What's a Hollywood producer to do after selling the rights to the DVDs, TV show, action figures, and apparel tied to a summer blockbuster? It's 2011, and that means: branded virtual goods.
Social games played on Facebook are the new frontier for film and television tie-ins. This summer, two movies—Disney's (DIS) Cars 2 and Fox's (NWS) Mr. Popper's Penguins—and a popular Showtime (CBS) series will attempt to build buzz and some extra revenue by featuring their characters in Facebook games.
For help, studios are turning to developers with experience in social games, an overnight industry that's amassed an audience of more than 300 million people who will spend $4.9 billion this year on virtual goods—tractors on Zynga's FarmVille, and so forth—estimates research firm ThinkEquity. "We've been asked by every major media property in the world to do something in the last 12 months," says Peter Relan, executive chairman of CrowdStar, a game maker in Burlingame, Calif.
The most startling example of this incipient industry: Weeds Social Club, a game launching this month in conjunction with the June 27 season premiere of Showtime's hit show Weeds. Users buy and plant different strains of marijuana—from downmarket "Schwag Weed" to the pricier and more (virtually) potent "Jamaican Ganja"—and then harvest the crop before it withers. Players then set prices above or below street value, determine how much customer risk they're willing to take, and wait for a hooded-sweatshirt-wearing dealer—really—to swing by and pick up the goods. Along the way, users barter with friends, outfit their pad with flat-screen TVs, bongs, and other digital accessories, and spend real money on "favors"—game points that let them buy nicer goods. Players get pot-growing tips from Andy Botwin, a character voiced by actor Justin Kirk from the show, and perform tasks that correlate with the storyline from the latest TV episode. Eventually the game may be used to test out new characters or plot twists, says Curt Marvis, president of digital media at Lionsgate (LGF), the show's producer and distributor. "In the social realm, it's a living, breathing experience," he says, "one where you get a fan base of engaged users." The game has been approved by Facebook, and its creators say it does not break any laws.
Celebrities, brand names, and mature themes may lure older audiences to social games, which have tended to skew young. "There has been this philosophy of don't offend anyone, be very broad—this Hallmark card philosophy," says Marc Ecko, the urban-fashion icon. Ecko Code, his company's new social-game unit, developed Weeds Social Club and also plans to launch games based around Showtime shows Dexter and The Borgias, as well as one based on the life of Bob Marley. Ecko expects to make at least $1 million per month selling virtual goods within each app, and will share those revenues with the media companies who own rights to these brands. Says Ecko: "We believe there is a user out there that wants something with more teeth and more counter culture."
The bottom line: Hollywood studios' latest promotional vehicle: social games. Mature themes may broaden the apps' appeal.