Hispanic moviegoers have an opportunity to hear the dialogue in the new Disney film “McFarland, USA” in Spanish in theaters thanks to a new smartphone app developed by a Los Angeles company called myLINGO.
The smartphone app uses a propriety algorithm that matches the unique audio signature to the precise place in the movie so it will play in the alternate language audio through headphones (or earbuds) in perfect sync with the film. The audio file will only play if it “hears” the movie, and once the movie is over, the file self-deletes from the app.
“McFarland, USA,” which opens on Friday and stars Kevin Costner as a California physical education teacher who coaches a group of migrant worker high school students to compete against other high schools around the state, is the first commercial use of the app with Walt Disney Studios and myLINGO, which has been refining and testing the app for several months now.
The Spanish audio track for “McFarland, USA” is available free via a promotional code throughout opening weekend February 20–22. Following the opening weekend, filmgoers can access the audio track for $1.99. (The myLINGO app is always free.)
The myLINGO app is the brainchild of Adam and Olenka Polak, the son and daughter of Polish immigrants. Adam is a 2012 Johns Hopkins graduate and serves as CTO of myLINGO, and Olenka, the CMO who studied Economics at Harvard, where she refined the app at the Harvard Innovation Lab. Their goal is expand the app to other languages with Disney and other major Hollywood studios so that moviegoers can enjoy watching and listening to films in their preferred language.
There are three ways for myLINGO users to customize their audio experience:
1. Download the myLINGO app for free from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store.
2. Before going to the theater, choose the Spanish audio file for “McFarland, USA” and download it — either at home or an area with a strong Wi-Fi signal.
3. Bring a smartphone (Android or Apple) and good earphones that seal the ear canal.
Spanish makes the most sense to begin the rollout of the myLINGO service, as Spanish-speaking individuals comprise a growing segment of the American moviegoing public. During the annual meeting of the National Association of Theatre Owners, the association’s president and CEO John Fithian called Hispanics “the most valuable component of moviegoers” and credited them with the 5.8 percent increase in ticket sales in the first quarter of 2014. It is projected that by 2050, one out of three Americans will be of Hispanic descent. According to Fithian, 44 percent of Hispanics go to the movies a few times a month — in numbers higher than other ethnicities.
Not Impossible Now spoke with Olenka Polak on the eve of the first commercial use of the app. The siblings operate their company in Los Angeles and have gathered notable film industry executives to serve on their board and help as advisers.
Polak told us that she will be watching closely the results of this weekend’s “experiment” with high hopes to expand the app to other titles and languages soon. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
NIN: How has this technology been tested?
Olenka Polak: We’ve had test titles. They have spanned over the past several months. Some were exhibitor tests, focus tests, technology focus tests for the user interface and a back-end, really in-depth type test. We had to test an actual title so we could test the actual real experience. This time, it’s sort of a commercial test. The idea was: How do we work with the studio to put this app in the hands of people, who otherwise would be left out of going to see this title, “McFarland, USA.” We’re widening the scope of it. We’ve blanketed the Phoenix market. We’re in approximately 35-plus theaters. We’re exclusive with the Santikos chain in San Antonio. We have a few Cobb locations in Southern Florida. And we have a few locations in the Northeast. We’re kind of in four corners here, which is exciting. (Here is a full list of locations where the myLINGO smartphone app is available this weekend.)
Why is “McFarland, USA” a good film to start with?
Polak: This is a perfect for us releasing with “McFarland, USA” because of the film’s subject matter. (Many of the characters in the film, which is based on true events, are Mexican immigrants.) We’ve had our own Coach Jim Whites throughout the process. They’ve motivated us to take it this far.
Are languages other than Spanish available for this title or other titles?
Polak: It’s just a function of what dubbed audio tracks are produced by the studio. Some studios produce 25 or more dubbed audio tracks, such as Disney. The idea there would be to support any language so no matter what theater you are in the world, you won’t miss out on the moviegoing experience due to a language barrier.
We’ve been in the market with Spanish and English and we would like to increase that and include everybody, including our parents, who are Polish.
How do you take an idea for an app and turn it into reality?
Polak: It had a lot to do with my community at school. There were so many great resources I was surrounded by, including professors, advisers and fellow students — a lot of collaboration within the Harvard Innovation Lab. So it was working together and learning from my community, leaning on each other to get the inspiration, to get the right connections, to get the right processes working, to get a minimal viable product and showing folks our very basic synching technology.
We wanted to get the interest growing. I eventually moved to Los Angeles in early 2014 to really start vetting it within the studio and exhibitor system. It was a series of demonstrations, product iteration, and now we’ve reached the point where we have a commercially deployable product that we’re putting in the hands of users for a very important film from one of the major studios.
Are other studios on board?
Polak: Different studios are at different stages. They’re interested in testing different things at the moment. I can’t reveal where we are with what studios. Exciting announcements are to come very soon.
Who helped facilitate this?
Polak: I can’t point out individual people because it was a community that I leaned on, but there were people who have bridged the gap of technology and film innovation before, such as Chris Cookson, the former CTO of Warner Bros. and former president of Sony Pictures Technology, and Joe Peixoto, formerly president of worldwide cinema at Real D, who are on our board (of directors). We also have a long list of amazing advisers such as Jeremy Zimmer of UTA , Dennis Miller (general partner at Spark Capital) and other people who really were inspired by this product. They understood its need to enter the market and help us push past.
Was it difficult getting the theater owners on board?
Polak: It was important to put the app in the hands of these folks. Hearing “app in theaters” sounds pretty scary at first — that people are texting or Tweeting or gaming — but in fact, we’ve designed our app technology throughout 2014 after series of demos and iterations as theater-friendly apps as possible.
The app automatically dims to black the moment the synchronization begins. There are really just a few buttons you have to hit. The user interface is darkly lit. And once the earbuds become unplugged, the audio playback seizes. We recommend that users put the phone in airplane mode. Eighty-eight percent of the people in our test actually followed through. It provides for a more theater-friendly app. And, if you don’t put your phone on airplane mode and get a call, that call rings through your earbuds, without disrupting the theater.
The idea of dimming will be appreciated by other theatergoers.
Polak: It’s great for the audience, the exhibitors so they don’t have to field any complaints about people using myLINGO.
Are there other films coming up that will have this app?
Polak: More announcements to come soon. I can’t reveal now. This is just the beginning.
Will it be in Canada or other countries?
Polak: We’re only in the U.S. now. We’re opening up the Mexican territories soon, where you will be able to use myLINGO to watch films that have been dubbed into Spanish back into their original English format.
How old are you?
Polak: I’m 21 and my brother [Adam] is 25. He’s really the genius behind all the synchronization technology.
Your parents must be extremely proud of you.
Polak: Thanks. They’re really rooting for us. They keep asking us, “Where’s the Polish track?”
Have you patented the technology?
Polak: We have a patent application pending.
Have you finished Harvard yet?
Polak: I have three semesters left. I’ve taken some time off from school. We’re very excited, and thankful for the opportunity that Disney and other studios have presented to us. Without them, of course, we couldn’t exist. It’s really magical.
Learn more about myLINGO by visiting their website.
Top photo courtesy of Disney