Hollywood studios have struggled to contend with the increasingly fleeting attention spans of online consumers. But now Sony Pictures Entertainment thinks it may have found a way to better hold people's interest with online video – by letting them affect the outcome.
Sony Pictures Entertainment is making a multimillion-dollar strategic investment in New York-based Interlude, a digital firm that helps production companies and advertisers make interactive videos to better target online audiences.
As in video games, Interlude's videos allow viewers to control aspects of what they see on screen with the click of a button, bringing the choose-your-own adventure concept to traditional entertainment.
In a promotional video for MTV's "Scream" series, for example, viewers choose what to do in a short home-invasion thriller by clicking on icons that appear in the corner of the screen. Do you open the front door when someone knocks, or hide in the house? What decisions you make determine how you're killed.
While Interlude's interactive video technology so far has largely been used for clever viral marketing campaigns and music videos, some Hollywood players see potential for full-on film and TV projects. MGM and Warner Music Group are also investors in the company, which has raised $40 million in capital to date. Financial terms were not disclosed.
Sony also will fund production costs for four or five original digital shows with Interlude that will play for free on sites like Facebook. The videos will roll out with episodes that target a wide range of demographics with genres including comedy, horror and police drama. The episodes, expected to launch later this year, will each last eight to 20 minutes.
Hollywood studios are looking for new ways to connect with audiences that increasingly flock to YouTube and social media for their entertainment. Some see interactive video as one way to attract the transitory eyeballs of online consumers.
"This strikes me as a very innovative and new way to tell a story, and it's the first time I've ever seen branching story lines that were compelling and that worked," said Michael Lynton, chief executive of Sony Pictures Entertainment.
The productions will be overseen by filmmaker Will Gluck, who directed and produced the comedy "Friends With Benefits" and the 2014 big-screen version of "Annie."
Interlude has been expanding its foray into Hollywood. In April, the company announced it had partnered with CBS for an interactive version of "The Twilight Zone," following a deal with MGM to reboot the 1980s thriller "WarGames."
"Now you can put someone inside a story, and not in a gimmicky way," said Interlude Chief Executive Yoni Bloch, an Israeli musician who co-founded the firm. "By making something that people participate in, everybody stays much longer."
If it works, Sony could adapt some of its existing franchises for use on the new format.
"The first four or five of these are stories that are very relatable and accessible," Gluck said. "We're not in a niche game here."
Interlude is not alone in the space. Earlier this year, Swiss studio CtrlMovie launched its full-length interactive film "Late Shift" through Apple's app store. Another start-up, Belgium-based Zentrick, helps advertisers make interactive commercials.
Some are skeptical. New entertainment technologies often need big-name involvement and major hits in order to move past the initial "gee-whiz" interest, said Scott Donaton, chief content officer of digital marketing agency DigitasLBi.
"There's a question of how interactive you want entertainment to be," Donaton said. "Sometimes people want a more passive experience than we think, they don't necessarily want to be involved."
The question is whether interactive video is the next big thing, or a passing fad like 3-D television.
Lynton, who worked in publishing before he came to the entertainment industry, acknowledges that earlier incarnations of the choose-your-own-adventure idea failed to take hold. But he still argued that Interlude is the best chance he's seen for the concept to catch on.
"We're a little in uncharted territory," Lynton said. "It feels like a better bet than many we've made in the past, and it's a really elegant way to tell a story. … I think it's a very big opportunity."