Social cinema: New app Is designed to motivate MovieGoers
Increasing attendance? “There’s an app for that.”
According to Brian Dear, co-founder and chief executive officer of La Jolla, Calif.-based Nettle, Inc., “There is an urgent need for innovation in the moviegoing arena, as far as it pertains to the Internet, and it starts with the mobile phone. Our goal is to get moviegoers to go to more movies more often by applying the very latest in social networking, mobile, personalized relevant offers and deals, and location-based technology. We believe we can delight and amaze not only moviegoers but exhibitors and studios by demonstrating how a smart app on a mobile phone can quickly become an indispensable and essential part of the moviegoing experience.”
After speaking with Dear about the December 2011 launch of his aptly named MovieGoer application (www.moviegoer.com), this author ventures to quote yet another line from a commercial. The focus on benefitting the entire moviegoing ecosystem? “Priceless.” And you don’t even need your MasterCard. Coming soon to Android-powered devices, MovieGoer is already available free of charge in the iTunes store.
Having worked in the computer and Internet space as a “serial entrepreneur” since 1987, Dear describes the impetus behind MovieGoer’s plan to “create the next generation of much more meaningful services for moviegoers”: “If there is any one, single, core mission that we are on as a company, it is to get more people to go to more movies more often. And the emphasis is on go,” he says. “Notice that I am not saying ‘watch’ movies, nor stream or download, not even purchase. I am saying ‘go’ because our entire focus is on the theatrical experience. For me personally, as a lifelong movie fan, this is going back to the Uptown Theatre and to just loving the group experience of a movie at a great venue.”
Growing up in the Washington, D.C. area, Dear “saw lots of famous movies in their openings at the Uptown,” which remains his favorite theatre to this day (http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/70). “It’s one of those classic Cinerama curved-screen theatres with a balcony and some 1,000 seats still. Just a massive screen. Every time the Uptown showed a rerun of 2001: A Space Odyssey, I would go.” He further recalls seeing The Andromeda Strain, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Oliver! and Fiddler on the Roof there. “Earthquake with Sensurround,” he says with audible glee. “And, of course, I was there standing in line all day long for the opening of Star Wars, which was just phenomenal. I’ve just always loved movies because my initial exposure to movies was, ‘Oh, they are huge…’ I enjoy movies that are on an enormous screen with great sound and all that great stuff.”
Not only does Dear have enthusiasm for the theatrical experience, but he and the Nettle team of six, including chief technology officer and Nettle co-founder Dan O’Neill, possess the necessary system-engineering expertise and software-design background. Dear founded Eventful in 2004, the world’s largest search engine for events, and created the “Demand it!” service that has gone on to empower over 20 million people to get what they want. If that sounds familiar, that’s because the platform was successfully applied to launching the first Paranormal Activity screenings. With additional stints at RealNetworks, MP3.com, Eazel and eBay, we can even forgive Dear for not naming Coconut Computing, his very first venture in 1987, after popping oil.
“The general idea was that you could live longer on a coconut than on an apple,” he chuckles. “Initially I thought about building computers to compete with Apple. But we decided to make software instead and created tools so that anybody could build their own online service. This was all pre-Web,” Dear reminds us, “and there were only a few offerings like CompuServe, Prodigy and the early form of AOL. I thought you could do more with online and we built a system that was years ahead of its time.” He mentions features such as rich graphics, banner ads, classified listings, discussion forums and instant messaging even with emoticons built-in. “I kicked myself for not patenting any of it, because we’d be owning half the Internet by now.”
As a proof of concept, Dear built out Coconut’s own online service for the San Diego market area. “One of the successful things that we did was online movie showtime listings. There were about 55 theatres at the time with some 200 screens. We would collect the information by calling all of them and manually input the data. Eventually we had developed relationships with the managers where they would fax us their schedules. Big improvement,” he laughs. “Movie listings were a very popular feature from the start because unlike a newspaper, where you only had the showtimes for that day, you could go online and see tomorrow’s and the next day’s as well.”
Today, Dear estimates that the Moviegoer app processes over half a million showtimes per week for the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. “That’s an awful lot of data which changes and updates multiple times a day. We have to process all of that and then we lay our social layer on top of everything.”
Not surprisingly, the Nettle team spent “a number of months building out the necessary infrastructure so that we could process all that information,” after Dear and O’Neill founded the company in October 2010 with financial support led by Google Ventures. The initial capital round of $500,000 came with participation from seed fund 500 Startups, various angel investors and, last but certainly not least, from Shari Redstone’s venture firm Advancit Capital (www.advancitcapital.com).
Dear reviews how he and Redstone met at an industry conference. “She was on stage talking about some of the issues that movie theatres are facing. I was thinking, ‘Gosh, this is exactly what we are trying to do. We have to talk.’” Describing their relationship, Dear says, “Shari Redstone has been very supportive and understood what we were doing right away. She shared our vision and saw the potential. We are very delighted to have Shari on board.”
After additional months of “building out the back-end system, with all the servers and designing the entire architecture,” Dear relates, Nettle began defining “some very complex technical details and relationships” in what Facebook calls the social graph. “We believe that by adding a deep social layer to movie/theatre listings and showtimes, we enable friends and family to see all the movies they’re going to or want to go to.”
The MovieGoer app offers two ways of facilitating these relationships, Dear explains, drawing comparisons to the social-media leaders. “The MovieGoer Circle is usually a small network of friends and family with whom you want to go to the movies. Just like ‘friending’ someone on Facebook, it requires permission to get into someone’s Circle. We want you to be completely comfortable with sharing your theatres, dates and showtimes with them. You can also ‘follow’ other people, such as critics and those with shared interests, very much like Twitter. Whereas you are very mindful of who’s a friend on Facebook, anybody can follow you or me on Twitter, and we might not even know about it. It’s the same on our system. You manage and maintain your MovieGoer Circle of friends. Anybody who follows you is fine too, but they are not going to see all the details about which show you are planning to attend.”
In the coming months, Dear advises, exhibitors and studios will be able to create MovieGoer campaigns that invite users to go to a particular movie, to a particular theatre, to consider going on a different night, or joining an exhibitor’s loyalty program. “We aim to provide a set of tools with which exhibitors and studios can offer deals, even last-minute deals, straight to moviegoers via their phones, in ways not before possible,” he elaborates. “For example, it’s one thing to send offers to individual users who have interest in a particular film, cast member or director. It’s another to send offers to groups of friends in our MovieGoer Circles, who as a group can then consider and hopefully take advantage of the offer—as a group and only if they come as a group. We think that could wind up being a much more powerful way of attracting people to go to a theatre.”
When browsing the high-quality posters of current and upcoming attractions across the app, the number of people in one’s MovieGoer Circle who have declared they’re going to an actual showing of the film is superimposed. Similar “people counts” appear when browsing local theatres if and when “any of your friends in your MovieGoer Circle are going to any movies in any of them,” Dear explains. “It’s almost impossible not to want to drill down at that point to find out who’s going. What are they watching, when? When you see the showtimes and the 7:15 time is bright green with a people-count next to it, that show suddenly has much more significance than anything else. It has a really interesting effect on people.”
Such additional layering of personal meaning and value has never been done before, he notes. “What we decided not to do, for example, is show generic counts. It’s not meaningful if you saw that 4,000 people are going to the AMC Empire in Manhattan tonight. It’s a 25-screen multiplex—of course a lot of people are going. We’ve limited the count to just those people that you know and care about. That’s very, very meaningful and literally stands out.”
With the implicit invitation “that anyone can join,” MovieGoer makes it “really easy to add yourself to any one show: Without any typing. Just tap, tap, tap. Done. Go to the movies.” Dear feels that seeing people that you know are going not only increases your “awareness of all the movies worth going to,” but it can also create a certain kind of peer pressure. “What better way to give a ‘thumbs-up,’ if you will, than to find out that friends of yours are going to that movie. They have announced their intent to go with the app and that message has gone out to everyone in their Circle. In other words, actions speak louder than words. When friends declare they’re ‘going’ to a movie, there’s no better influencer that you ought to go too.”
Other than a full-fledged peer review, of course. “It is even more compelling to see a friend or family member jumping up and down, raving about a movie,” Dear believes. “Rather than the old-fashioned way of rating the movie anywhere from one to five stars, writing a review, etc. Video is much more attention-grabbing and goes right back to the element of peer pressure.”
The app detects location and notices that it is two-hours-or-so past the originally selected showtime. “As you fire up MovieGoer, it automatically comes up with a special screen suggesting to record a 15-second review. If you do, we present two buttons that we hope are setting your frame of mind correctly. The red button means you think the movie is ‘not worth going’ and the green one means ‘worth going.’” Again, it is immediate and easy, all about telling your friends what’s on your mind. MovieGoer users can share these videos on Facebook and Twitter.
The recent Version 1.2.0 update now features a personalized MovieGoer Score as well, displaying a percentage of “worth going” based on a variety of influencing factors. “As more users fill out their profiles, follow more movies, critics, cast and crew, as they are going to more movies and adding friends and family to their MovieGoer Circles, we are beginning to see scores diverge,” Dear predicts. “When I use the MovieGoer app, I might see an 85% score for a movie while you might see a 55% score, or vice versa. This will make scores more personally relevant to people, at the same time as it addresses an issue that people face with other services. On RottenTomatoes, for example, everyone sees one universal score for a movie and, no matter how faithfully computed by big stacks of machines, this movie’s chances for success are often made or broken based on that rating. Many times I found a mediocre or ‘rotten’ score but went to see the movie anyway, which turned out to be great and well worth it. Going back to check on what the handful of critics that I actually trust thought of the movie, I found they liked it too. All the rest that I don’t know or trust, however, spoiled the score for me and might have prevented me from going. I think too many people are turned away by low scores for films that do have merit and do deserve a wider audience. That’s not good for a moviegoer or an exhibitor and certainly not for a filmmaker.”
We agree with Dear that bringing “more meaningful and personally relevant movie ratings to people” could certainly help “in getting them to go to more movies they might have otherwise missed.” But there are additional benefits to the ecosystem at large. “We are working to dramatically improve how early interest in a movie can be captured,” he adds, “particularly when someone views a trailer, either online or in a theatre.” By offering an immediate option to indicate intent to go, “we can remind them when the movie eventually comes to their town and further encourage them to go see it. Obviously, this provides a unique opportunity for exhibitors and studios to promote the film to those who already indicated interest in it by offering incentives and thereby increasing the likelihood that they actually go.”
In addition to more effectively tracking interest and managing marketing campaigns, “that deep MovieGoer social layer” also becomes a unique platform for direct interaction with guests, Dear believes. “We can offer the ability to craft real-time, last-minute campaigns targeting specific individual moviegoers or groups of moviegoers based on geography, interest in a particular movie, cast or director, etc.” The result? “More people go to more movies more often, even and especially on days and weeknights when exhibitors need them most urgently.”
The movie lover in Dear also likes “the fact that the application doesn’t really know any difference between the biggest blockbusters with a $200 million marketing budget and the tiniest independent film. Your friends who are going to an indie film that is only showing in one city will show up on your radar, as it were, and that could get you to go too. I believe that’s a win for you, a win for the theatre and for the filmmaker. That’s exactly the kind of service we are trying to build: a benefit to the whole ecosystem.
“With our MovieGoer app, we want to continue to make the theatrical experience of moviegoing very vibrant and meaningful,” Dear assures. “In particular, for the younger generation and in this era when you can watch movies on your iPhone or stream them through Netflix at home. There are abundant alternatives to going to the theatre, but here at Nettle we still think the theatre is a great experience. Our app is completely laser-focused on that experience and how to get more people to take part in it.”