Can smartphone apps become hit movies and TV shows?
Hollywood is watching and wondering. It would help solve a continual problem for studios, which require more fresh material than is available. With production companies cranking out more than 700 films and 50 major new television shows a year, even agents joke that there are no new ideas - only new screenwriters.
Lately, a mobile startup called Outfit7 has been offering itself as a potential solution. Outfit7 is behind Talking Friends, a collection of 16 apps in which cartoon animals respond to a user's touch and repeat (almost) anything in funny voices.
The Talking Friends apps, most of which are free, are hugely popular - about 500 million global downloads and 120 million active monthly users, according to Narry Singh, Outfit7's executive chairman.
Guided by senior agents at William Morris Endeavor, Outfit7 has recently started to pursue movie and television deals based on its characters, which include Tom, an irreverent cat, and Ben, a gassy dog.
"The studio system is waking up to the power of mobile as a form of franchise creation - that the next Shrek or Mickey Mouse could start as an app," said Andy Mooney, an adviser to Talking Friends and the former chairman of Disney Consumer Products.
There is evidence to back him up. Disney has TV work on the drawing board for Swampy, the smiling reptilian star of its mobile game Where's My Water? An Angry Birds movie is planned for 2015, shepherded by the former chairman of Marvel Studios.
But entertainment company partners also seem to be reacting with caution. DreamWorks Animation, 20th Century Fox and Nickelodeon have all considered Talking Friends, but so far the only visible progress is an animated web series for Disney.com and Disney's YouTube channel.
(The web shorts have been incredibly popular, with the first few episodes generating more than 50 million views.)
Aside from worries that mobile games are fads - a concern exacerbated by recent troubles at Zynga - apps face the same challenge in Hollywood as more traditional video games, studio officials say. They are both active, first-person experiences; the player has control over where the action goes. But movies and TV shows are passive experiences, and sitting and watching a screen often leaves game fans feeling bored.
Movies based on video games have routinely disappointed at the box office, with the notable exception of the Tomb Raider and Resident Evil franchises.
Because apps are used by people of all ages - in contrast to most video games, which have a core audience of young men - there is the added challenge of defining an audience. Should Talking Tom be a cartoon for children on Nickelodeon? Or is it something more grown-up, perhaps for Spike or Cartoon Network's Adult Swim? The wrong move could narrow the following. A Nickelodeon show, for instance, could make Talking Tom uncool for men in their 20s.
Merchandising is another sticky area. App makers want to keep potentially lucrative toy rights for themselves. But studio executives say it's hard for them to justify pouring tens of millions of dollars into the creation of a movie or television show unless there is an added revenue stream as an incentive. It may be the marketing opportunities, and not the intellectual property itself, that bring Hollywood and app makers closer together, said Peter Levin, chief executive of Legendary Entertainment's Nerdist Industries, a multimedia company, and an early adviser to Rovio, the Finnish owner of Angry Birds.
When an app maker like Outfit7 can reach into 500 million pockets and promote a Talking Friends film or TV series, "that's some breathtaking reach", Levin said.
That marketing power appears to have been a major factor in the early success of Disney's web-based Talking Friends series. Outfit7 promotes the videos in part by sending its app-users alerts as they play on their phones. More than half of the Disney.com views originate from the apps, Singh said. "It's like a really powerful celebrity endorsement."
Outfit7, which employs 75 people and makes money by selling advertising, was founded in 2009 by a man named Samo Login, who got the idea after buying a picture of a cat for US$60 at Turbosquid, a 3D model marketplace. The concept, according to Singh, involved creating a mobile game that didn't have any winners or losers.
The result was Talking Tom, which became a viral hit after its 2010 introduction. (This year, much to Outfit7's surprise, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a YouTube greeting featuring Talking Tom.)
What really stunned Singh and his colleagues, however, was user data showing that most fans were clustered between ages 13 and 44, a wide range even for casual gaming. Users are almost evenly split between men and women.
"Our long-term goal is to make sure Talking Friends become a lasting consumer brand," Singh said. "Right now, we're feeling out Hollywood, and Hollywood is feeling out us."