A steady diet of Popcorn

Hannah Rajabally, executive producer of Carlton's film website, explains how she plans to take the site to a wider audience
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The Independent Online

This summer you will see Popcorn everywhere - in cinemas, on underground trains in London, Newcastle and Glasgow, and splashed all over cartons. Don't get it confused with the snack food you make in your saucepan, nor with the US dot.com movie site. Popcorn.co.uk is a pure-bred British operation, and it's spending £1m on advertising to make sure audiences get "a clearer view of the movies".

This summer you will see Popcorn everywhere - in cinemas, on underground trains in London, Newcastle and Glasgow, and splashed all over cartons. Don't get it confused with the snack food you make in your saucepan, nor with the US dot.com movie site. Popcorn.co.uk is a pure-bred British operation, and it's spending £1m on advertising to make sure audiences get "a clearer view of the movies".

Conceived two years ago by Carlton Communications which also runs sites Jamba and Simplyfood, Popcorn claims to be the UK's leading mainstream film site with 2 million visitors per month and 300,000 regular users. Its partners include BT Cellnet's Genie - providing access to cinema listings through your mobile phone - and WHSmith, which will work with Popcorn on capturing market share in video and DVD e-commerce sales.

The woman recruited to take the site to the next level is Hannah Rajabally, formerly a strategist at CompuServe. The 31-year-old Londoner has a feel for handling fidgety audiences with short attention spans; her first job was at the children's holiday company PGL, where she devised its first IT activity camp.

At CompuServe, she started as a business channel manager and went on to oversee sports and travel channels. She was intrigued to watch business models evolve between internet players: "Before I joined CompuServe, they would pay huge amounts of money to content providers, and then content providers began paying for positioning. Now there's a more quantitative approach. A few people got burned from paying these big fees with big expectations which didn't deliver what they were looking for.

"In 1997 an awful lot of players such as shops and banks were looking to get into internet things. Some had an existing customer base and were looking to take that relationship online. I guess the idea in a lot of people's heads was that if they set themselves up as ISPs, the relationship could be transferred. The reality was disappointing. [The problem was that] ownership was the driver for keeping those customers, rather than coming up with a good offering, finding partnership and maintaining the relationship in another way."

The Popcorn website goes so far as to invite potential partners to write in with their thoughts. "I've always felt that partnerships should be long-term and negotiated on a mutual benefit basis because that's more conducive to a good relationship and there's more scope for doing things," says Rajabally.

Her relationship with the internet site was cemented when she joined as executive producer earlier this year with the aim of taking it across other platforms. "I wanted the kind of content you could exploit in a meaningful way." She is, however, surprisingly unenthusiastic about the so-called m-revolution. "WAP is over-rated in terms of what it can deliver and its physical constraints. It's not an ideal medium, but I can see the potential of having time-specific information such as cinema listings. When you get these location-based services it will be excellent.

"My feeling is that interactive TV is going to be where Popcorn touches the mass market. There's a hefty proportion of the population that's not even going to buy a PC, however cheap they get, but 97 per cent of people watch television. That's really where we're going to cross over and make the Web accessible. A different approach is needed for each of the platforms. With a TV, you're sitting several feet away so the text needs to be bigger, which means you have less of it on the page."

At PGL, Rajabally devised her own IT programme for schools, a car chase narrative in which children fulfilled curriculum requirements by researching potential criminals via a database and tracking traffic flows on a spreadsheet. When she set up the educational site Eduweb while working at the firm Research Machines, she had a panel of "tame teachers" who told her frankly what they thought. That grounding has made Rajabally careful not to draw assumptions about her audience.

"I am on the internet every day and here at Popcorn our experience is very different to the average person who spends something like five hours a month online. The Web is constantly evolving and you can make mistakes and rectify them. When you're working in new media everyone is very Net savvy but they're not actually the market."

She commends the news aggregation site Moreover.com, the US magazine site Salon and the financial site Ft.com for content, and was interested to watch the development of the US community iVillage, but is scathing about claims of widespread interactivity: "I think community is a boast made by many sites but achieved by very few. It's certainly something we are looking at, but if we do go down that route we would want to do so in a specific way and get respect by having intelligent conversations about films. There are so many sites out there with empty message boards or banal conversations. A chat room is not a community."

Popcorn is testing the waters; visitors can enter competitions, vote on films, and with a recent relaunch of the site, enter their own reviews.

But with a team of 12, her own ambitions for the site seem fairly modest. She wants it to be "straight-talking" with "a characteristic dose" of wit and humour. No Hollywood hype, nor - with Popcorn concentrating purely on the UK market - grandiose plans to conquer the world. It makes for a refreshing change, but at first glance the site seems bland, if well-written. Is it quirky enough to capture the Great British Imagination? Perhaps not. But as a site aiming squarely at the mainstream, being middle of the road seems almost sensible.

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