BRISTOL, England — Disney’s due to throw a big bash Feb. 13 in Barcelona, but the occasion isn’t the Spanish premiere of the film “Eight Below” or the opening of the latest Disney Store — the city already has two of those.
Rather, Bob Iger’s Internet division is hiring the trendy Club 13 on the heaving, palm-lined Plaza Real because 50,000 people are expected to pile into the city for the world’s biggest annual cell phone conference — the 3GSM World Congress, which kicks off that day.
For Hollywood, mobiles mean business as the planet’s 2 billion cell phones start doubling up as entertainment devices delivering video, music, ringtones, games and even live television.
Studios are jockeying for a piece of what will be a $42 billion mobile entertainment industry by 2010, according to London-based market research firm Informa.
Youthful, energetic Barcelona seems a suitable venue to spread the message.
The 20th 3GSM confab lands here for the first time after outgrowing its venue in Cannes, where 34,000 people squeezed in last year.
While 3GSM’s evening shindigs usually are thrown by cellular carriers and handset vendors, this year Hollywood joins the list of hosts.
There’s the Disney do and 48 hours later Wesley Snipes will front a soiree thrown by L.A.-based Blogstar, a company co-chaired by “Last Samurai” exec producer and hip-hop promoter Ted Field.
Blogstar helps celebrities distribute mobile entertainment to cell phone-toting fans.
Other celebs checking in with a mobile message include pop rapper Craig David, who is skedded to perform at the conference’s awards dinner on Feb. 14 and give a keynote presentation the next morning.
Popsters Sugababes and disc jockey Cato from Groove Armada are rumored to be playing parties. They might want to hawk a $5 ringtone or a mobile single at the same time.
“Because of video and music and the rich media capability of phones, it’s no longer an afterthought to these people,” says Patrick Parodi, chairman of the London-based Mobile Entertainment Forum. “The mobile is central to their digital distribution strategy.”
Count MTV among the believers.
“The mobile has moved beyond its functional origins to become the lifestyle tool for our audiences,” says Bill Roedy, vice chairman of MTV Networks.
The Viacom division will be all over 3GSM, showing off a bevy of two-to-five minute programs tailored for mobiles, including fare from siblings Nickelodeon and Paramount, like shortened versions of “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “Dora the Explorer.”
It will also show a new mobile-only comedy about a man separated from his head called “Head and Body,” and bloopers from MTV’s newly acquired IFILM group.
MTV, like other program makers, thinks comedy will be a popular mobile genre.
“3GSM will be the first time we’ve showcased this extensive global portfolio of mobile content products for kids, youth and adults to the industry and potential partners,” says Roedy.
3GSM hits full stride Feb. 15 when the keynote speeches are largely reserved for TV execs, such as Peter Bazalgette, chief creative officer of “Big Brother” creator Endemol, and Gary Carter, senior VP of “Idol” producers Fremantle, who will talk up mobile initiatives, as will MTV chief digital officer Jason Hirschhorn.
A three-day Mobile Entertainment Summit will run through the conference starting Feb.14, when honchos from Disney, Fox, Warner Brothers, Rupert Murdoch’s U.K. satcaster BSkyB, Universal Music, EMI Music, Sony BMG, MTV, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” producers Celador and others will debate a range of issues with mobile operators, including content rights.
They’ll also tackle the ultimate question: Who will control the revenue stream as entertainment finds different routes to the phone, not all of which involve the cellular carrier? Users can bypass mobile networks by using Internet connections and, eventually, broadcast airwaves, for instance.
During 3GSM Spanish carrier Albertis Telecom will broadcast about 10 channels including three from MTV throughout Barcelona to any trial phone equipped with the correct receiver chip.
One hot topic on the debating slate: The role that advertising on the new small screen could play in slashing prices that users pay for mobile goodies. Media companies are also debating whether they should start their own branded mobile service, as Disney will do later this year in the U.S. and as Disney’s sports group ESPN did earlier this month with a Super Bowl launch.
While entertainment companies are ramping up their participation in 3GSM, most are not yet exhibiting on the show floor. But plenty of technology companies will show wares intended to make video and audio look and sound better on the cell phone.
Santa Clara, Calif.-based NVIDIA, for instance, is expected to show chips that put high definition and 3D video onto cell phone screens. And Edinburgh-based MicroEmissive Displays is expected to show a pair of glasses on which a viewer can effectively see a big screen projection of video transmitted wirelessly from a mobile handset.
It wouldn’t be 3GSM without CEO speeches from international carriers and handset vendors. Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, the new boss of handset king Nokia — which is leading the way in TV-equipped phones — makes his first public appearance Feb. 14.
The day before, toppers from European operators Vodafone, Orange, Telefonica Moviles, T-Mobile and Telecom Italia will “jointly unveil a key initiative,” promises a press invitation.
No one’s saying what’s on tap there, but if they care to reveal a unified scheme making it easier and cheaper for consumers to pay for mobile content, they could increase the chance that mobile entertainment will be more than just Big in Barcelona.