Facebook's First Movie Debuts on February 24

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What is it about new media’s proclivity for disaster movies? The original Poseidon Adventure debuted the same year (1972) as Home Box Office, and it became a staple of the new premium network’s programming lineup.

That historical tidbit came to mind when I noticed that Facebook will debut Tomorrow, When the War Began, its first feature film offering, on Feb. 24. The movie is a two-year-old Australian hit about teenagers fighting back against a military attack. It is being released on Facebook, day-and-date with a very limited theatrical distribution (not available in New York, Los Angeles and other major markets, and we know what that usually means.)

Milyoni Inc. (pronounced “Million Eye”), which calls itself an “f-commerce” (as in Facebook commerce”) social media provider, is handling the Facebook release. The movie will also be distributed via iTunes, Vudu, Amazon, YouTube and In-Demand.

Tomorrow, When the War Began, even if it goes viral among Facebook’s target audience, may not become a cultural icon on the scale of Poseidon. But it will earn at least a footnote in the evolutionary history of digital distribution competition. Facebook will get a 30% share of revenues from the movie’s streaming, according to published reports; the price of the movie was not yet announced a week before the debut.

Like Google, Facebook has let it be known that it intends to play a big role in the development and distribution of feature films - competing with cable and other legacy providers. The added value of such delivery, as Milyoni emphasizes, is that viewing via a social media platform lets fans watch and chat simultaneously, creating “a massive social frenzy that would be impossible to duplicate anywhere else.”

We’re at a very early stage of this re-invention of movie distribution. Warner Bros, for example, has had a Facebook deal for a year, but it is largely a promotional vehicle for hawking Warner content. There is, predictably, immense buzz that Warner may do something spectacular online with Dark Knight Rises, its final Batman installment due out in July. But, of course, that is just buzz.

Yet this buzz comes amidst a continuing avalanche of research to demonstrate that viewers are migrating their platform preferences. Last week’s Ooyala Video Index for Q4 2011 is the most potent proof of concept: online video attracted more than 100 million unique monthly viewers. That jibes with separate studies that point to greater reliance on video delivery - especially from trusted alternative sources.

For example, market research firm Chadwick Martin Bailey, in a study released last week found that 16% of all pay TV customers say they are likely to reduce their level of pay TV service in the next year. More than half (54%) of all consumers have already tried alternatives to pay TV (i.e. Netflix, Apple TV, or a network’s website), the study found.

Separate research from Parks Associates correlated the growing use of Internet-connected TV sets and found that nearly one-third of U.S. broadband homes have watched movies and TV show via the Internet on their flat-panel digital TV sets.

Hence it’s worth taking seriously the competitive factors posed by the Tomorrow, When the War Began option on Facebook and other new online content options. Some media old-timers are gloating that made-for-online shows, such as Hulu’s Battleground and Netflix’s Lilyhammer, debuted to mediocre reception. To be sure, both shows are derivative of existing TV programming, produced by veteran video creators who moved over to a new platform in its earliest days.

Which reminds me of HBO’s other big program of its premiere year: a Pennsylvania polka party. Previous results are no guarantee of future performance. In other words, awkward beginnings do not always equate to long-term failure.

Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications LLC in Bethesda, Md., and a long-time interactive TV enthusiast. Reach him at GArlen@ArlenCom.com