Showbiz taps apps to sell phone fun

Disney, Electronic Arts lead hitmakers in mobile space

Since the introduction of the iTunes App Store, mobile apps have become, somewhat unexpectedly, a vast new entertainment marketplace. Most of the early apps were about getting things done, but like most “practical” technologies, they were soon harnessed for entertainment. Apps have arguably become the software equivalent of 45 rpm singles of yesteryear: small items that can be acquired on a whim, played for a while and then thrown away — or at least ignored.

Hitmakers in the app world (which include such entertainment industry giants as Electronic Arts and Disney) are pointing the entertainment industry toward new revenue streams — and, perhaps, new forms of entertainment.

The “Entertainment” section of the App Store is already around 850 pages, with 20 apps per page. It’s no surprise to find apps for movie and TV listings among the most popular, but Disney is there too, with a free app providing news on “All things Disney.”

Marketers are also making targeted apps for individual titles. Many invite the phone’s owner to do something, rather than just watch or read. For example, Warner TV has a “Chuck Me Out,” letting the user put his own photo in the world of “Chuck.” Paramount’s “Paranormal Activity” app lets consumers “scan your surroundings” for local hauntings and share the evidence over the Web.

Because it gets the viewer involved, an app can have benefits for a movie or TV title that go beyond simple promotion. Bryan Perez, senior veep at NBA Digital, says its iPhone apps, which give fans real-time alerts and push notifications, deepen fan engagement and affinity with the league. “It became obvious (iPhone apps offered) a great opportunity to develop direct-to-consumer revenue streams, an important strategic goal of NBA Digital,” Perez says.

If the movie/TV industry is still figuring out apps, the vidgame world has taken to the mobile platform swimmingly. At least 14 of the 50 top-grossing apps in the App Store are EA productions, including the new Need for Speed Shift racing game and evergreen board games Monopoly and Scrabble. EA signed a multiyear licensing agreement with Hasbro in 2007 to create digital games using the latter’s IP.

Gameloft senior veep Gonzague de Vallois says, “We also have partnered with every major film studio and have proven that the mobile game can complement a film and bring added value to the studio’s overall marketing strategy.” Gameloft recently released the “James Cameron’s Avatar” game, which is a top-10-grossing app despite its premium $9.99 price.

Apps have also been a natural fit for sports and news operations, where consumers want the latest information, and can take it in small bites.

ScoreCenter, ESPN’s free iPhone app, includes paid ads, but its primary purpose is to drive people to watch ESPN TV, the network’s biggest source of revenue. “The idea that someone’s going to get a scoring alert that tells them that a game is close or in overtime means they’re more likely to tune in,” says John Zehr, senior VP at ESPN Mobile.