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Q&A: Neal Edelstein on Haunting Melissa 2

How the Original iOS-only Horror Story Hooked Fans and Spawned a Sequel

Haunting Melissa is back. When we met producer-director Neal Edelstein last year, he was launching Haunting Melissa, an iOS-native horror application designed to take advantage of the way people consume media on iPhones and iPads. Distributed through Apple's App Store, Haunting Melissa attracted more than 5.5 million viewers, proving device users have an open mind about new ways to enjoy narratives. (The first two chapters were free; the rest were available on a pay-as-you-go basis.) As you might expect, principal photography for Haunting Melissa 2 got underway this summer in Calgary, Alberta.

The new app will be released later this year exclusively for the new iOS 8. Edelstein returns as director and producer of the sequel, and best-selling mystery novelist Andrew Klavan is again on board as writer. We interviewed Edelstein by email during the production to learn more about the sequel, lessons learned on the original, and what's next for Edelstein's forward-looking production company, Hooked Digital Media.

Q: Did you always hope/intend to create a second Haunting Melissa experience? What did it take before you were ready to actually pull the trigger on the sequel?

We certainly hoped to make the sequel. The story was created with an intent of peeling back layers of mystery, horror, drama and character development. The resounding success of the first Haunting Melissa app was what pushed us into the production of the sequel.

Q: What encouraging feedback did you get from viewers? And were there any complaints that made you rethink a certain aspect of the project?

The feedback has been super-positive. Horror genre fans love the story and the app, with special praise for our disruptive distribution and innovative storytelling tools. We’ve learned a lot from the viewers’ feedback. Primarily we are trying to tell great stories but we are also our own distributor and marketing machine, so there were mistakes made and things we are improving upon. Messaging and technology bugs were there, to a smaller degree than we projected, but you have to stay on top of all aspects of app development and understand that it’s never done. An app is never complete. This is really the beautiful challenge, you are always striving to get better and you do get better. I want to mention the success of Dynamic Story Elements, or DSE as we call them, a storytelling technology that we invented.  We never promoted DSE in Haunting Melissa but our fans discovered it and it has become the groundbreaking idea that we thought it could be. When you go back and re-watch Haunting Melissa, things change. it’s not a choice you make in a choose-your-own-adventure way, but the app and our technology work this magic. Melissa is being haunted—is your device too? How are things there that were not there before? We scratched the surface of DSE in Haunting Melissa. Expect much, much more in the sequel and our upcoming apps. Beyond telling a great story and creating a great app, the ability to transform stories is why we are in this space and pushing the iOS.

Q: How many of the original app's 5.5 million viewers stuck with it all the way to the final chapter?

Enough to get us to a sequel — a sequel that moves away from the found-footage genre.

Q: What did you learn about consumption habits? Are you making any changes to the way you release different chapters of the story?

Great question. We learned a lot. This is an area of explosive data, and the challenge is in how you react to the data. We can test various schedules and prod the data in directions that we think help improve the funnel and the experience. We see the cause and effect in real time. Tweaking or wholesale changes in the schedule, content, app functionality — all provide real-time usable data. 

Q: What about the content itself? Will you be making any adjustments to the tone, moving it more toward a "R-rated" style or more toward a "PG" style?

The sequel is still in the tone of a ghost story and expands on what happened to Melissa, as we pick up the story a month after her disapperance. We also weave in some backstory and add some other strands that I think the fans will love. We don’t really think about ratings because we don’t have to deal with the MPAA, but what you don’t see is more scary than what you do see. HM2 is more a traditional movie making approach whereas HM1 was found footage.

Q: How did marketing pan out on the original release? Was social-media sharing effective at getting the word out?

The social media universe is what drove the success of HM1. There are many tools to nudge things along but it always comes down to word of mouth driven by a great story. The tools can be effective but nothing replaces a quality app, story and project. The app co-exists with social media, otherwise we would never have had a chance to compete with studio movies or network television. Digital entertainment marketing, as we all know, is evolving before our eyes. There are endless challenges here, but we’re able to ride a social wave and we’ll continue to build off of our success as we’ve put a lot into our fans and engagement. I can’t say enough about our creative team at Hooked Digital and our social media division.

Q: What about the iOS technology? Are there features unique to iOS 8 that you intend to hook into?

Well the iOS is the magic machine. We shoot a film and wrap all of our creativity inside Apple’s software. If you can think it, you can create it in iOS. It’s kind of a transcendence experience. I don’t mean to be overly effusive here, but look at the creative explosion that’s come from iOS and the App Store—stunning, in a word. When we sit as a group with a white wall and map out dream ideas for our apps, we can achieve nearly every idea. The tools are there. We are at a bridge that the movie industry has never crossed. It’s bigger than the previous threats and challenges all rolled into one—silent to talkies, black and white to color, movie theaters to TV. Because of iOS, we are able to compete with multi-billion dollar entertainment conglomerates and, I would argue, beat them soundly at their game. Expect a lot from iOS 8 and Haunting Melissa 2.

Q: What's next? Do you expect to continue exploring these new storytelling avenues, or would you like to return to traditional linear storytelling for film or TV? Along the same lines, do you see any potential for a "hybrid" kind of experience that would augment a standard film or television narrative with more personal mobile/small-screen viewing?

I want to continue to do both, I have features in development as a producer and am also working on directing a thriller in Chicago sometime in 2015 or 2016.  However, for now it’s about Haunting Melissa and growing this platform. There are too many exciting things going on in this space to not embrace the tools and technology. We’ll be working with other directors, producers and writers to tell more innovative stories, in horror and other genres, through apps.

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