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Sony Pictures Accelerates Wireless Marketing

LOS ANGELES — A wireless campaign for Sony Pictures' “Ali” garnered 8,000 subscribers, beating similar efforts for “Jurassic Park III” and “The Lord of the Rings” to become the most successful such database-building initiative so far on handheld devices.

Executed by Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment, the campaign used sub-options on the cell phone menu and targeted Yahoo buys to entice consumers to sign up for publicity updates and trivia.

“The challenge really for us was that for the Gen X and Gen Y crowd, 'Ali' was almost historical — they really weren't vested,” Audrey Marco, vice president of partnership marketing at Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment, told @d:tech Los Angeles attendees June 19. “We wanted to get them vested on the history.”

Starring Will Smith, “Ali” is a sketch of the famed boxer. For Sony, that movie is one among many that can be exploited across wireless, an increasingly popular direct marketing medium for studios. For one, the mobile marketplace lets Sony get closer to end-users through a device they carry everywhere.

“What we're trying to do is to break out of the major cycle, where we lose touch with consumers and the audience between movie cycles, releases and typical dry periods,” said Rio Caraeff, vice president of wireless services at Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment. “These opportunities bring us closer to customers at times when they might move on to other entertainment opportunities.”

A relatively new group at Sony, the wireless division was formed in March. It works in concert with other properties like Sony Music and corporate partners and cell phone service providers.

“Spider-Man” is a classic example of where Sony thinks its wireless marketing future lies. The movie is being marketed on wireless in conjunction with telecommunications marketer Cingular Wireless. Cell phone users who sign up assume the role of Spider-Man. They can interact with different enemies, subscribe to games, download characters and move into different cities. Consumers can order ring tones, faceplates and screensavers.

Sony and Cingular already have a billing system in place to charge for these services.

Though Sony would not disclose sales numbers, it said the faceplates sold out in three weeks. Moreover, Sony received 20 percent more subscriptions than expected in the first few weeks.

A similar effort has begun for “Men in Black 2.” The wireless marketing includes sweepstakes and SMS games, or short text messages. Users can share alien experiences or stories, too.

Distribution is key — and so are partnerships with service providers like Cingular, AT&T Wireless and VoiceStream. While its wireless efforts are handset-agnostic, Sony often places its promotions on Sony Ericsson and Siemens handhelds and cell phones.

Sony Ericsson's new T68i, already the leading new cell phone in Europe with a color screen, will ship to North America this summer. This will let Sony peddle “Spider-Man” screensavers, picture messaging templates and wallpapers from different properties.

This fall, another wireless device from Sony Ericsson, the P800, will boast the first three-dimensional game. Users can play on a full screen after taking the keypad off, using a stylus to shoot enemies. The game will have sound. A promotion is being devised along with Sony Ericsson and a retail operator.

A Siemens instrument soon will allow users to play “Spider-Man” Java games to push home video sales of the movie. The games will let users download additional weapons, functions and facilities. Sony is seeking sponsors for these efforts.

Work has begun with Sony Music to promote actress and singer Jennifer Lopez on wireless as part of a concerted campaign.

For Sony, the opportunity to market its movies, music and related merchandise over wireless devices is immense. According to the company, 25 million U.S. consumers use Global System Mobile technology phones and handhelds that allow such interactivity.

The company is heartened by adoption rates in Europe and Japan for wireless marketing. In the United States, for instance, it can leverage the sonypictures.com database to drive traffic to cell phones and other instruments.

Still, there are challenges. Unlike Europe, the United States has yet to develop a common standard for wireless technology. Also, usage patterns do not allow for long periods of interaction.

Caraeff said Sony has noticed cell phone users here typically spend three to five minutes on games and wireless interaction before taking a call. So there is a pattern of start and stop in spurts.

“The usage is very short, fast. It's got to be tailored,” Caraeff said. “Outside of the U.S., commuter usage is 40 percent to 45 percent. A significant amount of usage is at home and even at work.”

So the key challenge is to drive awareness and acceptance. Sony is using wireless packaging, in-box fliers and on-device menus to drive its wireless offerings.

“We find that embedding and doing integrated marketing with the retailers or operators will drive additional traffic,” Caraeff said.

But the studio is under no illusion that wireless marketing alone can push the needle. Obviously, it is too early for the medium to be judged for its revenue-generating potential, so the opportunity is in its marketing and promotional value relevant to the brand.

More importantly, it should be judged on its merits as part of an overall media plan, Marco said.

“As part of a campaign, it makes a lot of sense,” she said. “But as a standalone, it doesn't make sense.”

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