On October 18, Disney released their Second Screen Live theatrical follow-up to “The Little Mermaid“, Tim Burton’s stop-motion classic “The Nightmare Before Christmas”. I was unable to make it to the theater to experience the first Second Screen Live release, but was able to celebrate Halloween week with a trip to catch this one.
Despite this being Disney Interactive’s second release, it appears they are still in small scale beta mode with the Second Screen Live product as there are two problems with the offering that restrict user access: number of theaters and technology platforms. There are only 17 theaters across the country showing The Nightmare Before Christmas Second Screen Live experience. I was fortunate that there was one theater in Georgia, which happened to be about an hour and a half from my Atlanta home in Columbus, GA. The Disney Second Screen Live experience is only available on the iPad, which drastically hinders the accessibility for families. With the popularity of other tablet devices for kids, Disney will need to expand to other operating systems like Android and Kindle if they roll this out to a larger theater audience. With my iPad in hand, I hopped in the family truckster and headed south to check it out.
I’ve tested a variety of second screen companion viewing apps designed for use in the home during both television show and movie watching experiences, including several from the Disney blu-ray release line-up like Tron Legacy and John Carter. What I expected to find was simply a duplication of that passive experience, but in a movie theater setting. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the entire film itself had been modified to function in parallel with the iPad experience which created a companion viewing experience unlike anything I’ve viewed to date.
Before the film begins, Disney created a tutorial on how to use the application as well as which iPad settings you should configure to get the best experience. The devices must also be connected to a special wifi router set up in the theater specifically for this viewing auditorium. It should be noted that this router can not be used to access the public web and is in place for the sole purpose of connecting the iPads in the auditorium for this experience. It’s also a good time to point out a flaw that will need to be corrected should Disney continue to expand this offering with future releases. The theater I visited had no public wifi access. If a movie-goer did not download the app in advance and does not have cell internet enabled on their device, they would need to leave the theater to find a nearby public wifi connection. I spoke with the theater GM who did mention that the staff was trained to assist customers who might need help configuring their devices for the experience, but they did not have the ability to offer open internet access for those who did not have the app downloaded in advance on their device.
The SSL router is used for the sole purpose of connecting the devices in the theater to each other with the syncing of the device to the screen relying upon ACR (audio content recognition) technology. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” Second Screen Live story arc consists of a team battle between the two main characters in the film: Jack Skellington and Oogie Boogie. Audience members are competing for their own personal score and are also divided up into two teams for group scoring. On the primary screen, there are continual prompts and sound overlays between Jack and Oogie as they taunt each other and the audience in their friendly competition making it a fun social experience for the kids. The second screen devices are used not only for visual interactions, but they are even leveraged to create additional sound arrangements in conjunction with the theater speakers. Often times the characters would ask the audience on their team to scream or cheer, of course awarding points to those whose voice was picked up on the device microphone.
Besides prompting audience members to cheer, the second screen devices (called audience “tombstones” to keep with the movie theme) are used to integrate a variety of short games that are paired in conjunction with specific scenes. During musical acts, the app will sometimes call for karaoke like sing-a-longs from the audience or would prompt “Simon Says” style keyboards called Xylobones on the primary screen for the audience to mimic on their app. As you probably guessed, movie trivia for things happening on screen is a common game often done in the form of asking for audience recall of a specific object design that was just shown. Another game type used in the experience was rather interesting since it involved the primary film being stopped for approximately one minute to allow for the audience to play a “photo hunt” style game where you had to find the items on your iPad that are different from the scene on the screen. Other types included casino games (paired with Oogie Boogie’s Las Vegas style lair scenes) and catching items dropped from the primary screen by tapping those various items on your device for points.
In true Disney style, to try to keep things fair for everyone, there were moments in the film where bonus points would be awarded and even taken away from individual users and teams to try and keep the competition in the auditorium close. This was a surprise addition, but one that I think is a terrific idea given it is supposed to be a fun experience for younger folks. I was alone in the theater…so yeah, I came in first place – although it is highly likely some kids would have crushed me in a few of those games.
The primary film modifications were all done in advance by Disney and did not actually render any activity generated real-time in the theater by the second screen devices up on the screen. All of the team scores, personal scores for the top 5, etc. that were tabulated in real-time from the audience were shown on the second screen device only – with the primary screen offering visual and audio prompts to check out the scores. I would love to see this Disney SSL experience evolve into one that includes both pre-scripted primary screen enhancement coupled with real-time screen changes based on audience participation. In my chat with the theater GM, the movie arrives on a hard drive just like every other film and is installed into the auditorium rack. The only hardware variation for the SSL film is the installation of the router. Given this modern cinema setup, this primary screen interaction driven viewing experience for SSL could be done quite easily, especially since they are already installing routers for the auditoriums – check out this article where I explain in more detail how the movie theater experience could evolve into a more interactive viewing environment.
Overall, I was very impressed with “The Nightmare Before Christmas” Disney Second Screen Live experience. The fact that the original film was modified coupled with the audience team based interactions instead of a solo experience surprised me and was certainly not what I expected. The focus was on fun interactive games and not driven by ancillary behind the scenes DVD style footage, which is what dominates the usual second screen companion viewing apps for use in the home environment (and something the industry needs to move away from). While this dual screen environment is not suited for all in-theater movies, it is one which has a lot of potential for specific film styles and cinema re-releases. I hope the folks at Disney continue to work their interactive magic by expanding the Second Screen Live to other films (Star Wars and Marvel…seriously please get on this) and ideally would evolve to build a fully interactive environment where the second screen influences the primary to create a true bi-directional immersive experience for movie-goers.
[All images were personally screen-grabbed from the iPad app & photographed.]