In 2011, Disney quietly rolled out an interactive moviegoing experience called Second Screen with some of its DVD releases. Second Screen is an iPad app with games, trivia and behind the scenes goodies intended to supplement the moviegoing experience. Second Screen is meant to be used concurrently with the film as it plays on your TV.

Titles like Real Steel, The Avengers and Oz the Great and Powerful all have Second Screen options on their Blu-ray editions. So do reissued Disney classics like Bambi, The Lion King and Lady and the Tramp. Presumably, children can no longer be sad about Bambi’s mother getting shot without an iPad app to help them feel that way.


I’m so sad…oh! I have a new e-mail!

Last month, Disney went a step further with Second Screen Live. The company is always looking for new ways to make money off old titles. Recently they’ve been doing 3-D versions of their classic animated musicals. Now they’re seeing if families are willing to bring their iPad to the theater.

Sitting on the couch at home with a tablet is one thing. Sitting in a darkened theater with strangers tapping away on their devices for the entire movie is quite another. It’s common courtesy to be quiet and turn off your phone during a film. What happens when you take a rowdy New York City audience and change all the rules?

I decided to put cinematic civility to the test. iPad in hand, I attended a weekend matinee of The Nightmare Before Christmas, the second film to receive the Second Screen Live treatment. The series launched with The Little Mermaid last month. The screening took place at the AMC Empire 25 on 42nd Street in New York City, a theater that isn’t particularly well known for quiet audiences or well-behaved children.

The AMC Empire 25: Where the tickets are $14.50 and the large popcorn is $8.

The AMC Empire 25: Where the tickets are $14.50 and the large popcorn is $8.

Nightmare is one of my favorite movies. I love the songs with haunting melodies and witty lyrics. I love the incredible detail put into even the tiniest character. I love the idea of Halloween and Christmas intermingling. I went in expecting an atmosphere equivalent to watching the film at a movie night in a bar. Some distractions and some talking, but with most of the focus still on the screen.

The results were very different. But first, a bit about the logistics of Second Screen Live:

The Second Screen Live app for The Nightmare Before Christmas is 345 MB. This means it must be downloaded at home before the family heads off to the multiplex. Once in your seat, you create a username and sign into the theater’s Wi-Fi network. The app encourages you to turn your sound all the way up and to switch on the Do Not Disturb mode so you aren’t tempted to check e-mails and other push alerts during the movie.

I also lowered my screen brightness as a common courtesy. Others did not do the same. I was seated near the back of the theater. The screens of the people in front of me were so bright and distracting that midway through I switched to a seat near the front.

Why is this theater so bright?!?

Why is this theater so bright?!?

The app uses the iPad’s internal microphone to sync up with the movie. If you close the app accidentally or run to the bathroom, it will pick up at the correct spot with your score still intact. I tested this once and it worked as promised.

The app automatically divides the audience into two teams: Team Jack and Team Oogie Boogie. I ended up on the latter. The Second Screen content starts right when the movie does. Trivia questions flashed onscreen throughout the opening narration. Four possible answers appear on the iPad and you have about 10 seconds to answer each question.


As the film launches into “This is Halloween,” the Second Screen launches into a cheap ripoff of Simon, the electronic color memory game that was popular in the 1970s and 1980s. Red, blue, orange, and purple bones flash onscreen in a particular sequence and you have to repeat the same sequence on the iPad.

I was so focused on playing the game that I missed what was happening in the movie entirely. I missed all the creepy creatures, including the introduction of Jack himself. It was the first of many times throughout the afternoon that I would miss key plot points or favorite moments. Most of the iPad games require your full attention. They penalize you for trying to watch the actual movie.


There are several sequences without dialogue on the original soundtrack. In the Second Screen Live edition, these moments of silence are filled with “amusing” jokes and trash talking between Jack and Oogie Boogie about whose team is scoring more points. There are regular score updates throughout the movie as well.

There is literally no time to think. There are no moments of rest. It’s a cacophonous experience from beginning to end. The film even pauses at several points to play various games, most notably a Spot the 7 Differences exercise where you must compare the frozen image onscreen to an altered one on your iPad.

A handful of moviegoers who were unaware of the Second Screen gimmick and just thought they were going to see the normal movie grew increasingly irate at this stop and start. One woman went so far as to screen “We just want to watching the [expletive] movie!” In a room full of children, no less. All that pausing added about 10 minutes to the runtime.

Halfway through, the audience behavior took a turn for the worst. It was clear that no one was actually watching the movie. Personal conversations started. So did yelling at the screen. It was like being at a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show except no one was saying anything clever.

To me the most obvious use for the iPad would be to display the wonderful lyrics to the film’s many songs. Some of the words go by so fast that being able to read them as they happen would really enrich the experience. There were two karaoke competitions during the movie. Curiously, they happened during “What’s This?” and “Kidnap the Sandy Claws.” Both songs are rapidly verbose with difficult vocabulary for young singers. I could barely keep up. Never mind the kids.


Which raises the question: Just who exactly is Second Screen Live for? It would be impossible for first time viewers to get anything out of the movie with all the extra stuff piled on top. Is it for diehard fans looking to experience their favorite film in a new way? It doesn’t really work on that level either.

There’s no consistency in the activities presented. Sometimes they’re written for adults and sometimes they’re written for young children. Depending on the player, the games are either super boring because they’re too easy or frustrating because they’re beyond a normal kid’s grasp.

And then there’s the issue of inappropriate content. I don’t have children, but I felt uncomfortable by the idea of the kids around me shooting actual bullets to bring down Jack’s sleigh on Christmas night. And do kids really need to learn the rules of roulette, craps, and slots? Can’t that wait until a little later?

And what about some of the more adult lyrics? I was frankly a little unnerved hearing the kid behind me sing this gusto: “I say that we take a cannon, aim it at his door, and then/Knock three times, and when he answers, Sandy Claws will be no more!”

We make children sing about naughty things.

We make children sing about naughty things.

The Oogie Boogie team triumphed by just 60 points in the end. A displeased mother whose child was on Team Jack and was clearly upset by the loss told me it was unfair for me to play against children. I told her son that he shouldn’t feel bad. I had a distinct advantage because I was alive when the movie originally came out. This didn’t seem to assuage either of them.

Will Second Screen Live become the latest thing in entertainment? It’s very unlikely. It’s currently only available for the iPad. It would be difficult to scale the games down to an iPhone or Android phone. Who really carries around their iPad all day? 345 MB is a lot of space, and there’s no way to download the app at the theater if you forget to do it at home or make a spur of the moment decision at the box office.

I think the real problem though is that tapping away on the iPad ruins the spell of the movie. It pulls focus from the story and it insults the gorgeous animation. The Nightmare Before Christmas is magical enough on its own. There’s a reason millions of people around the world love it so much. I would’ve been much happier just watching it on a big screen for the first time since 1993.

Play the games and you'll miss classic moments like these.

Play the games and you’ll miss classic moments like these.

And then there are the troubling social implications. Do children really need to spend more time in front of a screen? What does the “anything goes” environment of a Second Screen Live show teach kids about proper behavior at the movies? Children won’t develop a love for movies if they view them as background noise to using a personal electronic device.

There’s no word on whether Disney is planning a third Second Screen Live experience. If they try to ask me trivia questions while Mufasa is dying there will be hell to pay.