Short films eye the really small screen

Independent filmmakers are wondering if mobile devices could allow them to get their work in front of a mass audience.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--Spruce has got a problem. He's a nervous hairdresser with a tendency to cut off the heads of his clients.

Temah Nelson's animated short "Friends on Crack" stars Spruce and his fellow petroglyphs (think cave drawings) in a series of brief episodes that could serve as a model for mobile films, or videos created with smart phones and handheld devices in mind. Panelists at the Cinequest Film Festival here Friday advised a group of aspiring filmmakers that mobile devices could allow short films that were never previously shown outside a festival setting to attract a wider audience.

Portable video players and high-end multimedia smart phones have been available for several years, but none have really made their mark in the video realm the way Apple Computer's iPod has changed the music business. Wireless carriers and studios haven't really figured out the best business model for getting the content onto Palm's Treo 650 or Sony's PlayStation Portable video player, said Tim Bajarin, president of analyst firm Creative Strategies.

Studios experimented with "mobisodes," or short videos featuring clips of shows like Fox's "24," but those features have been regarded as little more than promotional gimmicks, Bajarin said. Carriers are taking their such as "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" that can be played on a video iPod or on a PC or Mac. But most of that content was developed for a larger screen and can look awkward on a 2-inch mobile phone screen, said Mitchell Weinstock, vice president of business development for Kinoma. Kinoma develops a media player for smart phones such as Palm's Treo 650 as well as the production tools for moving video onto handheld devices.

"It's not viable to just make stuff smaller," Weinstock said. Mobile movies have to be created with mobile users in mind, featuring simple storylines, basic characters and sharp writing, he said. And in the world of short films, these principles are essential, the panelists agreed.

Palm's Matt Crowley sees the audience of potential viewers as current mobile phone users--meaning just about everyone--who just can't figure out what to do with "found time," the five minutes spent waiting in line for coffee or to pass through airport screening. Rather than staring at the floor or marveling at the efficiency of the transportation system, some people might choose to download or stream a "video snack" to pass the time, said Crowley, a senior marketing manager at Palm.

The independent filmmakers here were slightly concerned about a world of mobile movies. The movie industry hasn't quite been Napsterized just yet. But the filmmakers are worried about the possibility that people could stop going to the theater for their movie experience if they can get content wherever and whenever they want, losing out on seeing the film the way it was meant to be enjoyed.

However, not many people will want to watch anything that runs beyond several minutes on a smart phone screen, Crowley said. He advised the filmmakers to think of mobile devices as a potential home for short animated films that traditionally haven't reached large audiences outside of the festival community.

Some analysts are skeptical that viewers will initially want anything but already familiar video content, but note that this market is in its infancy. Web sites such as MySpace have helped launch independent bands that wouldn't have reached such a large audience otherwise, and it's possible that a wireless carrier could figure out a way to do the same thing for independent filmmakers, said Suzzana Ellyn, an analyst at Current Analysis.

"If you had really good content that was done well and could be seen well on a small screen, you could find a legitimate audience," Bajarin said. "The issue continues to be more of one that is struggling to figure out exactly what people will want, and what they will pay for it."

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