The Movie Theater in Your Pocket

This film festival is no Sundance or Cannes. The red carpet is virtual, which is just as well, since movie stars skip it altogether. The Zoie Cellular Cinema Festival is run by a self-proclaimed psychic and "intuitive consultant," who happens to dabble in documentary filmmaking. But Victoria Lynn Weston's intuition was right about one thing: Cell-phone movies are a hit.

Her January festival was the world's first to show mobile flicks via cell phones and the Web, and it received more than 100 entries, ranging from a short on cigar-making to a Gatorade commercial, featuring two women boxing. Some movies have been adapted to the one- to two-inch screen on mobile phones. Others have been created specifically with the phone in mind. But no matter the path they took, students and professional filmmakers who submitted their entries believe the phone's small screen could perhaps become as big as the Big Screen some day.

MONSTER MARKET. Granted, today's cell-phone flicks are no Casablanca. Take The Life of a Ringtone, an entry from Louiza Vick, who took first place among student works. The movie's artfully arranged photos and video clips take viewers through a ringtone's creation. But the flick is more akin to a slide show. However, the Gatorade film from established director Joe Miale, who has created commercials for retailers Macy's and Bloomingdale's, features streaming-video footage throughout. Chances are, cell-phone movies will rapidly get more sophisticated as this new genre develops.

Call it Cellywood. It's not tied to a region like Hollywood is to Los Angeles, or Bollywood to India. Rather, it's simply movies made to be shown on a cell.

That virtual land is full of possibilities. With 2 billion subscribers worldwide, mobile phones represent a much greater market for film than movie theaters or PCs. No wonder studios, distributors, and independent animators and filmmakers are streaming into this virtual film genre. Starz Entertainment plans to try fitting some of its movies on cell phones in the next 12 to 24 months, says Bob Greene, senior vice-president for advanced services, who declines to disclose details.

"NOT BAD." Cell-phone are obviously nowhere near their big-screen cousins in sophistication and popularity. It's not even clear that wireless subscribers will pay for flicks. Zoie charges $4.15 per month for movie viewing and says several thousand people watch the movies on their phones and online each month.

On the plus side, quality will only improve. New digital multimedia cell phones with color screens and powerful processors already run pretty good video footage, such as brief movie trailers and sports recaps. Moviemakers say that's plenty to work with. "[Even though their screens are small], cell phones are not bad for graphic animation," says Craig Clark, an animator for film The Mask, who hopes to start selling cartoons through mobile ringtone retailer

Better yet, the new genre is starting to win fans. "As far as the quality of the picture and the content, these films are up there with [regular cinema and TV]," says Charles Morris, who received a pass to the Zoie festival as a birthday gift from his wife. That allowed him to watch about 20 short mobile flicks, a few minutes each, during his lunch hour.

LOW-BUDGET FARE. That short format seems to work. Most cell-phone movies run for under 10 minutes. And their picture background is less detailed than traditional movies. "It's fast entertainment. You're not going to be dealing with heavy plot lines," says Weston.

These aren't big-budget productions, either. Where a Hollywood production can cost millions, a cell-phone movie can be created for a few hundred dollars and with an investment of, perhaps, only 40 hours of time, says Weston.

Considering the small cost, some studios believe cell-phone movies are a risk worth taking. After all, mobile content like simple wireless games and ringtones have become unexpected hits, with the global market for ringtones alone likely reaching $500 million this year. Why not movies? "I envision cell phones being a lot like your cable or satellite movie channel," says Weston.

SERIAL DELIVERY. Indeed, a startup called Mspot, which already helps telco Sprint (FON) deliver radio programs to subscribers, plans to launch a mobile film service in the next quarter, says Mspot CEO Daren Tsui. The outfit will rework feature-length popular films (it won't say which ones) into 10-minute bits to be viewed by consumers while commuting or while standing in line at the lunch counter. "I believe this is going to be very, very popular," Tsui says.

Eventually, people might even watch new Hollywood releases on their cell phones, says Julie Coppernoll, director of marketing for chipmaker Intel's (INTC) wireless broadband division. Or they might rent cell-phone flicks wirelessly. Of course, it could take months to get through My Fair Lady.

No need to worry about that now, though. The genre is still being born and battling lots of naysayers. "To me, it seems that if you're going to invest your time into enjoying a movie, you might as well watch it on a large screen," says Neil Hunt, chief product officer at Web movie-rental service Netflix (NFLX).

But then, several years ago, few people expected ringtones and wireless games to take off. By Olga Kharif in Portland, Ore.

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