Now that the worldwide digital cinema rollout is nearing completion, with most of North America and a majority of Europe and Asia converted, companies, business models and content will begin to emerge that exploit the capabilities and benefits of the new technology.
One such entity you can expect to be hearing about at this year’s CinemaCon and in the months that follow is Audience Entertainment. The company creates branded entertainment which large groups can interact with in unison. To date, Audience Entertainment has worked mostly on interactive games for ad campaigns that are played in movie theatres, concerts and special events. Barry Grieff is the CEO of the company, which he founded in 2009.
If Grieff’s name sounds familiar there may be good reason. During a decades long career in the entertainment industry, Grief has held a number of positions in a all areas of the business. He started out as the National Advertising Director for National Lampoon and went on to work as a senior executive in music for A&M Records and as a Vice President of Marketing at ABC Records. He’s even been the President of Lorne Michaels’ production company Broadway Video. Back in 1984 he produced “Treasure: In Search of the Golden Horse” which was the first interactive laser disc for Pioneer as a showcase for the new digital medium.
“Treasure” was actually an interactive game that sent viewers out in search of a golden horse worth USD $500,000 that had been buried somewhere out in the world. It very well might be one of the earliest examples of transmedia, since it was released on multiple platforms including theatrically, on television, and on laser disc.
As Grief explained during an in-depth conversation a week before CinemaCon, it was this early experience with interactive content that ultimately led to Audience Entertainment. After several years of trials, tests and one-off productions, the company is ready to launch in earnest. To help the company grow its platform in cinemas around the world, Audience Entertainment recently announced a deal with Barco, the digital cinema projector manufacturer. The strategic partnership is part of the latter company’s new CinemaBarco suite of product offerings.
Celluloid Junkie: Maybe it’s best to start at the very beginning of your career since you’ve had several different focuses throughout your professional history. Is your varied experience an asset when it comes to Audience Entertainment?
Barry Grieff: Absolutely. Unlike someone that’s been in a distribution system their entire career, it’s more difficult for them to see the benefits and the pitfalls of that. I’m more agnostic about that. I look at things and say, “There are all these distribution channels, why limit yourself to just this one.” So, I think my lack of holding a job is a good thing.
CJ: Did the concept for Audience Entertainment originally come from your work with Pioneer in the 1980s? That kind of interactive entertainment was a little ahead of its time, so what was it that stuck with you for more than 20 years to want to expand on the idea?
BG: What I saw with “Treasure” was that this game was used by schools, by teachers, it taught geography, it taught logic, it taught math, because the puzzles were all interesting. I saw involvement at a level I had never seen in previously passive kinds of media and I was intrigued by it. But there was no real future because nothing was digital yet. I kind of held onto that idea hoping that someday this would be possible. Then a couple years before I started Audience Entertainment, I was heading a company called the Brand Experience Lab. We had technologies from different universities and folks around the world that they were looking to showcase to marketers. We had a 3D printer, we had holograms, we had virtual reality, but nobody knew what to do with it. What I saw was incredible interest from everybody. During that period we ran into a technology, which is motion capture, which is what we’re using now. One of the clients that came into the lab saw it and said, “Hey that’s really interesting could you do that in the movie theatre?” And it hadn’t occurred to us prior to that so I said, “I don’t see why not”.
CJ: So what is the “that” you’re referring to? Is it a game that an entire audience or crowd can play together using motion capture?
BG: It’s motion capture. It starts there. The first couple of games, for example, have been the audience driving the car on the screen by leaning left or right in their seat. If there are 500 people in the theatre and the Volvo is on the screen and 250 lean to the left and 250 lean to the right, the car goes straight. If a higher number leans in one direction than the car veers in the direction the majority of the audience is leaning. It’s very responsive to audience movement.
CJ: Is it comparable then to what the Microsoft XBox does by using the Kinect to let players control elements in a game?
BG: Kinect does this, but it’s for one person. We do it for large groups. Our algorithm is more for 500 to 60,000 people. The difference for us is that this kind of technology is already taking hold, that’s beyond dispute. It’s accepted and happening. We believe that the missing piece is a social component, the group community interaction. This other stuff, it’s empowering but it’s also isolating. We think that when you go to the movie theatre we want to create a better experience. We want you to have fun. We don’t want you to sit there and look at an ad, but play with this. Like the Disney Cruise Line program we did where kids could actually ride down a water slide and move the ducks as they move down the slide. We’ve gotten spectacular response to that. What we believe we have here is a new paradigm for advertising that has several times the retention value of a traditional ad, that comports perfectly with whats going on in mobile, online and soon on television. What we’ve really done is taken a screen that previously could not be used, unlike mobile and the Internet, we’ve now turned the big screen into a component piece of that. Things that you start on mobile you can finish in the theatre. Things you start in the theatre you can finish on mobile. I think it’s the natural evolution of storytelling, of advertising and it’s an untapped area.
CJ: Have you been conducting interactive campaigns in theatres beyond the one you did for Disney as part of your prototyping and testing? If so, what have the responses been like?
BG: We ran this game for “Spider-Man 3” at the Bridge Theatre in L.A. and it was a huge hit. If you look at the YouTube video you will see the audience going nuts, demanding they play it again. I’m a former advertising guy and I have never seen a response like that. It was really curious to me because I had always been trying to convince people to run an ad because of readership versus pass along readers. Everybody that has something in print deals with this sort of thing, you know how do you justify your rates? How do you validate what you’re asking an advertiser to pay? The problem with that is that it’s based on very specious information. What’s so intriguing to me about this was that when someone is actually engaged with your message and playing with it and having fun with it, that has to be more valuable then passing by it or having to watch it on television. So we went out and we did a bunch of events around the world. We did a game for Volvo in London which had enormous recall. Four times what any traditional ad had. We did a game at the Lyon Festival of Light. We did a game at a Bon Jovi concert in Greece. We wound up working with major marketers who said, “Wow this is interesting, but we need you to be in more places.” What we decided at that point was that it’s a network idea. If people are that interested we need to be able to go to them and say that this capability is available in certain locations. People were hiring us but they were for one-offs. You spend as much time doing a one-off as you do building a network. It became pretty clear to us that the goal or solution was to create an interactive out of home network.
CJ: And is that part of the ID product you offer? What is that exactly?
BG: Well, you’ve had 2D, you’ve had 3D and now there is ID, which is the interactive dimension. What this means is that there is two way interactivity on the big screen. Our goal is to link movie theatres in different countries. For example, let’s say it’s the Olympics and Portugal is playing Brazil in soccer. You could have people in a theatre in Brazil playing a game against people in a theatre in Lisbon, in real time, against each other.
CJ: Is that that’s the model then for Audience Entertainment – share in ad revenue by creating and distributing interactive campaigns in movie theatres?
BG: When we run one of our games, we have been getting a premium of between three and four times what the traditional CPM (Cost Per Thousand Impressions) rate is. We don’t believe the CPM rate has anything to do with the value of our games. When we ran the Disney game, they said that their regular ads have a 22% retention rate, we had an 82% rate. If you follow that through, that means our game is worth four times the amount of a regular ad. That’s been consistent, with everything we’ve done the numbers are in that range. When you engage with a message, you are talking about it and actually involved with it. It’s very different from what happens when you’re sitting there and this thing comes on the screen.
CJ: Are you selling the ad campaigns directly or are you going through advertising companies?
BG: We’re going to use partners. We enable the ads. We’ve partnered in the past with NCM who sold the ads on our behalf. We did the first 3D game for Samsung in theatres last summer. We’re going around to all the agencies and introducing this technology. CinemaCon is really our coming out party. Our belief is we’re going to be on three to five to ten thousand screens over the next couple of years and there will be this interactive out-of-home network where global marketers could do things they could never do before or local marketers could interact with local retailers in a way they couldn’t before.
CJ: Do you create the interactive games yourself and if so is that another way Audience Entertainment can earn revenue?
BG: We help with the content. When you’re talking to the Coca-Cola’s and the Disney’s of the world, they don’t let anybody do the content but themselves. We turn it interactive. So there’s a fee for that. We also have a license fee because it’s our platform. We’re going to come out with an SDK (Software Developer Kit) in the next two months that will enable producers and creators to add their own interactivity, and they’ll pay us a fee and it’ll run in theatres. I think it’s going to open up an entirely new content category across trailers, movies, advertising, alternative content.
CJ: So then how does your partnership with Barco play into all this, because at first glance it doesn’t seem like a natural fit?
BG: Barco is launching a campaign about the future of cinema. They have a variety of products in it, all of which enhance the experience in the theatre. The position we hold is that we’re the connecting tissue. Because we’re the piece that allows you to interact with whatever screen you want. We can connect you to the consumer, we can collect names, we can conduct research, we can issue rewards, we’re the connective tissue that will monetize all of this. When we went out to theatres, everyone would say, “That’s very nice. You guys have great stuff, but how do I know you can install on time? What happens if it breaks down? Who’s going to maintain it? Who’s going to upgrade it?” Barco solves all of that. That’s what they’re the masters of the universe on. They have offices all over the place, they’re known for their support, so when we now go into exhibitors we say that Barco is responsible for the maintenance, the upgrades, the updates and we’re the manufacturing and software guys.
CJ: Other than the support and maintenance logistics have theatre operators responded positively when you’ve shown them what Audience Entertainment can offer them?
BG: If I was an exhibitor and I was only busy 20% of the week and I had this incredible facility with a great screen, great sound, great seats, popcorn and nobody in the theatre… That would upset me. I would be trying to figure out what can I put in here that’s going to draw people in so I can maximize my investment. By Barco signing on, who’s a tried and true partner and who’s opinion they respect and who did their due diligence and vetted us, by putting their weight behind it, the acceptance from what I’m hearing so far is happening in a big way. We expect to come out of CinemaCon with commitments for screens all over the world.
CJ: It’s not a huge mental leap to see how an interactive game could be used as an advertisement in the cinema during a preshow, but do you ever see the technology and platform that Audience Entertainment has developed being used for an actual movie or other long form content?
BG: If you think about storytelling, and I’m including advertising in storytelling, if you now have the ability to create a different kind of story by altering the outcome or changing the pieces of it, that’s pretty interesting. That’s going to take some time. I’m not suggesting that tomorrow morning you are going to see the “Avatar” of interactive movies. But I am suggesting that it’s going to be a new distribution system which will enable all the great developers and thinkers and content creators to come up with things we haven’t even thought of yet. You could actually have a movie that even though you’ve seen it, it ends differently each time you’ve seen it because there are multiple ways to go. It’s a stunning development any way you look at it. It’s in its infancy, but my point is that this is happening. You see it on mobile, you see it on the Internet and you see people trying to figure out interactivity. We already have a system that is turnkey, inexpensive, partnered with Barco, that we’re now distributing worldwide. That’s a big deal.