Movie studios fully understand the influence that word-of-mouth reviews, whether positive or negative, have on box office receipts. Social networks are accelerating this conversation as consumers hype or hurt a movie’s perception. Many observers speculate that moviegoer talk on Twitter, which often comes straight from a mobile phone inside a theater, can impact a film’s opening weekend. As a result, studios are experimenting with ways to tap into the viral discussion, create awareness on social networks, and transform the mobile phone into a driver of positive buzz and box office earnings.

The Mobile App Gold Rush

The surging popularity of mobile applications — Apple’s App Store has seen over 1.8 billion downloads since its launch — is opening up new marketing opportunities and studios are taking advantage. Many have already introduced a handful of both free and paid ($0.99 to $4.99) movie apps.

“Downloadable apps are an effective means by which a studio can get promotion, because consumer attention is so scarce in today’s media-filled world,” said Carl Howe, the director of the Anywhere Consumer Research group at Yankee Group. “It’s almost becoming expected with a big blockbuster. If a studio can get a consumer to spend half an hour or an hour with an app, it’s marketing they can’t really get any other way.”

Howe said that Yankee Group will soon release a forecast titled “The Mobile App Gold Rush.” It estimates smartphone owners will download 975 million apps in the U.S. this year. The report also estimates that four out of five apps (82 percent) in the U.S. are free downloads, which is why many free movie apps are promotional in their design and the content they offer.

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For example, Paramount Digital Entertainment’s “Star Trek Phaser” app offers video clips and images. Universal’s “Bruno” app features soundboards, ringtones and the film’s trailer. Disney’s “Up” gives owners access to the story, character bios, a trailer and wallpaper, while the studio’s “G-Force: Moochie Fly” includes a link to buy movie tickets.

Promotional apps are becoming a regular component of movie marketing plans, and studios are starting to integrate tools that enable sharing of app content within social networks. Howe notes that apps with social networking capabilities are valuable since they can “create a network of activists to drive box office.”

Zombies Live with Facebook Connect

The mobile Web and the iPhone are getting social and the undead are among the first to bite on Facebook Connect. Last Thursday, Henri Moissinac, head of Facebook mobile, unveiled Facebook Connect for the mobile Web) and predicted that, “What we did for photo sharing, we are going to do for mobile applications.” Facebook Connect allows Facebook users to share content on Websites or within apps with their Facebook friends.

Facebook Connect launched on the iPhone in March of this year, yet very few film apps offer Connect functionality. One exception, called Zombieland, was released in early August by Sony Pictures. Along with offering a virtual antidote that gamers use to heal a zombie bite, the app integrates Facebook Connect in order to enable sharing among Facebook friends. “Use the Facebook button to connect directly from the app to your Facebook status to let friends know that you have used the bite scan application,” reads its instructions.

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Kara Bilkiss

This app demonstrates how word-of-mobile marketing can be built on the “let friends know” capability of Facebook Connect. Expect to see it featured in lots of movie apps soon. This is just the first of many integrations, according to Sony.

“All Sony Pictures apps will have a social networking component by February 2010,” said Kara Bilkiss, vice president of worldwide mobile games at Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. “Consumers expect high-quality games and we have a real commitment to delivering that experience.”

Sony is releasing a “Voltron” mobile game in December — although the movie is still in development, Sony has the mobile rights — as well as social-network friendly apps based on “The Karate Kid” (June 2010) and “Salt” (July 2010). Bilkiss noted that these apps will enable gamers to connect to Facebook, Twitter and potentially other sites.

Warner Bros. Digital Distribution confirmed that all of their game apps launching in Q4 of this year will include Facebook Connect functionality. Players will be able to start conversations in social networks, share game bragging rights, and motivate their peers to play.

The mobile app connectivity rush is currently in production mode, but as Sony Pictures, Warner Bros. and other studios roll out this functionality, the movie conversations and content in Facebook will come alive through word-of-mobile marketing. While studios are enthusiastic about the social networking opportunities on mobile and the iPhone, consumers will ultimately decide the impact of this kind of connectivity — and the effect it will have on the box office.

Nick Mendoza is the director of digital communications at Zeno Group. He advises consumer, entertainment and web companies on digital strategy, distribution and engagement. He blogs at The Social 7 and is the film correspondent for MediaShift. Follow him on Twitter @NickMendoza.