Film dialogue has a familiar ring to it for phone users

Movie quotes used as cell ringtones

August 24, 2005|By John Horn | John Horn,LOS ANGELES TIMES

It's not only a classic Chris Farley line from Tommy Boy, but it's also the latest wave in cell phone ringtones: "Please go away, let me sleep, for the love of God!"

Once limited to song samples and hip-hop clips, mobile phone ringers increasingly are featuring memorable movie quotes, including dialogue from titles as varied as Napoleon Dynamite, Office Space, Without a Paddle and Meet the Fockers. The movie-related clips aren't always limited to the spoken cinematic word: For Star Wars fans, options include Darth Vader's heavy breathing, R2-D2's computerized chirps and Chewbacca's phlegmy roar.

Although the new trend may make customized cell phone ringers even more annoying than ever, they hold the promise of delivering new profits to the studios. Ringtones, as the personal ringers are called, have become a $3 billion worldwide boon for record labels, and Hollywood's studios and labor unions are trying to figure out if the movie ringtone market is anywhere near that large.

"I think it's a great market," Steven Masur, an attorney whose firm, MasurLaw, specializes in wireless entertainment content, says of film-related ringtones. "People are quoting movie dialogue all the time. It seems like it could make a lot of money."

For the studios and the companies, or aggregators, that package movie dialogue ringtones, the economics are mouth-watering. Cell phone customers pay as much as $3 per ringtone, and the ringers also deliver free advertising for whatever is being sampled, be it a few bars from 50 Cent's "Just a Lil Bit" or Angelina Jolie inquiring, "Still alive, baby?" from Mr. & Mrs. Smith.

More than 17 million U.S. cell phone customers downloaded at least one ringtone in June, the most recent month for which statistics are available, according to the wireless research firm M:Metrics, with the average customer buying two ringtones in the month. American cell phone users spent $217 million on ringtones last year and are projected to spend $724 million by 2009, according to the market research company Jupiter Research. (Ringtones sell much faster overseas, especially in Europe, where phones are more sophisticated.)

Billboard magazine carries a chart tracking the most popular ringtones - a list currently headed by Mariah Carey's "We Belong Together."

This month, 20th Century Fox set up free ringtone download stations at Loews movie theaters in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. The studio also has crafted original ringtones, in which recognizable movie characters record new dialogue specifically for cell phone ringers. You can, for example, have your ringer say, "Hey, hey, hey! It's Fat Albert. Answer your phone!"

In August, Universal Pictures implemented a deal with leading aggregator Infospace for movie-themed ringtones and ring backs, the sound callers hear instead of the usual beeping while phoning another cell phone before it is answered. The Universal library is filled with top zeitgeist movies - Scarface, Carlito's Way, American Pie - that could prove irresistible to hip mobile phone users.

"Your cell phone is your third arm, and now you can personalize it any way you want to," says Larry Frazin of Zingy, a top aggregator of ringtones. Zingy's ringtones include dialogue from War of the Worlds (Dakota Fanning's saying, "Are we still alive?"), Constantine (Keanu Reeves' warning "You do this, there's no turning back") and Without a Paddle (Seth Green's saying, "I'm not having the fun you promised me").

With those movie clips and clips from Snoop Dogg and song shorts from 50 Cent, Ying Yang Twins and Bow Wow, Zingy is selling as many as 9 million ringtones a month, Frazin said.

As has happened with the advent of other entertainment technologies, though, Hollywood's labor agreements are not clear about how, or even if, the dialogue's authors will be compensated for this application.

Some A-list actors control some reuse rights for the characters they portray, which further complicates ringtone deals.

"It's a very difficult product to license," says Mary Stuyvesant, general manager of entertainment marketing services for Infospace. Among several other lines of movie dialogue, Infospace has made cell phone deals for a number of clips from Napoleon Dynamite, including "Tina, come get some ham."

Although deals vary widely from studio to studio, everybody shares the pot. The cell phone companies may pocket about 50 percent of revenues, and aggregators could grab up to 40 percent more. That might leave only about 10 percent for the holders of the film copyrights.

Still, to an industry faced with declining movie admissions and slowing DVD sales, even the undersized income that movie dialogue ringtones could bring in would be welcome.

"It's definitely a market, and the market is growing. I think people will soon see significant revenue," says Stuyvesant. Having dialogue ringtones, she says, is not unlike putting up a movie poster in your dorm room or wearing a T-shirt from the hottest band. "It's a way to identify yourself, and it signifies that you're in the know."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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