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Universal adds second screen of features to boost video sales

October 7, 2011 |  2:23 pm

Fast Five director Justin Lin with star Vin Diesel
With cratering DVD sales dragging down home-video revenue, Hollywood is eager to find a way to persuade consumers to buy movies instead of renting them. Ultraviolet is part of that effort, on the theory that digital sales would take off if movie files were as portable as movie discs. A more interesting gambit that's slowly emerging is to make the experience of movie-watching different for those who buy discs than for those who rent them.

Universal Studios Home Entertainment took its first step in that direction this week when it released the Blu-ray version of its summer blockbuster "Fast Five." The discs offered to consumers -- not the ones sold to video rental services such as Netflix and Redbox -- unlock extra features in the cloud that can be delivered to a tablet or laptop in sync with the movie.

The point is to let lovers of the movie delve more deeply into it -- to give the director's point of view, to address viewers' curiosity as soon as it's piqued. It's an approach Disney is trying too, having offered "second screen" features on four releases so far.

"We know consumers are multi-tasking when they watch movies," said Hilary Hoffman, vice president of marketing for Universal's home entertainment division. The second screen features on "Fast Five" tap into that attention deficit disorder impulse, but direct it back to the movie.

Making it work requires an Internet-connected Blu-ray player and a laptop or tablet computer connected to the same home network, running the Pocket Blu app developed by Deluxe Digital Studios. As the disc plays the movie through the Blu-ray player, the app provides a series of links to bonus features that can be streamed from the Internet at specific junctures in the film.

On the "Fast Five" disc, those features include director Justin Lin explaining how the movie was made, breakdowns of special-effects sequences, and anecdotes from the cast and crew about the filmmaking. Compared to the standard extras on a DVD, the second screen features provide "a much more interactive experience," Hoffman said.

Interactivity is the common theme of second screen features, at least at this point. The feature is still evolving, Hoffman said, and the company is still deciding which releases to use it on. Next up: "Cowboys and Aliens," due out Dec. 6. That disc's features will be enhanced with a new capability: Users will be able to move second screen content from their tablets or laptops to their TV screen just by flicking (i.e., swiping a finger quickly across the touch-screen).

Hoffman said the company plans to have more second screen releases next year, but it hasn't decided how many yet. She declined to say how much the feature adds to the cost of a Blu-ray release.

Second screen won't appeal to people who like a good story uninterrupted. It makes much more sense to me for second and third viewings than the first time through. But it definitely changes the experience of watching a film. That strategy strikes me as the right one for promoting sales over rentals, although it remains to be seen whether Universal's second screen approach is an effective execution of that strategy.

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-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division. Follow him @jcahealey

Photo: "Fast Five" director Justin Lin with actor Vin Diesel. Credit: Universal Pictures.

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