Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Twitter meets Mystery Science Theater 3000

It’s ‘Mystery Science Theater’ meets Twitter

Normally, rampant texting in a movie theater is grounds for ejection.

But in St. Charles, it’s encouraged.

During a screening of ”Zoolander,” audience members could heckle the movie via text, then watch as their comments appeared onscreen with the film: “I want a comb-over like Trump” and “Breakdance fighting is becoming more popular in UFC.

I’ve described it as a mash-up of ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’ and Twitter,” said Rien Heald, the Naperville inventor of MuVChat.

Thus far, MuVChat is in the early stages, with three test screenings at Classic Cinemas’ Charlestowne 18 theater. The next will be Saturday’s screening of “Dodgeball” at 10:30 p.m.

Normally, you don’t want people texting on their phones, [the glowing screens] are kind of like fireflies inside the auditorium,” said Charlestowne manager Randy Pollock. “But if everybody is doing it, it’s fun.”

Brian Stewart, 35, of West Chicago found out about MuVChat through Facebook. He participated in its inaugural screening of “Zoolander” in January.

He describes the texting as “funny comments that you normally snicker to your friends, but this you share with the whole audience.”

The multitasking experience of texting, watching the movie and reading others’ comments didn’t distract him.

The movies they are doing are mostly movies we’ve seen, so they’re cult classics,” said Stewart, a grocery store manager. “Mostly, we’re watching for the comments. You can’t talk out loud, but it’s cool if you’re able to use your phone.”

Heald said the MuVChat concept popped into his head while he was riding the train one day as he commuted from an Internet job from which he has since been laid off. He’s now developing MuVChat full time. Its allure tends to be generational, he said, adding that older viewers can be skeptical of it.

Anybody who is in the Millennial to Gen Y demographic thinks it’s a very good idea. Texting is a big part of their lives,” said Heald, 46. “It’s those kids who really latch on to it.”

The system works this way: Audience members text to a central number, which runs their comments through software. The MuVChat software then displays the texts in a three-line configuration at the bottom of the screen, like a vertical ticker, as the movie plays. Sitting in the projector booth with a standard computer, Heald uses a profanity screening program and can, on the fly, filter comments and ban abusive users.

Most viewers make about 40 comments per movie, Heald said, and not all of them are snarky. Just as often, people will play “Name That Tune” when the soundtrack swells or ask other members of the audience to bring them popcorn.

Ultimately, Heald said, “it could be used in movie theaters and then it could be used in non-theatrical venues, like college campuses. It’s a community-building event.” Right now, however, Heald wants to keep his business plan secret.

MuVChat only shows second-run features, often comedies. Sam Raimi’s “Army of Darkness” has been a popular request for a future screening, and ”Office Space” is up next. Charlestowne manager Pollock said he’d like to see box office bombs such as Mariah Carey’s ”Glitter” and Ben Affleck’s ”Gigli” get the MuVChat treatment.

You can’t do ‘em any harm,” Pollock said.

But does he think MuVChat will ever be available for new movies?

You never know,” he said. “If it makes money, I’m sure Hollywood would do it with their new releases.”

MuVChat’s screening of “Dodgeball” is at 10:30 p.m. Saturday at Charlestowne 18, in St. Charles. Tickets: $5. More information:

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