Interactive entertainment: Screen play

Toronto's TimePlay rolls out what may be the world's first interactive cinema platform.

Imagine heading to the cinema to catch SpongeBob SquarePants on the big screen, but instead of passively watching the Nickelodeon critter on film, you move him around from a controller attached to your seat — competing in mini-games against 100 other theatregoers in the room, who are each controlling their own SpongeBob on the screen. It's something that could become a reality for cinema-goers across Europe and North America, thanks to TimePlay Entertainment Inc. The Toronto-based company, headed by former Playdium CEO Jon Hussman, has patented what he believes to be the world's first interactive cinema platform. Currently rolling out at cinemas in the U.K.'s Odeon chain, the technology turns screens into massive multi-player experiences, with games specially designed to replace movies and allow as many as 200 players to compete at once.

For Hussman, TimePlay is an opportunity to pick up where Playdium failed. Playdium's high-tech video arcades were expensive to build, landing the company in significant debt; by 2002, new management had shut down three of Playdium's four locations. Because it uses existing theatres, however, TimePlay can create games for less than $5 million and show them everywhere, rather than spend $15 million to open one facility. Playdium also lacked the large-scale multi-player games TimePlay is now championing, an experience Hussman says is in demand. “You're all in one room, and there's something about that social aspect,” Hussman says, “People feed off the energy and the environment.”

Some cinemas are already dabbling with similar ideas on a smaller scale. Spain's Cinegames outfitted a Madrid theatre with technology that lets gamers compete on computers attached to their seats, while the silver screen shows highlights. And last year, Cineplex Entertainment LP held an Xbox tournament at seven of its theatres across Canada, drawing scores of gamers to compete two-on-two on LCD flat screens, leading up to a final game on the big screen; the company has plans to stage another tournament this year. Hussman, who has a relationship with Cineplex dating from his days at Playdium, hopes to work with the company in Canada. RBC Capital Markets analyst Walter Spracklin, who follows Cineplex, says adding alternative content like video games is a smart move for cinemas. “These things are large pieces of real estate with a very high fixed-cost portion,” he says, “If you can get more people in there for different reasons, then you're maximizing the use of that facility.” In fact, Cineplex already has plans to open a new theatre in Oakville, Ont., later this year that will include a bowling alley and lounge, and the company is studying ways to offer other activities beyond movies.

TimePlay hopes to outfit North American theatres for the first time in 2008, and will expand into 45 U.K. cinemas by the year's end. Eventually, the company wants to enter the “pre-show” business, creating advertising content moviegoers can interact with before films. But for now, it is focused on “casual games” — game-show-style titles that will appeal to a broad demographic. TimePlay is working on content with Endemol — the production house behind programs like Big Brother and Deal or No Deal — and Nickelodeon, which has licensed SpongeBob for a game Hussman hopes will appeal to the kids birthday-party market. Soon, Hussman hopes, the big game developers will be lining up to create versions of their hit titles for the big screen. “What better place to launch a game than in the cinema?”