On the first day of shooting a spinoff of the popular “24” TV show, director Marc Ostrick kept a sense of secrecy on the set, telling the unknown actors very little about the final product.
The scripts were just one or two pages per episode. And the whole season was to be shot in seven days.
Three months later, the new series, “24: Conspiracy,” began airing – on a 2-inch screen.
“They knew it wasn’t a normal pilot. The scripts came out, Minute 1, Minute 2, Minute 3,” says Ostrick, who works for Sparkhill, a film production company in Burbank.
“We just mentioned that this was a pilot and left it very ambiguous. The actors were just so happy to work.”
A new 60-second episode drops every Monday, but only to subscribers of Verizon Wireless V Cast service, which debuted in January for $15 a month.
As cell-phone companies search for new features to make more money from customers, TV has been tapped as the next craze. Sprint TV launched last August, while Cingular’s version, using MobiTV, debuted in January.
Today’s video may look more like a fast-moving slideshow on a subpar TV. But technology is improving, and cell-phone companies and their entertainment counterparts are lining up to get a piece of the not-quite live action.
“The technology is so new, it’s like TV in 1948,” says Ostrick, hired by 20th Century Fox Television based on his documentary work included in the “24” DVD.
“I think people are going to want this more than streaming Web movies. Everybody has a cell phone. It’s a technology that is right in front of you.”
The companies that want this and are offering content include ABC, NBC, CNN, Discovery, ESPN, Cartoon Network, E!, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon and VH1.
And, of course, there’s Fox. Big time.
In addition to “24: Conspiracy,” which mimics the TV show but with unknown actors and different plots, Fox created “mobisodes” – or mobile episodes – from a soap-opera TV pilot and outtakes from “The Simple Life.” Live Fox News is available to Sprint TV users.
“We thought of V Cast as a way to reach more viewers for ‘24’ and ‘The Simple Life,’ ” says Lucy Hood, senior vice president of content and marketing for News Corp. who oversees Fox Wireless Entertainment Group.
“The idea of creating episodes for cell phones seemed farfetched to some, but what we found was that because it’s such a personal experience – you hold the cell phone 1 foot from your face and it’s a 1-minute episode – you could get a lot of story into it,” she says.
Cell TV is just starting out. But one market-research firm already projects that this year, the industry will approach 3.2 million subscribers and $269 million in U.S. revenue, which includes monthly subscription fees plus charges from sending video e-mails. By 2009, revenue is projected to jump to $4.5 billion and subscribers to 31 million, according to In-Stat, a market-research firm.
“The cellular network is a two-way medium. It’s a more interactive network that viewers haven’t experienced, with polling and voting right on the phone. If you’re watching ‘American Idol’ you still have to grab your cell phone to vote,” says Allen Nogee, principal analyst with In-Stat.
Nogee predicts we will see more cell-sized shows because the movie studios and TV networks are interested.
“No one wants to be left out of any medium,” he says. “Regular viewership of TV has been going down, while other areas like the Internet has been going up.”
But producers may have an uphill battle persuading consumers to trade their big screens for the small screen. A recent In-Stat survey asked people if they were interested in TV on a cell phone.
“There was not a whole lot of interest, actually,” Nogee says. “It’s harder to view things on a cell phone. You have to hold it in your hand for so long.”
One thing is certain, says Hood, who oversees the wireless content for Fox: “Let’s just say that it is much, much faster and much, much less expensive to create mobisodes versus TV.”
After Fox greenlighted the project in October, Sparkhill rushed to produce 24 one-minute mobisodes of “24: Conspiracy.”
A script was written, actors hired and a crew assembled. They filmed on a sound stage in the Valley, and most of the time it appeared to be just another TV pilot in the works.
“The only difference being was we used very small digital cameras,” says Eric Young, executive producer and director and founder of Sparkhill.
Ostrick, co-director, would shrink the new footage on the editing system so they could see instantly whether the shot worked.
The original TV show has a lot of dark scenes. For the cell phone, which has limited colors and can’t offer the range of shadows of TV, the crew had to light up actors’ faces to avoid dark shots. They kept action scenes and movement to a minimum because a cell phone can’t process moving images as quickly as TV. And sometimes, they punched up special effects so they would be noticeable on the small screen.
“Because the image is really tiny, some of the effects had to look bigger, like the bullet hits on the walls. We were afraid it wouldn’t read on a cell phone, so we made them larger,” Young says.
Young believes that someday, cell-phone TV will be interactive and offer viewers an experience not available on a regular TV. A character, for example, could ask the viewer to call his cell-phone number during a mobisode.
Until then, Young and Ostrick would love to do this again – even if it means cutting the closing credits to fit in a few extra seconds of story.
“Just taking five to 10 seconds out of our run time is a good percentage of the piece. These had to be pretty exact,” Ostrick says, estimating that each episode runs 55 seconds, plus five seconds to identify the program and episode.
“What was the biggest surprise personally was how much story you could pack into a minute,” says Young. “I thought it was pretty fabulous.”
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