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Big film festival focuses on small screen

A panel at the Sundance Film Festival mulls the issue of mobile content and the future of cinema on the go.

PARK CITY, Utah--As thousands of Sundance Film Festival attendees lined up Saturday to see independent films on the big screen, a couple hundred piled into a room to talk about the little screen.

New mobile technologies like the video iPod and cell phones with video capability have already created demand for bite-size content. But many wonder whether such devices will become conventional outlets for film distribution and whether consumers will watch such content on a small screen.

The answer to both questions is yes, at least according to a panel of executives in the emerging mobile-content industry. And they seemed to agree that the viewing of mobile content won't take the place of regular TV watching or moviegoing. Rather, it's something consumers will use while riding a train or waiting in line at the DMV.

"There's no question: Folks will watch video on their phones," said panelist John Burris, director of wireless-data services at Sprint Nextel.

Walt Mossberg,
The Wall Street Journal

In addition to taking on the role of mobile technology in the next wave of filmmaking, the "Cinema on the Move" panel--moderated by Wall Street Journal personal technology columnist --also delved into just what that content might look like, and how it will be priced and distributed.

Mossberg pointed out that video has been available on portable devices for at least 18 months, but back then, "it was hopeless." Networks have since gotten much faster, and things kicked into high gear in the last quarter of last year, when Apple Computer introduced its video iPod and consumers started demanding content.

"This is one of those interesting moments," reminiscent of "the bubble frenzy," Mossberg said, later adding that "Apple is the elephant in the room."

Panelist and short-film distributor Carter Pilcher, of Shorts International, clarified that the United States has actually been much slower than Europeans and other international communities to embrace TV and video on mobile phones. He sees the future of short films for mobile devices as strong, so long as filmmakers can count on a financial reward or at least know that they'll be able to recoup their costs.

Panelist Brian Levin, founder of the Mobliss mobile-media service company, said content for mobile devices is best in short, "attention deficit" form. Rather than a half-hour episode of a TV show, for example, he's betting on the success of his company's 40-second montage of "Baywatch" beach moments.

Sprint's Burris also has a term for short TV segments for mobile devices: "Snack TV."

John Jacobs, whose company, MediaSquirrel, hosts video content specifically for the iPod, added that he sees mobile devices spawning whole new forms of content, such as the serial shorts, sort of like the old silent-movie days.

Mossberg differentiated the various types of business models used in the delivery of mobile content. He called the big-four cell phone carriers the "Soviet Ministries." The carriers act as a "tollgate" between mobile-content providers and users, something he said is ultimately bad for consumers.

Levin, however, emphasized the phone carriers' role in providing an existing business and billing model.

The issue of creating content specifically for a small screen might become less relevant in the future, Mossberg predicted, with the advent of some sort of a larger foldable screen that will be built into mobile devices. He said he knows that such a contraption is already in the works.

The panelists predicted that advertising for mobile devices will be increasingly location-aware, catering to the interests of individual consumers.

Mossberg, for one, doesn't want to walk by a Burger King and then automatically get sent a coupon for the fast-food restaurant over his cell phone.

"That's the wet dream for a lot of these advertisers," he said.

The Sundance festival runs through Jan. 29.