With “Murder on Beacon Hill,” an iPhone App Debuts at Boston Film Festival

4/8/10Follow @wroush

As far as anyone knows, it’s a first in movie history: a location-based iPhone application has been accepted as an entry at a major film festival. Walking Cinema: Murder on Beacon Hill, an app built around a 43-minute series of interactive videos, will appear on the big screen at the AMC Loews Boston Common theater on Sunday, April 18, as part of the Boston International Film Festival (BIFF).

The app, it turns out, has local roots. It was produced by Boston-based Untravel Media, whose founder Michael Epstein calls it “a page-turner mystery powered by your feet.” The app tells the story of George Parkman, a wealthy Bostonian who disappeared in November 1849 and whose dismembered body was eventually discovered under a dissecting vault at Harvard Medical College. Harvard instructor John Webster, who owed Parkman money, was convicted of the murder after a sensational trial and publicly hanged.

Walking Cinema route mapNormally, viewers experience the story of the murder as they travel a mapped route around Boston’s Beacon Hill, watching sections from the video at eight different stops. At the film festival, though, audiences will stay firmly in their seats, watching all 33 parts of the video in continuous order. “We were just blown away at how watchable the story is in a theatrical setting,” BIFF director Patrick Jerome said in a statement. “It’s quick-paced, full of juicy details, and, to our knowledge, it’s the first location-based application to screen at a film festival.”

Epstein says the film’s acceptance at BIFF is a sign that the filmmaking community is gradually waking up to the possibilities of transmedia storytelling—in particular, storytelling that immerses viewers in a thoughtful way in real geography.

“Everything in media now is naturally prone to become transmedia, as content is shared across networks and people view it on different kinds of screens,” he says. “But what is important is that you bake the transmedia thinking into the project, so that there is stuff on the Web that you don’t get on the broadcast, and stuff on mobile that you can’t get on either. With historical subjects, the geography can almost become a character.”

Though Walking Cinema is the only Untravel project that’s been developed into a self-contained mobile app, it’s one of about a dozen location-driven mobile tours developed by Untravel. Other tours, which are distributed as video podcasts, focused on Boston’s West End, the Big Dig, Harvard Square, the MIT Stata Center, and the Salem witch trials.

The Beacon Hill app includes video material from Murder at Harvard, a PBS documentary created by Arlington, MA-based director and producer Eric Stange. Epstein says part of the challenge of the project—which was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Office of Digital Humanities—was to adapt Stange’s made-for-television film into a non-linear walking tour without losing the storyline and without sacrificing video and sound quality. The iPhone was the perfect vehicle for the project, he says.

“For a few years now we’ve been talking about doing more than your typical audio guides and walking tours,” Epstein says. “With the iPhone, apps can be fairly rich, so filmmakers know their stories won’t be reduced to little clips, but that the actual story can be expanded and become more engaging.”

Epstein thinks such efforts will win greater recognition over time at film community events like BIFF. “Mobile content is becoming ever more sophisticated,” he says. “The judges on the boards of the film festivals know that filmmakers are trying to figure out what we can do to tap mobile channels, and I think that any mobile project involving the iPhone or iPad that is watchable, they are interested in putting up.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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