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A Despicable iPhone Gimmick…

Animated film Despicable Me was released Stateside at the weekend and it had a rather wonderful gimmick. An iPhone app. It was basically an app which translated what the adorable little yellow minions were saying, so that they could be understood by the audience. I’m on the fence about the idea, but you have to give credit where credit is due – it’s an absolutely ingenious idea, and one I can see slowly catching on.

These yellow guys are (i)phoning it in...

It should be clarified before we begin that the Universal iPhone app only works during the credits, so the interruption to the film is minimal. Which I guess earns them bonus points on their really rather clever idea. But it’s worth exploring the idea nonetheless.

This is somewhat similar to the gimmick that was suggested a few months back, where a horror movie victim would call a member of the audience for advice during the film’s climax (and then the movie would branch depending on what was said). Both ideas are, similar to 3D, aimed at extending the reach of the movie off the screen and directly to individual movie-goers, but both have a fairly significant drawback: they rely on you breaking the cardinal rule of movie-going. Okay, maybe the second most cardinal rule of movie-going (the first being “don’t touch my popcorn”).

That rule is: “phone off”. You have to have your iPhone on to run the app at the same time as the film to get the translation. You have to be able to answer the phone to help the troubled heroine. The latter even involves having your phone on something other than silent, so you can tell you’re being called. That means buzzing or vibrating if anyone else calls you during your two hour time in the cinema, which is not an audience I’m keen to spend my time with. Even if the phone can be left on silent (which, to be honest, I have no problem with), an app will still require the person to be able to read the screen, which presumably means that eerie glow from the audience.

I hate it when people text during a movie, so I imagine I’ll dislike this as well. There’s also the notion that it will focus your attention away from the screen, but I don’t really have too big a deal with that – you’re not just going to be watching your iPhone, and sometimes looking away is part of the experience. However, if you need to see the screen, it needs to glow, and that bothers me a bit. Though I don’t know, maybe if the cinema went completely black (which it can’t for safety reasons), those lights would have a creepy ambient quality.

Is the iPhone a movie star waiting to happen?

However, not withstanding my principled problem with phones in the cinema, the notion of cinema iPhone applications is pretty damn fascinating, and whoever at universal’s marketing department came up with the idea deserves a cookie of some sort. Imagine, for example, offering foreign language versions of films via an app, so non-native speakers can enjoy the film while abroad? Or a director’s commentary app, which lets you inside the creative process as you watch teh scenes being discussed (probably something to try the second time around)? Or a deleted scenes app for use after the screening, effectively giving you an early look at the DVD/blu-ray extras?

The Guardian makes the observation:

Films are supposed to be immersive. Regardless of where you see them, they’re meant to whisk you up and transport you elsewhere. Nothing that puts an artificial barrier between you and the screen can possibly be a good thing. That goes for uncomfortable, disorientating 3D glasses, but even more so for something that physically makes you look away from your screen to read something on a telephone.

After spending so much time and money trumpeting the invaluable power of cinema in the wake of piracy, it seems incredibly disingenuous for the film industry to promote a technology that basically replicates what it’s like to watch a movie on a laptop with Twitter and Wikipedia running in the background. Especially since that’s more or less exactly what got it into trouble in the first place.

I’d disagree. I think that embracing the technology could work, in theory. I think part of the problem with the film industry is that it never really kept up with social and technological advances as they happened, and so it’s been in a bit of a bind in recent years – sprinting decades worth of changes in the space of a few seasons. I think embracing this sort of media is the wave of the future, I’m just not entirely sure about how it could be done. Just don’t ask me to sit in a cinema flooded with glowing iPhones.

2 Responses

  1. Yes, it’s innovative, but it sets a lousy precedent. People’s etiquette at the movies is barely passable as it is these days, and I’ve called out more than a few people for breaking the rule (even if, as a father of two, I keep my phone on vibrate instead of off).

    My understanding is that you turn on the app when the movie starts and it shuts down all the stuff your phone would otherwise be doing if it was on, so that’s thoughtful. And come on, these popular technologies have to tie together somehow. Perhaps hitting a button at a certain in the film would send you a making of featurette on that particular scene to watch later, or a still of the film gets sent to your home computer. I’d like to be able to hit a button and get popcorn delivered to my seat, that would be awesome!

    • Yep, “in film service”. I’ve heard of “prestige” theatres in LA with like twelve seats each, and you order your meals before the film, and their served during. If I ever go, I am trying that.

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