Dial M for movies

Mobile entertainment — that still-nascent business of wireless media broadcast on cell phones and other handheld devices — generates more than $5 billion annually. What’s this got to do with making movies?

Ask George Lucas, who recently licensed sequences from “Star Wars” to mobile operator Orange, or Fox, which licensed several “mobisodes” of TV series “24” to Vodaphone.

For me, making movies for 30 years by trying to reach for the unexpected, the question of movies on cell phones came unexpectedly. I was writing about movies at the McDowell Colony in New Hampshire, in the midst of a wild snowstorm, when my cell phone started buzzing. It was a sales rep from In-Fusio, an international mobile entertainment publisher based in Bordeaux, France, calling to pitch me a deal for the worldwide broadcast of a short film I produced with Cynthia Hargrave called “With It,” starring Tim Roth, which won a European Film Award.

His voice static-ing on and off, the In-Fusio sales rep enthused: “In six months China will be ‘With It’! Tim Roth will be starring on 10,000 cell phones in Beijing! It’s your own handheld digiplex!”

“How unreal is this?” I thought. But his wireless signal clicked off. He was lost in the blizzard.

Shortly thereafter, the sales rep began to send me emails with news items about In-Fusio — the company had secured $27 million in venture capital funding; it had acquired mobile game publishers in California and Germany to heighten its “elite” mobile entertainment position. The emails all ended with the company slogan: “Keep your phone on. The future will be downloadable.”

Curious now, I began to pull facts from the Internet. Until 2005, there were three sectors of mobile entertainment: ringtones, games and music. Today, you can get access via cell phone to TV channels offering information (news, financials, sports) and entertainment (cartoons, movies, TV shows). Major players such as Electronic Arts and Microsoft are moving aggressively into this sector.

I cell phoned a well-known lawyer who was skiing nearby, Steve Masur, whose MasurLaw focuses on technology in the entertainment business. In 2001, MasurLaw helped create the legal infrastructure for licensing ringtones in the U.S.

“How real is this business?” I asked him.

“It’s real,” Masur laughed. “But it requires a different kind of movie-deal. Mobile entertainment will license the film rights — then break up this bundle of rights for separate usage. Say, a line of the film’s dialogue to play as a cell phone ring-tone. Or a film image to download as still-frame ‘wallpaper’ to display on a cell phone monitor screen.”

“How do you structure such a deal?” I asked.

Masur said: “Nobody really knows yet. But starting this year, there’s enough big money at play in mobile entertainment — every money question of the market will begin to be worked out, or litigated. At this point, it’s all too new to know exactly what each deal will look like. My advice: If you’re really curious about what all this means, stop everything about money and try to talk strategy with the people at the top. ”

Eventually, I was put in touch with Greg Holland, CEO of In-Fusio North America. We didn’t talk about the deal. We talked about the business.

Holland told me that in 2004, In-Fusio began exploring ways to tell stories on PDAs.

“When people upgrade to a new wireless device,” he said, “in the first months there’s a huge spike of activity, as they try every point of the device. We figured this showed there’s a robust appetite for making the wireless experience more vibrant, more fun. So we opened the downloadable channel called CellToons (short animated stories). Each short gives you a quick laugh. It seems to me that’s something people need.”

For me, the best reason to make movies for cell phones is the thrill of trying to answer the big question: “What’s cool?” The answer keeps changing.

Screenwriter-actor-producer L.M. Kit Carson will moderate a mobile entertainment panel for the Digital Hollywood expo today at Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel.

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