Have you ever wanted to see an independent film but were unable to because it’s only playing in New York and Los Angeles, places you don’t live? Or wished that you could experience a classic like “The Godfather” not in your living room, but on the big screen? Well you’re in luck — that is, if you’re in Brazil, home of MovieMobz.
According to founder and CEO Fabio Lima, the idea behind MovieMobz is to eliminate the traditional notion of theatrical windows for movies while opening up independent and art house movies to communities that might not otherwise get them — all while driving additional revenue. And it’s an idea that may be coming soon to a theater near you.
At first, the idea of cinema on demand seems completely impractical. Theaters are physical spaces with screen and seat limitations that only play so many movies in a given day. How could programming them be left to the masses?
It starts with Lima’s other company, Rain Network. A digital distribution system for theaters in Brazil, Rain essentially acts like a virtual private network (VPN), connecting art house theaters in 18 different cities. Currently some 62 theater complexes with 160 screens are on the system.
Those Rain theaters are connected to a central server running proprietary software that houses the movies and distributes them along with trailers and ads. Feature-length digital movies are upwards of around 300 GB, so Rain uses a private BitTorrent system on its network to speed up film delivery to the theaters and put them in front of movie watchers.
But first, MovieMobz organizes those movie watchers. It currently has 400 independent Brazilian and international films in its library. So let’s say a user wants to see “Film X” at a Rain-networked theater. That user “mobilizes” the film by sending a message to the MovieMobz community online, saying, “I want to see ‘Film X’ at this theater!” People from the community who also want to see “Film X” vote for it as well, and once enough people have voted, the screening is booked.
The number of votes it takes to secure a showing depends on the theater and the number of tickets usually sold there. For example, if a theater has 120 seats, and on any given Monday sells some 30 tickets, it will only take 40 MovieMobzters to secure a screening. And according to Lima, typically two people show up for every one MovieMobzter saying they’ll attend.
MovieMobz has been up and running for just eight weeks. In that time, 5,600 people have signed up for the service, what Lima called “very, very early adopters.” Two thousand mobilizations have been initiated and there have been 50 mobilized screenings — complete with highly targeted ads based on demographic and geographic data that MovieMobz has gathered about the viewers.
Will MovieMobz make it to the U.S.? “We want to go to the U.S. as soon as possible,” Lima said.
U.S. theaters are in the midst of a digital conversion that would open up such a possibility. There are 38,000 theater screens in the U.S., 5,000 of which have been converted to digital, according to the National Association of Theater Owners. Roughly 30,000 more screens will make the transition over the next 5-10 years.
According to Bud Mayo, CEO of Access Integrated Technologies, a company that helps convert theaters, digital cinemas open up new possibilities. “There’s opportunity to create incremental revenue, the opportunity to experiment,” said Mayo, who said that movie theater seats remain empty 85 to 90 percent of the time.
Going digital also means that people could revisit favorite older films on the big screen. “With film, because you have to spend a lot of money to maintain and ship the prints, showing catalog movies is not feasible,” said Mark Christiansen, executive vice president of operations for Paramount Pictures. “With digital you can move movies inexpensively, and they can be played at low cost, and you could make a profit.”
To our knowledge, MovieMobz is the first service of its kind. Amazon-owned Withoutabox offers a service called Critical Mass Ticketing that will let filmmakers and distributors book theaters, but the company declined to provide details for this article.
For the time being, DVDs and plasma screens will be the only way to watch the films you want. But maybe someday we’ll all be MovieMobzters.
This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com.