Of all the places I’d thought would be forbidden to the second screen experience, movie theaters were near the top of my list. After all, you’re paying a premium ticket price for the opportunity to sit in a dark theater and immerse yourself in a narrative — second screen devices operate in direct opposition to that.
However, when Disney (s DIS) announced special theatrical screenings of its animated classic The Little Mermaid as “second screen sing-a-longs,” I was curious as to what they had in store. A lifelong animation fan, I’ve seen Little Mermaid more than a few times, but Disney had promised that I’d experience the film “like never before.” I decided to see how they planned to liven up a movie I’d memorized by the age of 10.
The Little Mermaid Second Screen Live experience is iPad-only (s AAPL) (sorry, Android (s GOOG) users) — I downloaded the app for it the night before (it’s 641 MB, so plan accordingly), and picked an early show at the AMC Burbank 16 (one of the few theaters in the country running the experience).
I was the only person in the theater until a few minutes before the movie started, when two parents lead in their small child, who couldn’t have been older than five, and pulled out their own iPads.
The standard complement of coming attractions ran, followed by a brief introduction featuring Jodi Benson, the voice actor who played Ariel, who served as our guide to setting up our iPads (Airplane Mode: On, Wi-Fi: On, Multi-Touch Gestures: Off, Volume: Up).
Then, after establishing our screen names and starting up the experience, our meager audience was assigned to teams (we were encouraged to shout “Flounder!” or “Sebastian!” accordingly) and the film began.
As the film began, so did the games. Most second-screen experiences I’ve tried have been largely passive, but Little Mermaid demanded the audience’s attention right from the beginning with games, trivia questions and other forms of interactivity for all ages.
Things moved surprisingly fast, especially over moments of the film that I might not have ever thought of as dead air, and the experience went so far as to announce its presence right on the screen:
And also at times featured characters from the film actually talking over the original dialogue, adding commentary either on the soundtrack or on the screen itself:
The action on the big screen even froze from time to time for more complex games, and there were moments of seemingly new animation inserted at key plot points, as well.
With encouragement from Sebastian and Flounder, we racked up points for navigating characters through a maze or correctly keeping the ship steady–
Though in an odd twist (especially given that there were only three people in my theater actively competing, and I knew we were either Team Sebastian or Team Flounder), Team Ursula seemed to do pretty well.
Team Ursula’s presence in the standings, it became clear, was a bit of artificial manipulation of the gamification at work here — her “score” seemed to magically fluctuate depending on the other teams’ success.
This became even more obvious halfway through the film, when Teams Sebastian and Flounder were united as Team Ariel, and within five minutes Team Ursula gained and lost thousands of points.
I wish that hadn’t been the case — honestly, I was having enough trouble trying to beat my primary foes at the matching and bubble-popping games — but it did ensure some sense of competition. And even artificial competition, in the heat of the moment, kept us on edge.
With only a few people in the audience (two of whom were very distracted by a five-year-old who wouldn’t stay in her seat and kept running around the bleacher seating), the sing-a-long portions of the film didn’t have the same impact they might have had in a crowded theater. But the karaoke-style animation of the on-screen lyrics was cute:
And on the iPads, we got a full picture of what, exactly, some of those lyrics really are:
During the few moments when our iPads weren’t demanding attention, the screen displayed a relatively blank slate. Though it would occasionally pop with animation to punctuate big dramatic moments, such as Ariel’s declaration that “something’s starting right now…” or the final destruction of Ursula.
The total experience was almost a bit too hyperactive — though I could just be a bit sore because when the final scores were tallied, I ended up coming in second:
But I can’t deny that I was thoroughly entertained by the puzzles and games — even though I’m a bit outside the target audience. I didn’t fully rediscover The Little Mermaid the way I might have if I had been watching without an iPad on my lap, but by bringing gamification to the second screen, Disney has found a way to make even the most familiar of films into an interactive and engaging experience.
Little Mermaid is likely nearing the end of its second screen run — especially since the film comes out on Blu-ray next Tuesday — but beginning next month, the holiday classic The Nightmare Before Christmas will be getting a similar treatment.
It won’t be the same as just watching the film, let’s be clear. But that’s not the point. Second Screen Live isn’t trying to enhance the experience of watching a movie; it’s creating an entirely new film-going experience. One where iPads are forgiven, long-forgotten lyrics are rediscovered, and someone named Daddy can make you cry uncle.