For many parents of young children, the battle over limiting little ones' time with iPads and other mobile devices is difficult and seemingly unending. They can serve as fantastic baby sitters in a pinch, but the soulless gaze they can prompt in children can be downright terrifying.
A number of scientific studies have raised red flags; this summer Public Health England, for instance, warned that children who spend more time watching screens tend to have higher levels of emotional distress, anxiety and depression.
So it came as a bit of a surprise to see that Disney was putting "The Little Mermaid" back in cinemas and encouraging kids to download a new related app onto their iPads and bring them to the theater. As the movie runs they can play games, compete with fellow audience members and sing along with the Disney classic.
Launched Friday in 16 theaters in Southern California, New York, Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, Kansas and New Jersey, the "Little Mermaid Second Screen Live" screenings are essentially a "Rocky Horror Picture Show" for the digital generation.
Disney sees "Second Screen Live" as a novel way to get young moviegoers to want to go to theaters more often.
"This is a special event. We are inviting people to break the rules," said Disney's head of theatrical distribution Dave Hollis. "It's a departure from the traditional moviegoing experience. We wanted to inject a different kind of life into it."
I had to wonder: Is the singing, brooding Ariel really not enough anymore — now the kids have to "interact" with their fellow moviegoers? For many parents (including me), sitting in a dark room with my children and not interacting is what makes moviegoing such a blissful family activity.
Hollis insisted that Disney has great respect for the theater experience and is not encouraging an iPad free-for-all at every film.
"This is absolutely not an idea that you bring any device to any movie at any time," he said. "At Disney we have extraordinary reverence for the traditional moviegoing experience to be free from light, chatter and phones."
How are kids to know the difference, though? It's possible that once exposed to second-screen experiences this generation will find regular moviegoing dull. A bucket of popcorn might feel anticlimactic compared with the singing iPad they got to use last time.
Almost every theater these days reminds patrons at the beginning of screenings about the "no texting, no talking" etiquette. Yet such norms are increasingly violated — sometimes resulting in extreme anger among other moviegoers. An attendee at the Toronto International Film Festival this month called 911 because someone was texting in a screening.
Encouraging iPad use at the movies feels like a risk for Disney, a company reliant on keeping theater audiences happy, as well as for theater chains. But exhibitors seem comfortable experimenting with new technologies to keep their houses full.
"The possible upside is an expanding market where cinema patrons are engaged interactively in catalog titles," said John Fithian, president of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners. "The possible downside is that cinema patrons generally react negatively to distractions from other patrons in the auditorium."
"The Little Mermaid" is a catalog title — it first came out in 1989 — and compared with Pixar movies, the animation looks old. So the iPad games do modernize this almost quarter-century-old property, and there is added voice-over from Flounder, Sebastian and Ursula the sea witch.
Every time a song plays, it's called it "crab-e-oke," and the lyrics are shown on the screen. The games pause during the more climactic moments of the movie, such as when Ariel admits to her father that she loves the human prince Eric or when Ursula is offering Ariel a deal to turn her into a human.
Those who attend a "Second Screen Live" screening without iPads might be frustrated — the movie freezes for up to a minute at various points so that the audience can play games. The games come at a furious pace; two happened before they rolled the opening credits.
For many kids, though, the showing may be their first exposure to Ariel. Many 5-year-olds are likely find watching Ariel trying to walk on those new legs of hers exciting enough, without a barrage of stimuli from other sources.
"The main issue for me is from a storytelling perspective," said Yalda Uhls, a researcher at UCLA's Children's Digital Media Center and regional director for Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that provides guidelines for parents. "It's really important to engage children in storytelling and it's already hard to do that today when there are so many different distractions and stimulations everywhere."
She added: "To bring something that's distracting into a movie theater — it just doesn't seem that it's going to ultimately help the studios with the goal of creating value for their library or for creating future moviegoers."
Clearly, though, marketers face a challenge of how to attract each new generation to the movies. Disney tested the technology last year with five free screenings of "The Nightmare Before Christmas." Hollis said the audience response was 97% positive, with many attendees describing the experience as closer to something they would get at one of the company's theme parks than at a regular movie theater.
Though Disney said it isn't committing to more second-screen experiences at this time, should the experiment work the company said it would be interested in using the technology to extend a film's theatrical run. Imagine, for example, that after "Iron Man 3" has been in theaters for four or six weeks you could go back and see it a second time, with your iPad allowing you to ride along more closely with Tony Stark's adventures.
With the Marvel comics properties as well as George Lucas' "Star Wars" films now under Disney's umbrella, the studio has a plethora of opportunities to make second-screen apps for die-hard fans looking for additional content.
Greg Webb of Valley Village, who brought his 3-year-old daughter, Tabitha, to a Friday morning showing of "The Little Mermaid," said he wasn't sure young kids are actually the best demographic for second-screen experiences.
"I don't think it's a good idea for kids. It kind of defeats the purpose," he said in the hallway of the theater, taking a play-break mid-movie with his daughter. "We come to the movies to get her off of the electronics at home."
He added: "I could see it as more of an adult thing, where I'd come with a group of friends and answer trivia questions."