“You never see cartoons where there are bad outcomes,” says Michelle Crames, M.B.A. ’03, founder and CEO of Lean Forward Media in Los Angeles. “But bad outcomes are often the result of bad decisions.” Last year, Crames’s company released its first product: a new kind of storytelling vehicle, the interactive movie, that lets viewers make freighted decisions and then face their consequences. The DVD, titled The Abominable Snowman after the eponymous book by R. A. Montgomery (from the Choose Your Own Adventure series), is an animated film for 5- to 11-year-olds that tracks the adventures of three youngsters who go off to meet their Uncle Rudy in Katmandu and search for the legendary yeti.
Images courtesy of Lean Forward Media
But along the way they face choices, like staying on a faltering airplane or parachuting out. Using the remote control, a viewer can choose what the characters will do, and watch the story unfold along the chosen narrative path. Decision points generate 11 possible stories within the 80-minute film— and most of the choices turn on issues of character, emotional intelligence, and even morality. Early on, for example, a huge, smooth-talking, but vaguely sinister Nepalese man approaches the little group and says he will take them directly to the yeti. Go with him or stick to the plan of meeting Uncle Rudy? You decide, but if you take the big guy’s offer, the film ends with the protagonists at the bottom of a pit, about to become dinner for a group of hungry tigers.
“Parents love these movies because it’s a real window into their child’s mind,” says Crames. “They see how their children make decisions, and [that in turn] can be a way to help them with their critical thinking.” In fact, Lean Forward’s website (www.choosemovie.com) includes resources to help parents discuss the film with their offspring. The Abominable Snowman has won awards for excellence in family entertainment, including a KIDS FIRST! All Star Award from the Coalition for Quality Children’s Media. “There is so much more thinking, active participation, and listening than in standard cartoons, which are pretty mindless,” says Crames. “Most video games are very violent, with little cognitive or developmental value—the bulk of them are about thumb-twitching, winning and losing, and shooting things. The decisions aren’t much more than ‘Go left, or go right?’”
Lean Forward is developing a suite of interactive movies, including a live-action thriller for teenagers. Crames says her products fall between traditional entertainment and video games. Although the former market is contracting slightly, the latter is a fast-growing industry whose $12.5 billion in hardware, software, and accessory revenue for 2006 was up 19 percent over 2005. The interactive DVD, a format that Crames is helping to pioneer, may anchor a new product category in home entertainment, where the trend in content, she says, “is only toward more interactivity.”