Movie Posters That Talk Back
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MOVIE POSTERS THAT TALK BACK
By Michel Marriott
New York Times
December 12, 2002
Movie posters -- paper-and-ink enticements that can be traced to the days of
nickelodeons -- have over the decades become so commonplace in theater
lobbies that they have practically faded into the wallpaper for millions of
American moviegoers. Noticed, maybe, yet never really seen.
But what if those posters could talk? What if Leonardo DiCaprio could stare
out from a wall and wink at passers-by? What if, rather than being frozen on
a poster for the latest James Bond movie, Pierce Brosnan and Halle Berry
could leap in a full-motion, fist-flying fury to a stereo soundtrack? And
what if these posters could interact with film patrons, recognizing their
tastes and quickly matching their interests with trailers and show times for
movies that they most likely want to see?
For the last five years Stephan Fitch and his company, Thinking Pictures,
have been quietly working to recast movie posters with precisely those
capabilities and more.
"Our view is that this is a window into the lobby for the studios to take
advantage of,'' said Mr. Fitch, the 42-year-old founder and chief executive
of the company, which is based in New York.
With his displays, he said, studios can collect general information that can
help their marketing efforts, like how many times their posters and trailers
are shown, how many people were intrigued enough to walk up to them, how
long they looked at them, even how close they got to them. Eventually the
displays may also be able to obtain more specific data on individual
consumers' tastes by reading electronic "smart cards'' that patrons would
receive by volunteering information about themselves and their moviegoing
habits in return for discounts.
Mr. Fitch's interactive posters, while dazzling some moviegoers at the
multiplex, are raising concerns among others who say they do not want to
look at posters that may be looking back. But for better or worse, the
devices, formally known as ThinkPix Smart Displays, are part of a rapidly
growing number of winking, blinking, beckoning digital displays stuck almost
anywhere human eyes are likely to fall upon them. Increasingly described as
ubiquitous computing and the Outernet, examples of this newest, more
aggressive means of advertising and information bombardment abound.
In pedestrian-packed places like the Las Vegas strip and Times Square,
electronic billboards, news zippers and interactive displays are many and
obvious. But small-screen technology has also enabled advertisers to pipe
marketing messages into any town or hamlet at A.T.M.'s and gasoline pumps,
and on smallish screens in restrooms, taxicabs and airports. A new
McDonald's restaurant in Midtown Manhattan has 27 flat screens positioned
along a counter, each screen playing an almost endless loop of commercials
and trivia for customers munching on their Big Macs.
AdSpace Networks recently announced that it has been selected to control the
largest digital billboard in North America, a 165-foot-tall screen that
stands over the Long Island entrance to the Queens-Midtown Tunnel. AdSpace's
plasma screens, commonly known as Coolsigns, are already bringing commercial
messages to more than 1,000 locations, including airports, department
stores, casinos and movie theaters, said Karen Katz, the company's president
and chief executive.
"Anybody can put pretty pictures on screens," Ms. Katz said. "We have
created the network and software that controls what people see across
thousands or hundreds of thousands of displays in public spaces."
The Regal Entertainment Group, the largest movie chain in the United States
with 5,711 screens, said it was in the midst of an aggressive campaign to
establish a digital network linking many of its theaters to a delivery
system for electronic ads and promotions on lobby screens and the main
screens in its auditoriums.
John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners, said
that Regal was only one of the group's members exploring digital methods of
marketing to patrons. But the interest in high-speed networks and digital
displays goes beyond marketing, Mr. Fithian said: the same electronic
infrastructure may one year soon carry and store all-digital feature films
as traditional film projectors are replaced with digital ones.
"The plasma screen is one component in a rather massive transition in our
industry," Mr. Fithian said. "Movies for 100 years have been using the same
technology, celluloid, film. But a new technology is coming on line."
Mr. Fitch's interactive displays can be seen as a vanguard of this new
technology. Paul Rosenbloom, associate director of the Information Sciences
Institute at the University of Southern California, said that the idea of
interactive movie posters in theater lobbies "sounds like the direction that
much of advertising is trying to go in the future.''
"It is certainly related to what they have tried to do on the Web,'' said
Mr. Rosenbloom, who is also a professor of computer science at the
university. "Now they are taking it out of the PC, where you were expected
to sign in in some form. They are trying to bring it out into the world and
find ways to get it to interact with people there."
David Sameth, the head of creative advertising for the Hollywood studio
DreamWorks, said that interactive movie posters, as a concept, have a number
of advantages. For one thing, like conventional posters, they are seen by
consumers who have already shown by being in a theater that they are
interested in movies.
But Mr. Sameth explained that conventional posters seldom draw moviegoers'
interest for very long. "When we create a one-sheet" he said, using the
industry term for a poster, "the goal is to get someone to look twice.
That's the most you can expect."
If dynamic, electronic displays of posters on plasma screens can make
consumers look more than twice, if it can make them linger on its images and
messages, then electronic posters may make a significant difference in
promoting a film. But Mr. Sameth cautioned that if an era arrives in which
practically all signs are electronic, moving and chattering away, "we will
suffer from overload" and tune out the visual noise, moving posters
Carl Goodman, curator of digital media and director of new media projects at
the American Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, said: "If you look at
media and culture and the Internet, the moving image is a way we make
community with each other. But it has been something that they made and we
watched. That is changing."
As advertisers and marketers seek to improve the methods by which they can
learn whether their messages are being received, Internet-based technologies
like those being used by Mr. Fitch's company and others are being tapped.
"It is a disquieting vision that, like we see in movies like 'Minority
Report,' is a potentially oppressive and enslaving one," Mr. Goodman said.
In Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report," a science-fiction thriller set in
2054, store advertisements are depicted as holographic, each capable of
scanning people's eyes to identify them and then speaking directly to them,
as in a 3-D model in a Gap ad asking Tom Cruise's character if he was
interested in a collection of sweaters.
Mr. Fitch's Smart Displays are not so intrusive yet. They are 42-inch flat
plasma screens coupled with custom-made computers and off-the-shelf PC
speakers. The displays are fitted into a panel designed to mount in standard
theater poster frames. The face of the panel has a circular motion detector
on top that oddly enough evokes the eyelike presence of the HAL 9000, the
soft-spoken yet lethally flawed computer in Stanley Kubrick's science
fiction classic, "2001: A Space Odyssey."
Each display is linked by a broadband Internet connection to the theater's
server, also made by Thinking Pictures. The servers are connected over a
broadband network to Mr. Fitch's company in the Chelsea section of
Manhattan, where the display's content is developed and distributed. It is
the digital network, not the displays, that is central to Mr. Fitch's plans
to transform Hollywood's static one-sheets into microchip-smartened, two-way
windows for moviegoers, studios and exhibitors, he said.
In the last couple of years, Mr. Fitch has been extending his high-speed
network and installing his Smart Displays. So far, the system has about 30
displays and operates in a handful of theaters on the East Coast and in the
Midwest. But Mr. Fitch added that he hopes to have his motion poster system
in another 20 to 30 theaters soon, with up to 100 interactive displays
winking for attention.
While Mr. Fitch would not disclose details of how much each display costs,
he said the panels are generally leased to a user and advertising revenues
are shared between Mr. Fitch's company and the theater's owner. Mr. Fitch
was vague about precise financial arrangements his company has with studios
and exhibitors, but he did note that in some cases he paid exhibitors to
have his displays in their theater lobbies.
Nonetheless, Mr. Fitch said the displays were a "win-win-win proposition"
for studios that received information about moviegoers' interests, for
exhibitors that shared in the ad revenue and for movie patrons who were
informed and entertained by the posters.
Bonnie Curtis, one of the producers of "Minority Report," said Mr. Spielberg
largely depended on a group of futurists and his own imagination for much of
the technological applications in the movie. As far as Ms. Curtis knew, the
film's creative team was not aware of Mr. Fitch's interactive posters when
"Minority Report" was being made.
When told about Mr. Fitch's displays, however, she called them "fantastic."
The movie notwithstanding, Ms. Curtis said, "there is no telling where
technology is going to take us." One possibility, she added with a chuckle,
might be posters so interactive that they call out to prospective moviegoers
in the voice of a film's director, like Mr. Spielberg.
"When I hear him say, 'Hey, Bonnie, I like that blouse. Why haven't you come
to see my movie?' " Ms. Curtis said, "then I'd say we are getting very
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