“It’s Playtime!” Canada’s TimePlay takes interactivity to serious business heights

Features
Technology

“TimePlay, I think, is really the next sort of big fix since 3D,” says Jon Hussman, founder, president and CEO of Toronto, Canada-based TimePlay Inc. With this “patented platform that delivers interactive, multi-player experiences,” he explains, “we not only enhance the overall moviegoing experience, but we can actually deliver and help our partners generate more revenues. So I think it’s timely for the industry.” (No pun intended.) At the same time, TimePlay “also leverages what the consumer wants to do today, and what advertisers want, and what content wants–namely, to directly engage with each other. The timing is ripe and there is significant interest from all the key stakeholders.”

And interest was high at CinemaCon as well. Hussman confirms feedback from the convention organizers that their demonstration drew “the most people they ever had in that room and the most from Monday events.” Not surprisingly, “there was a real buzz throughout the show about TimePlay that resulted in a tremendous number of meetings... a lot of interest. We were extremely busy, a lot busier than we thought we were going to get.” (Hussman and his team are still busy now, launching on about 100 screens from Carmike Cinemas.)

Hussman says the idea for TimePlay goes back to the time when he worked with Sega on developing GameWorks across the United States and Playdium centers in Canada. Working in the location-based entertainment business “exposed me to interactivity and the demand for interactive entertainment,” he acknowledges. “And that was a good business, even as it required a lot of capital. We were opening very large facilities and investing in the bricks and mortar. We were ultimately responsible to deliver the traffic to these locations.”

Given said investment, “I was really interested in exploring a business with a model that was different: one that would cater to the demand for participation and interactivity, but also one that would leverage other businesses, their bricks and mortar and traffic.” Parallel to that idea evolving, he adds, came “the proliferation of cellphones and digital displays and digital cinema. It was kind of the perfect storm for us.”

At the end of 2011, Cineplex Entertainment became part of that interconnected storm. “Ellis Jacob and his team are innovators,” Hussman attests, citing the chain’s support in launching an advertising-based pilot on about 100 screens in their top DMA theatres. “It was successful. Success means that consumers embraced it, advertisers embraced it.”

While cinema advertising is certainly an important component in the deployment, Hussman “wouldn’t say it is 100% required, because there are several areas of value that we can bring to an exhibitor and their partners. Obviously, media is one of them. But engagement is extremely valuable for a cinema operator…just in terms of elevating the entertainment experience for the moviegoers. And once you’ve engaged with your moviegoer, you can start to influence behavior and improve your overall business as well, regardless of media.”

Either way, Cineplex was pleased with the result. “We then expanded to over 230 screens,” Hussman recalls, “which included the next level of high-volume advertising media screens.” The national rollout for a current total of 725 Cineplex screens (which “regularly achieves a 40% participation rate among frequent moviegoers and a 35% redemption rate for advertising offers”) followed during the third and fourth quarters of last year.

Cineplex has been a great partner, Hussman reiterates. “They helped us further develop the possibilities in the applications and, with that, helped pave the way in our global expansion.” In addition to the United States, that included additional tests with Cinepolis in Mexico City and Kinepolis and Brightfish in Belgium. These tests were completed successfully and the partners are now “in discussions.” Hussman can also confirm that TimePlay has “a deal in principle about RealD representing us in Mainland China and Hong Kong. That agreement is being formalized, and we hope to announce…our first large customer in that market.” (Make sure to check back on filmjournal.com to see who that might be.)

TimePlay offers two basic financial models as part of its business proposition. “We charge a license fee on a per-screen, per-year basis and the terms of those relationships can vary,” Hussman explains. “And the second model offers a lesser sort of minimum license fee, but we participate in incremental revenue. So, if somebody wants to minimize their fixed, ongoing license fees, they can look at the participation model.” In either case, “we provide everything–our software, our tools, our content templates, technology, etc.–and then we have additional applications. We may charge more for some of the additional alternative-content applications.”

Before getting into content, let’s look further into the business proposition. How do these share models work when there is a third-party cinema-advertising provider involved? In Canada, Cineplex Media is part of the larger Cineplex Entertainment group, but in the U.S. there are two large players mainly, and in Europe, to name but one market, the partnership agreements are decidedly more fragmented. “The license fees will be shared on some basis between the exhibitor and the screen advertiser.” To further illustrate the point, Hussman brings up the Carmike agreement, an exhibitor that works with Screenvision. “Screenvision is very supportive of what we are doing. So we expect to build a network with additional circuits that are part of Screenvision circuits…in order to give them a critical mass of DMAs.” Conversations are ongoing “and those conversations are transparent,” he assures. “It becomes a three-way conversation, but obviously at the end of the day everybody has to agree on what that allocation looks like.”

Generally speaking, Hussman foresees TimePlay installations remaining non-exclusive. “We think it is better for everybody if it remains open for everybody.” While there is no contractual exclusivity, he does believe in partnerships. “It’s not like tomorrow we would enter into a relationship with somebody and would start to compete with them. As a partner, we want them to succeed and right now our focus is on making sure that Carmike and the screens we enter are successful.”

How were these initial screens chosen? “Carmike ultimately selected the screens,” Hussman says, mentioning a “combination of DMA and high-volume screens, and also some in close proximity to their head office.” What TimePlay has learned, however, is to equip all auditoriums in a given complex for the consumer’s benefit. “Believe it or not, one of the only complaints that we have from moviegoers is when they [visit] and TimePlay is not there. Once you introduce interactivity and games, you want to offer consistency. That’s the best practice we have shared with Carmike.”

The best application of TimePlay, or at least Hussman’s favorite so far, was the “groundbreaking” cinema campaign for Madza. “Everybody participated in this game, graphics were fantastic, and people really enjoyed it. The game not only looked great and was fun to play, but it also delivered just a crazy number of test drives for Mazda, with incredible brand recall and awareness.” The campaign also won a major award at the Cannes Advertising Festival.

Staying in the content lane, Hussman explains three different approaches that TimePlay is taking. One is business meetings at the cinema. “Our entire CinemaCon presentation was built on a meetings application. We can add entertainment, which is always helpful in a business meeting. But we can actually make this even more valuable by letting the audience share their thoughts. Whether a Q&A or polling format, we can learn in real time how people feel.” The next area, gaming, “is a big one.” Over time, he thinks, “gaming could be an absolutely huge revenue generator for the cinema industry, because the cinema is just a great, great venue… One of the reasons why I think it hasn’t happened yet is available technologies. The consoles are not designed to support 100 or 200 simultaneous players on one big screen. The platform we have built is able to support that, but it has to build up to that. You’re not going to start with a $100 million videogame in the movie theatre.” Instead, TimePlay is playing up kids’ gaming. “We’ve done some tests…and they loved it. In fact, a lot of kids prefer to play rather than watch a movie.”

Going forward, TimePlay will continue to develop its own content. “But we’ll also build this platform to accommodate and enable third-party content.” Hussman confirms that the company is talking to “different big publishing partners and studios about creating content.”

The third and final application concerns what we have traditionally called alternative content. TimePlay can augment concerts and events with interactivity. Hussman foresees “adding a pre-show or even weaving interactivity through the entire event. We are having conversations right now with one of the large cinema event companies about adding a layer of interactivity to some of those events. We all believe that it will make the event an even better experience for the guest.”

In closing, we assured Jon Hussman that he could not have picked a better name. “There’s no great story behind it,” he confides. In location-based entertainment venues, “we were using this terminology for people that wanted to play for a fixed period of time. So, it was sort of a name that I was using unofficially in my previous business. TimePlay just seemed to be able to tell the story without being too literal. I think it’s been well-received…it has some meaning to it.”

Time to play!