I attended an event called the LA AppShow last night here in Santa Monica, CA, and I saw seven demos of various apps that are seeing significant success on the App Store. Matt McMahon from 20th Century Fox was there, and while his company didn't publish the actual app in question, he's certainly seen plenty of success; he worked closely with Rovio on the creation of Angry Birds Rio, the movie tie-in that has nabbed 20 million downloads on the App Store in just 20 days of release, and has helped send the Rio animated movie to number one at the box office.
McMahon didn't talk about the actual development of Angry Birds Rio -- most of the technical work was left to Rovio, who McMahon called the "best in breed" on the App Store. But McMahon and his company did make an interesting decision, and that was to pin a large arm of their marketing for a huge movie on a little company from Finland with a popular app about birds and pigs.
"We knew Rovio was going to make a great game," says McMahon. He cites Rovio's longtime mobile experience and subsequent success with Angry Birds as the reason he didn't have a problem connecting up with them for the game. But the more interesting decision was choosing to marry the two universes, rather than just contracting out for a licensed Rio game. "We wanted to make this feel like a legitimate product," says McMahon, rather than just a grab for cash and marketing.
To do that, 20th Century Fox and Rovio set out from the start to really make the two properties intertwine, creating a whole story and even commissioning art and video describing how these two sets of characters came together. During his presentation, McMahon showed off two trailers, one in the Angry Birds style, and another by Fox Animation that put the Angry Birds in the Rio world. "We were very respectful of what they've done," he said of Fox's use of Rovio's product. "We wanted it to feel authentic."
I asked McMahon about the ages of his respective products -- while Rio seems, as an animated movie, to target a younger demographic, Angry Birds, for all of its cartoony voices and characters, is generally aimed at iPhone owners, who still tend to be a little older and more affluent. McMahon confirmed that was an issue, and so he says that in the marketing for the app itself, Fox had to make sure to "appeal to a different demographic." Marketing for Rio was a multi-million dollar operation, of which Angry Birds Rio was only a small part. But it's true that the app did change slightly the way Fox marketed their movie -- aiming for an audience of iPhone-owning parents by highlighting the voice cast celebrities, for example, rather than just running ads on kids' shows and the usual places for an animated feature.
Finally, I asked McMahon if Fox was confident enough in a strategy like this (co-creating a co-branded app, rather than just creating a licensed game with a contracted developer) to try it again, and he said that yes, "there's definitely the possibility for more." He even mentioned companies like Gameloft and EA as possibilities, and he said that Fox wouldn't have a problem going with an even more independent developer, if the "fit is as organic as this is."
That's an interesting tack to take, but obviously, it's paid off for Angry Birds Rio. We've seen a couple of these deals already, where large, more traditional media companies put their mobile app hopes in younger startups (Disney also acquired Tapulous last year, and that's worked out well for both companies so far). The App Store is a fast growing place, and older companies seem more than willing to let smaller developers navigate it for them.