March to the Beat of a Different Drummer

With all the news about apps for movies, albums and streaming content, I’ve been curious to see how iTunes is going to change to keep up with the times. While it is part of the same big, happy family of Apple products, a number of my colleagues here at Giant Interactive have wondered how iTunes Extra will adapt to the changing world of media consumption. As apps become more commonplace and versatile, will there be a role for this media form? Well, I think we’ve gotten our answer. Via Home Media Magazine, (which has my favorite weekly DVD/Blu-ray sales chart), we learn that iTunes is debuting a new ‘enhanced feature’ product for Avatar. The article notes that this improved iTunes download “…includes a feature that allows viewers to interact with the performance capture and visual effects levels in 17 scenes. Dubbed ‘Green Screen X-ray,’ the unique feature offers a view of original green screen footage while the film plays.

Of any filmmaker and any title, James Cameron and Avatar are most closely related in the public consciousness with cinematic technological innovation than any others in the past decade. And it was hugely popular. Wise choice for the inaugural title.

In some ways, this new feature is covering ground which DVD and Blu-ray have already broken years ago with ‘branching’, but nevertheless, the additional functionality in a download is impressive indeed. That it’s exclusive to iTunes makes for a compelling reason for fans to visit the store and collect it. We’ve been talking recently with a number of media clients of every size about how they can deliver movies and entertainment that delivers an innovative experience in the mobile space. Sometimes that conversation has centered around developing custom movie apps which follow in line with Warner Bros.’s Dark Knight and Inception and other times it’s involved deeper discussions about more complex streaming solutions. Most companies, however, are still testing the waters, waiting to see if there’s a firm demand from consumers for such investments, however modest. With the development and release of such products such as this, the balance may be swinging back in favor of the established release channels and away from custom development particularly for these non-studio client. Why develop something from scratch when the dominant digital marketplace already has a compelling product which delivers a unique experience and superior quality? When the economics of the proposition (30% to the big name) means that additional innovation and investment may not necessarily be rewarded, it’s a serious question indeed. Yet I think there are good reasons for distributors to develop their own delivery vehicles. While distribution via the app store is still a very smart move, there’s still an audience for unique features which are widely accessible, beyond the laptop and the desktop. Entertainment companies can still differentiate themselves outside of Apple’s orbit by delivering experiences which are more than what the ‘other guy’ did yesterday. Whether that’s an title-specific app or a more broadly-targeted ‘brand’ app, either can engage viewers and expand the goodwill of viewers in ways which are rewarding for both consumers and distributors, particularly with the leverage provided by social media. While such developments coming from ‘the big name’ are interesting indeed, there’s no reason why this must be the only beat to which we all march.