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McClatchy-Tribune  06/13/2014 9:27 AM ET
Movie theaters soon may encourage cellphone use [The Kansas City Star :: ]

June 13--Moviegoers are used to the long pre-show routine of film industry trivia, concession stand ads and trailers for coming films. Then, just before the movie begins, a voice asks you to please turn off your cellphone.

Soon, that last instruction might change. The movie industry is working on ways to make smartphones, tablets and even built-in screens in seats a key part of the experience both before the movie and, more disturbing to some patrons, during the movie.

The "second-screen experience" -- using another device to enhance the main attraction -- is growing for people at baseball games and rock concerts, and while watching TV shows or playing video games. Sometimes it's just to read reactions on Twitter, though recently apps have been designed for use during a specific program or event.

Now that technology is beginning to spill over into movie theaters.

"We believe that movies, by definition, are a social experience," said Cliff Marks, president of sales and marketing for National CineMedia, which is launching pre-movie second screen content.

He sees that as bringing "social media to the next level."

Industry observers think that most movie-goers will easily accept the second screen experience before movies, but they're wary about it during full-length screenings.

But with more people expecting to use their second screen at all sorts of events, theaters will be pressured to follow their patrons' desires. And even with the warning to put away cellphones and iPads, some patrons pull them out during a movie anyway. So instead of fighting a trend, theaters and Hollywood could exploit it.

Feature-length second screen content could be behind-the-scenes looks, subtitles and more interactive features, such as polls and games.

That doesn't sit well with Jerry Harrington, the owner of the Tivoli Cinemas in Westport.

"That's an experience other than a movie," he said. "I don't know what to call that, but it's not watching a film."

Before your movie

Those familiar scenes before a movie are often part of National CineMedia's FirstLook show. It's a staple at many theaters, including AMC Theatres, Regal Cinemas and Cinemark Theatres.

Next month, FirstLook will launch its second screen content.

Marks stressed that National CineMedia will encourage second screens only during FirstLook. The audience will be instructed to disengage from the app and their phones once a film starts.

Through a partnership with Shazam Entertainment, which started out as an app that uses voice recognition to identify songs, FirstLook will offer more information about the ads and coming shows.

To access the content, audience members will need to open Shazam and use the app's sound recognition feature.

Viewers will be able to learn more about advertised products, movies and TV shows that are part of FirstLook. So far, Marks said, advertisers seem intrigued.

National CineMedia expects most of the new service's users to be 18 to 35. Most of Shazam's 100 million users and half of FirstLook's audiences are in that age group, Marks said.

"We acknowledge that these millennials, this age group, want to engage and be social," Marks said. "But it's a matter of teaching them when it's OK."

Enhancing or distracting?

Stretching the use of second screens into the films presents a whole new layer of concerns.

Last fall Disney tried it with its re-releases of both "The Little Mermaid" and "The Nightmare Before Christmas."

Moviegoers at the trial locations were told to bring iPads and use an app that synced with the movie. Throughout the movie, the app presented lyrics to sing and interactive games users could play with others in the theater.

It was marketed as "Second Screen Live!" and available only in select locations, including the AMC Town Center theater in Leawood.

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