By peter katz, March 21st, 2010

(I co-wrote this blog with Jessica Richman)

Remember the choose-your-own-adventure (CYOA) books? Those old childhood standbys are being recycled in the form of audience participation in movies, theatres, and online. Does she or doesn’t she? You get to decide…

In movies, CYOA has taken several forms. In 2006, Lean Forward Media, a company started by two Harvard Business School grads, created The Abominable Snowman, a CYOA-based DVD designed for children. In 2008, SilkTricky created the online movie Survive the Outbreak, a zombie flick that lets you CYOA. (A heist movie – Bank Run – is in the works.) Survive the Outbreak has a total of 21 scenes, with 10 total decision points: six options lead to death, and two lead to survival. (h/ More recently, creators have linked YouTube videos based on user clicks, a kind of DIY CYOA (examples). And just a couple of weeks ago? The web series Spade.

Some obstacles to uptake of this new format are familiar: audience familiarity with the medium, new ways of thinking by designers and filmmakers, technical issues with managing clicks. Moreover, these experiments raise some interesting artistic questions: what is the ideal ratio of decision points to scenes? Where should those decision points be placed? Does it differ for adults vs. children? One terrific feature of new media is that its easy to gather data to learn more about what works best – but it also means that there is still a lot of experimentation is left to do.

From a business perspective, the question, as always, is monetization. SilkTricky solves this problem by simultaneously formatting the online movies as iPhone games (which I couldn’t find in the online store for some reason); Lean Forward Media is selling children’s DVDs to parents (but they haven’t produced a movie since 2006, so I’m not sure how well that’s going). An interview with Lynn Lund of SilkTricky noted that they spent $35k on their movie, not including pre- or post-production, which they did themselves. These movies are not cheap.

But audiences really seem to like them. Web reviews of Survive the Outbreak were quite positive, with many lamenting only that the movie wasn’t longer (and some that the acting was bad – but that’s not exactly new for a zombie flick). That’s another possible problem with these new technique – they must stand on their own as movies and cannot rely on exclusively on a gimmick. So a filmmaker has to make 21 scenes to get to 8 endings, instead of (if we assume a similar ratio) three scenes to get to one. Making more scenes is more expensive, and demand will have to justify that cost.

What hasn’t been done on a wide scale are CYOA movies in movie theatres. CYOA has been used in live theatre productions (for example, the 2007 run of Intimate Exchanges, reviewed in the NYT) and in screenings at SXSW (The Weathered Underground, 2010). The question, though, is whether this technique could be used to bring people back to the theatres from their Netflix and their online gaming. And no one has yet put up the money to resolve that question. If audiences like it (as they seem to so far, at least on their own computer screens), this could lead to greater participation and engagement and perhaps a boost to the theatre-going experience.

There’s a reason why we all remember the CYOA books – they’re lots of fun. The next few years will undoubtedly see more attempts to transfer that sense of power and enjoyment to the big screen.

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peter katz is an award winning filmmaker based in Los Angeles. Peter has produced genre films that have screened all over the world from the AFI Fest to the Rome Film Festival. His first picture Home Sick starred Bill Moseley from The Devil's Rejects and Tom Towles from Henry Portrait Of A Serial Killer. Next Peter worked with Tobe Hooper (director of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist) on Mortuary, which premiered on the Sci Fi Channel. Most recently he was a producer on Pop Skull, a psychological ghost film, that has received great reviews in Variety and numerous film web sites. Currently, Peter is developing projects across various mediums including film, comics, and the web.


  • Anonymau5

    Nice post, but there are two problems with your article; 1. CYOA books were never actually mainstream enough to utilize as a marketable ploy. The general public isnt going to instantly recognize the CYOA concept, and become instantly interested in the new product using the approach. You acknowledged that audience members will need to be familiarized with the concept once they are ready to interact, but there is a huge gap in that correlation. The concept needs some major re-branding. "Real-time Audience Feedback" sounds like you're referring to American Idol or Dancing with the Stars. 2. You're basing your proposal on the perception that movie-going audiences have abandoned the multi-plex in favor of Netflix and VOD, which is laughable considering this years Box Office numbers have posted all-time record highs. What filmmakers need to realize is that just because digital HD equipment has broken down the barrier of affordable productions, doesnt mean they will produce the same quality in less time. They need to understand that even if people dont understand the production process, they will recognize the difference in production quality (compared to larger budget films), and dont have any interest in watching the shitty film that was written in 2 days and filmed in one week.

  • I loved CYOA books as a kid. This are a fun creative alternative to the normal consumption of media. Right on!

  • =) super neat. some great examples!

    Welcome to ATDS!

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