's joint venture with Jamba.

Laws said the Universal site will make it easier for one-stop mobile shopping because Universal will put ringtones, wallpaper and games all on a film's same page, whereas carrier decks tend to scatter the merchandise across different pages. It also makes Universal films the center of attention. On busy carrier decks, the studio vies for visibility not only against other studios but also against a plethora of content providers from the sports, news and music world.

"Nobody would say that's an easy process," Laws said.

In the many-handed procedure of distributing mobile content, the direct-to-consumer site also gives Universal a bigger share of the mobile pie. As the entertainment and mobile industries try to work together, Hollywood and others typically complain that cellular companies are asking for too large a cut.

"We're always pushing to get as much of the revenue share as we can," said Laws, who called mobile entertainment "a convoluted value chain" that can include aggregators, transaction processors, carriers and content providers, among others.

The direct-to-consumer mobile site does not replace Universal's operator channel. In fact, Laws anticipates that the majority of Universal's mobile revenue will continue to come from carrier decks for the foreseeable future. Universal will count on the direct site primarily for promotional and branding value in the near term.

"We're not deluding ourselves that (the direct site) is going to be a cash cow in the short term, but its greatest value will be from a marketing perspective," he said.

He called carrier decks the cyber world's equivalent of distributing through a Wal-Mart in the physical world. By comparison, the Universal site would be the cyber equivalent of a "boutique shop," Laws said.

But media groups also want a more direct relationship with end users and are testing out avenues like their own direct sites as well as "side-loading," in which PC users transfer downloaded content to handsets. Some are even considering running their own mobile networks, though sports giant ESPN famously pulled the plug on its short-lived mobile network a year ago.

Universal will charge a fee for some of the materials; games will cost about $6-$8, and provide others for free.
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