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Hands-on with Enhanced Movies for Windows Phone 7

Last month, Paramount announced that it would release ten "enhanced movie apps" for Windows Phone 7, the first of which, "School of Rock," is currently available. These apps offer a DVD-like experience, providing both the original movie as well as other interactive experiences, including custom clip creation, optional in-movie "Scene It?" trivia, and more, including more traditional "extra features" like actor, director, and producer bios and the like.

So are these things any good?

In a word, no, though a simple enough change would put it over the top. That is, these apps are literally apps, including the movie, which is locked inside the app and not available separately through the Windows Phone Music + Videos experience. Furthermore, you can't download the movie to your PC and view it on a larger, more comfortable screen. So it's locked to the relatively tiny Windows Phone screen, and let's face it, when you're on the road, a movie is nice, but you don't want to waste a phone's precious battery life on such a thing.

So my advice for Paramount (and Microsoft, which must be playing some role in this) is to simply make the movie available as an SD download on the PC as well, through Zune. This would make the $9.99 selling price easier to swallow, since in the case of "School of Rock," that's the going price for just the movie on iTunes and Zune Marketplace at the moment. And it would also provide a value add to users for buying it via Windows Phone.

Since that's not the case, however, let's see what's available today, at least in the one movie app that's currently available.

The app itself is pleasant to look at (well, except for Jack Black's begging-to-be-punched smirk), with that wonderful and now-well-understood Metro UI. In the first and default column, there's a text menu (which is curiously titled "Menu" for some reason) with choices for Play Movie, Movie Info, Scene It? Mode, Special Features, and About. Virtually everything you'll want to do in the app can be accessed from this menu, but there are additional columns, including a What's New section with movie trailer tiles (you gotta cross-sell), Chapters (for accessing movie playback chapter by chapter as you would on a DVD), and My Clips, which will contain any custom clips you create with all that extra time you want to waste.

When you originally purchase the app, what you're downloading is just the app. The first time you run it, you're asked if you want to download the movie and warned that it's over a gigabyte big, and if you don't have an unlimited data plan (as most don't), you'll want to be on Wi-Fi instead. Given the current unknowns around the Windows Phone 7 3G downloading bug, this is something you're going to want to be careful about.

Once the movie is downloaded, the Play Movie option on the first column becomes available and you can play the film as you would normally using the phone's Zune player. There are some minor UI differences between normal video playback and the app's movie playback, however. First, the video scrubber--which lets you navigate ahead and back in time-- has been moved from the bottom of the screen to the top for some reason. (The actual scrubber control is also bigger and more finger-friendly.)

Second, there are two additional buttons in the onscreen UI, a top-mounted "Create Clip" button and a bottom-mounted "Movie Info" button that triggers a superfluous Movie Info page, pausing the movie. Here, you can discover more about each character that's currently onscreen, in case the plot in "School of Rock" has you confused, but also about in-movie product placement opportunities, in this case around amplifiers, guitars, and even the music that's currently playing (so you can purchase it online, natch, though there are no links to the Zune Marketplace, which is lame).

For the most part, video playback is straightforward and not worth dwelling on.  The exception, perhaps, is clip creation: By tapping the Create Clip button onscreen during playback, you can start recording a clip. Tap it again and the clip ends, and the app prompts you name the clip ("School of Rock clip 1") and save it. Saved clips appear in the main UI, as noted above, providing you with a way to return, again and again, to your favorites parts of the movie.

The Movie Info link in the main UI's initial column brings you do a different Movie Info UI than does the in-video version. Here, you access another panoramic UI with About, Actors, Mythos, Products, Music, and Locations columns. Each provides a wealth of information about the topic at hand, though I have to think even the most devout movie fan would find most of this stuff pointless. ("School of Rock" director Richard Linklater also directed the "comedy ensemble film" "SubUrbia"? Fascinating!!)

Of more interest to true movie fans, perhaps, is the Scene It? mode, in which fun facts pop-up while you watch the movie. (This reminds me of "Pop-Up Video" from VH-1 if you happen to recall that, though the pop-ups aren't as frequent.) I was afraid the small screen would make these pop-ups hard to read, but they're actually pretty nicely presented. And the trivia is often interesting.

The available special features will of course vary from movie to movie, but on "School of Rock" they include three videos: A music video, a video diary, and a third, 25-minute behind-the-scenes featurette.

I really like the idea of this kind of app, but again think that getting the movie separately should be part of the deal. (If I had to guess why this isn't the case it's that Paramount is using Silverlight to deliver the film and its special enhancements, instead of delivering a stock video file.) Future films that will ship in this format include "Zoolander," "Waiting for Superman," and "GI Joe: Rise of Cobra," and Paramount promises more in the future.

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