Creating an Interactive Experience in the Movie Theater

Not long after my rather lackluster second screen experience at Regal Cinemas using the FirstLook sync app, a pair of news stories caught my attention. This month, 20th Century Fox purchased the rights to “Choose Your Own Adventure” – a popular book series in the 1980s and 90s – and is rumored to be working on a film adaptation. Also announced this month and along similar lines, Warner Bros. has acquired the movie rights to the Encyclopedia Brown book series which originated in the 1960s. The Choose Your Own Adventure books used a stacked method and readers were asked to skip to different chapters based on decision elements the characters were faced with. The Encyclopedia Brown series was similar in style and asked readers to solve riddles and decipher clues as they worked through the book.

This got me thinking: Would it be possible to produce a fully interactive cinematic experience with the audience, at scale, in a movie theater environment without installing custom hardware at each viewing location?

The invention of the DVD player helped bring in an era of games that took the traditional board game and combined it with the TV to produce interactive gaming experiences. Presenting choice-based elements to progress a story is extremely easy in a web-based environment and can even be accomplished with annotations in YouTube: a fun example of this is the Saved By The Bell game. Story choice elements have made their way into the broadcast TV world as well. USA Network created a show where fans could choose the outcome of the 100th episode of “Psych” by voting during the episode for the final whodunnit reveal. The advancement in Internet enabled “smart” televisions and peripheral connected TV devices (Xbox, Roku, etc) would also make creating a choice based film at the individual delivery level rather simple since the content is being routed from a server. All of these examples are moving us toward heightened interactivity, but they are centered around a home environment, not the modern day cinema.

Last Call Interactive Horror Movie13th Street created a limited release experimental movie in 2010, “Last Call“. A groundbreaking achievement, it leveraged voice activated software for a single user in the audience to make simple verbal choices in real time with the action taking place on the screen. A Dutch film released this year, “App“, took the level of interactivity in the theater a bit higher with a second screen app experience. The smartphone application uses audio content recognition technologies to deliver synced content at just the right moment during the film when it is needed. While this is nothing new to the home viewing environment, it is the first second screen experience designed for use while watching a film in the theater. “Last Call” only involved one user and poses a myriad of potential problems with participants not playing along with the correct dialogue and “App” is a supplemental experience to the film, not one that is interaction driven. The answer to the question posed above lies in the combination and evolution of both of these earlier cinema-based executions.

Movie Theater Projection System ConfigurationThe modern day movie theater not only has a digital projector system, but it is driven by a traditional PC server based network architecture. This diagram is from the Sony SRX-R220 projection system terminal, but should be fairly representative of the typical cinema megaplex. The movie itself is stored on a hard drive and is connected to the server PC along with the projection terminal. All of this is routed into the theatre management system computer which is connected to the Internet. This configuration shows that it is entirely possible to build an interactive movie experience through the application layer without the need for additional hardware in the theater seating area or in the projector server rack. Let’s talk about scale and how this would work.

The movie itself can be created using multiple decision journey scenarios and loaded onto the hard drive for delivery to the theater just like any other film. The local server PC would be loaded with the software that is designed to receive commands from a remote server on the Internet and then pull the appropriate clip from the film hard drive which is relayed through to the projector. Moviegoers can download an app designed exclusively for the film experience. In this second screen app, the user would receive additional content designed to enhance the film (similar to “App“), but also include decision choice elements presented at specific moments that everyone can select. Those decision results are sent to the remote server and relayed back to the theater management system over the Internet which passes the information to the server PC in the projection system rack. Unlike the single person “Last Call” execution, this new proposed process incorporates the collective audience in the theater. To ensure results are tabulated from the individual showing and not influenced by outside tampering, it would be easy to generate unique codes printed on tickets at the theater for the specific showtime at that single screen which must be entered into the app. The app can be socially connected enabling the user to share and leverage their networks to participate in the experience. With the real-time 2 way dialogue with the projection server, the possibilities to expand interactions with the audience are almost limitless. For example, that same social connectivity could even be used to insert audience members into the film itself – similar to the True Blood Immortalize Yourself and Falling Skies Today We Fight campaigns.

movie theaterI did mention in the original question about finding a way to do this without hardware installation. The reality is, I would still recommend a hardware addition. Theaters would want to provide an optimal Internet connection for the moviegoers. Cell carrier signals are often weak inside buildings, especially in the theater, so adequate wi-fi routers would be needed to ensure a good experience. This is really no different of a concept than what retailers should do for consumers when they are encouraging visitors in their stores to utilize proprietary and 3rd party apps.

This exact same concept could be applied beyond films themselves. Movie theaters are continually looking to find new and innovative ways to create interactive experiences for their customers. For example, the AMC Theatres app was recently updated to allow for augmented reality experiences that customers can trigger off movie posters. By using this same interactive software driven model outlined here, movie theaters could leverage their primary apps to create a wide variety of fun and engaging experiences during the pre-show before the film. Providing an incentive for moviegoers to arrive at the theater early for the pre-show, should translate to additional revenue at the concession stands – an incredibly important profit center for theater operators.

Home TV and movie watching has seen a dramatic rise in the development of new second screen and connected viewing experiences. While the quality of the viewing experience at theaters continues to improve with better visuals and sound, the creation of interactive transmedia storytelling has lagged behind. Advancements in the digital delivery infrastructure have changed the projection model at these theaters to the point where filmmakers and cinema operators alike need to be thinking about the possibilities of improving the moviegoing experience. The technology elements are now in place, someone just needs to assemble them the right way.

Images courtesy of: This is Not AdvertisingSony, & First Showing.