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CULTURE HACKER
Want To Build An Audience? Start Making Apps

By Lance Weiler

ART BY: JORDAN GRAY

It's a known fact that the film industry has no shortage of middlemen. The path between filmmaker and audience is littered with them - some good, some bad. But the promise of a direct connection to an audience has become the currency of the future. These days it seems as if everyone is trying to find a way to capitalize on fostering stronger relationships with audiences. Much of these efforts are focused after the film is finished when it comes time to promote and market the work. Although some filmmakers are including audience development in their initial business plans, many are still only working to build awareness around traditional elements such as theatrical, DVD and VOD.

Are we missing a window of opportunity by limiting ourselves to formats, running times and traditional markets?

Consider the Following:

  • To date, Apple has shipped more than 70 million iPhone and iPod Touch devices and it's projected that within the next two years they'll have more than 200 million in the market.
  • More than 140,000 applications have been created for the iPhone and iPod.
  • Each day, 60,000 Android devices ship.
  • The fledging Android Market has more than 10,000 apps.

These stats are just one part of a growing mobile device market, which is currently expanding due to a new generation of tablets. Apple's iPad and a slew of other computer and handset manufacturers have tablets entering the market over the next few months. Larger screens, faster processors, wireless connectivity and the ability to run various browser and mobile-based applications will all be here soon. We don't know yet if this generation of tablets will resonate with consumers but, as we have seen in the past, devices do have the ability to influence user behavior and consumption. The iPod revitalized the value of a music track and now the publishing industry is hoping the iPad can do the same for books and zines.

For the time being, these devices all offer opportunities for filmmakers to reach audiences directly, with little to no intervention from middlemen. While the selling of a film on iTunes requires a filmmaker to go through one or maybe two aggregators, it is possible to go direct to the App Store as long as the mobile app receives approval from Apple. Android allows you to rapidly prototype so that beta testing can be done directly with users, thus enabling access to a diversity of handsets right out of the gate.

An area of growth within the mobile market will come from embracing apps as a storytelling device. For instance, geolocational services that enable users to connect and share experiences have become popular in recent months. Foursquare and Gowalla are two companies that are leading the category. Early adopters are not the only ones taking note - Foursquare recently inked a deal with Bravo that has viewers and fans of their programs "checking in" to various locations they visit and along the way earning badges and status within the community.

Joseph Stump, CTO of SimpleGeo, a company that provides ready-to-use infrastructure for locational-based services and solutions, believes that location is going to be a part of everything we do. "The biggest shake-ups are going to come in social networking and gaming," he says. "I see location now where social features were a decade ago. Social features made large corpuses of data interesting and relevant based on a person's social circle. I think location provides another view into data that makes it extremely relevant to the user."

Where Data Meets Storytelling

Mobile apps offer not only a direct channel to audiences but they carry your story to places where the audience will consume it. As stories travel they can harvest a variety of data such as: GPS coordinates, viewer preferences and/or contact info. This data can be filtered and used in a variety of ways to enhance a story. For instance, media (video, audio, photos) can be released to viewers when they reach a certain location, data can be used to connect audience members who share similar interests around a story, and characters can contact players directly via SMS, e-mail or even phone calls.

With my newest feature/transmedia project HiM, my company Seize the Media, which specializes in story architecture (design and delivery of stories), is hard at work on a series of mobile applications and web browser-based extensions. Our efforts are focused on an area known as Contextual Storytelling - the use of data to enhance and customize the delivery of story elements and social entertainment experiences to audiences.

Pandemic is a transmedia property that resides within the storyworld of HiM. The game enables players to step into the shoes of the protagonist as they are forced to scavenge for food and encouraged to search for other survivors. One core feature of the game enables the player to create a 360-degree panoramic view of a space. By standing and snapping pictures in a circle, users can capture any space and place it within the game world. In a sense the Pandemic app creates a crowdsourced type MMO (massive multiplayer online game) that enables players to virtualize the real world around them.

Prior to attending the Sundance Screenwriters Lab with HiM we released the "panoramic feature" of Pandemic as a standalone Android app. Without any promotion more than 20,000 people have downloaded it. In the process of downloading users are prompted to "opt in" at which point they can decide whether they wish to provide us with GPS coordinates, e-mail addresses, phone numbers and the operating system and model of their handset. The collected data enables us to build a better storytelling experience that can be designed and targeted more specifically to individual users while at the same time giving us a sense of the global activity within the game world.

Working within the mobile app space has given me a new creative outlet that enables the stories I tell to reach audiences directly in an efficient and targeted way. I am finding more effective methods to drive audiences to theatrical, DVD and VOD releases. The process of building audiences has shifted into a realm that is a natural extension of the creative process, something that is developed as a storytelling opportunity as opposed to just marketing and promotion afterthought.

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