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Firm Gets Film, TV to Handhelds

Firm Gets Film, TV to Handhelds By JACQUELINE FOX Staff Reporter Vivendi Universal, Walt Disney Co. and AOL Time Warner may be courting Sprint PCS and AT & T; Wireless, hoping to slice up the wireless world in order to place graphics, movie trailers, promos and games on cell phone screens. In the meantime, three-month-old Pocket PC Films of Sherman Oaks is quietly beating the big players at their own game by turning Palm Pilots and similar handheld devices into mobile entertainment centers. And it now has one of the biggest independent film distributors as a business partner. Lion’s Gate Entertainment recently signed a multi-year deal to provide Pocket PC with more than 1,300 film and TV titles. Pocket has a patent pending on a software program called the “Pocket Cinema Installer,” which allows users to download full-length feature films, TV shows and other multimedia products straight to their Pocket PC, Palm Pilot or other hand-held devices using Microsoft Media Player 7.1 or higher. There are one or two competitors with software available online for the handheld devices offering primarily graphics and TV shows. However, Pocket is the first in the country to place programming designed specifically for Palm Pilots and handheld devices on retail shelves. Pocket PC now distributes discs from a library of more than 25,000 titles owned by parent company TuneIn Entertainment, a film and video distributor to cable markets. At the moment though, Pocket PC’s multimedia products are only available on the West Coast at Fry’s Electronics or on the Web at Amazon.com or Pocket’s own Web site. Still, the company sold 10,000 units in April, its first month on the market. The deal with Lion’s Gate marks the first significant studio partnership for Pocket, and places Lion’s Gate at the head of a rush to tap new distribution outlets. According to Ron Schwartz, executive vice president, North America Home Video for Lions Gate, partnering with Pocket was an easy decision to make: It is the only company with pocket discs already on retail shelves, and its sales have already proven to be strong. “Clearly, as you travel around you see an explosion in these handheld devices,” said Schwartz. “And the opportunity to view films in this format is a platform we certainly think is worth experimenting with.” Lion’s Gate’s first pocket films are expected to hit shelves next month and retail for about $15. Among titles available will be “Eve’s Bayou,” starring Samuel L. Jackson, and “Leprechaun,” with “Friends” co-star Jennifer Aniston. Darrell Griffin, co-founder and president of Pocket and TuneIn, said that, even if sales the first month were strong, the deal with Lion’s Gate was the proof he and his three partners needed that they had a market. “They (Lions Gate) are a real forward-thinking company,” said Griffin. “It wasn’t a very long courtship because they got it right away. That’s the one test that said we either have a real business here, or I better get a job as a CPA somewhere,” said Griffin, who actually was a CPA before co-founding TuneIn in 2000. Both Schwartz and Griffin declined to discuss the terms of their deal or how revenues would be shared. The Pocket software allows users to download films to their laptop or personal computer in CD-ROM format. From there, the compressed file can be downloaded to a hand-held device, turning an otherwise high-tech organizer and data storage unit into a portable entertainment center. Although Vivendi, Disney and AOL Time Warner see the potential in handheld devices, none have yet managed to transfer more than a short clip or trailer of a film or TV show into streaming video. And, even if Pocket has managed to get a real product on store shelves, the “anytime, anywhere” entertainment concept for the cell phone hasn’t quite caught on as some in the industry thought it would have by now. “If you think about it, the majority of cell phones have screens that are pretty much one-dimensional and don’t really support graphics very well at all,” said Colin Duwe, an associate editor for online magazine CNET Electronics. “So, at this point the carriers don’t have the sort of data networks to support streaming video, at least not here. It’s being done with some success overseas, but even there the problems are not completely ironed out.” The top manufacturers of the Palm Pilot and Pocket PC, such as Toshiba and Casio, have already begun adding features to newer models that will support film and multimedia graphics. “This is exactly the thing that many of the companies are using as marketing tools to sell upgraded devices,” said Dewe. “I think it’s been pretty effective so far, and I think it’s proved to be a popular download, even if it means spending more money for the added features.” Because the viewing screen on hand-held devices is so small, each disc can hold up to about six full-length feature films, depending on memory availability. A 100-minute film or TV show can be downloaded in about 10 minutes, and played at the same speed as a big-screen film, 24 frames per second. The technology is still quite new, and it could be that Pocket PCs, which retail for $400 and up, might still be too expensive for the average consumer. “I think the technology is almost there, but I’m not sure the quality of the resolution is what it should be for films,” said Knox Bricken, an analyst with Boston-based technology research firm Yankee Group. “And, is the market ready to pay for pocket devices just because they can now get films? I’m not sure of that either.” Good point, said Duwe. “A lot of handheld devices out there still don’t have color screens and some also don’t have sound capability,” he said. “So that would be like watching a silent movie in black and white, and where’s the draw?” Nevertheless, market saturation has begun to push prices downward. There are roughly 1,000 different types of handhelds on the market today. And, said Duwe, $400 isn’t all that much. “That’s just a little less than a desktop,” he said. “Yeah, they are an expensive toy, but they have so many features that I think consumers are finding ways to justify the expense.”

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