I was in the middle of editing an independent film I had made called Annihilation Celebration. When deciding how to distribute it, the two obvious options were Amazon and iTunes. From my reading I learned that offering my movie on Amazon would be no problem, but that getting approved on iTunes would be close to impossible. Requiring an expensive process in which you paid “approved aggregators” who still can’t ensure that you’ll be approved once submitted, everything I read basically confirmed it was close to impossible to get your movie available on iTunes as an independent film maker. However I ran across an article written by an indie filmmaker who had found a creative way to offer his movie as an App. As I researched further, I found lots of other filmmakers just like him that all had movie Apps approved and for sale in the app store allowing them to share their film through this unique platform. Excited about the idea and wanting to release my film in the most versatile way possible, I decided to offer the movie as both an Amazon download as well as a movie App. In the end, it was about making my movie accessible to the most people possible and since everyone is walking around with a smart phone in their pocket, creating a movie app meant I could make my movie available to basically everybody.
Since I had already seen it work on the Apple platform, I decided to start building a version in iOS. I really knew nothing about the process and it ended up being a massive undertaking. Wanting the app to have its own feel, I opted to create a custom layout instead of using a template. For the programming, we reached out to a few different developers and ended up working with a team in India. I determined the layout and functionality, created the images, graphics and buttons in Photoshop and would then pass it along to the programmers to put it together. The undertaking required what would be considered a substantial amount of time and money for most anyone. Despite the language barrier, which often made communication difficult, we finally reached completion and I was really happy with the App. The finished Annihilation Celebration Movie App included:
- The Annihilation Celebration short film (which streamed instantly over the internet, keeping the app file size small)
- A narrated “about the film” section in which the user can choose to either swipe read the text or push a button to have the text read to them with a narrated audio experience.
- A section to view additional special feature videos.
- A user controlled photo gallery with background music.
- Links to the Thinkpierce Website and social media sites.
Pretty interactive right? Not according to Apple. Since I had based my App model after Apps that had already been approved and were currently for sale in the App store (even still today), getting rejected was the last thing I had expected. However, that’s what happened. After submitting my App to the App store, Apple sent me the following response:
“We found that your app is primarily a movie and is therefore not appropriate for the App Store as noted in the App Store Review Guidelines. Songs and movies should be submitted to the iTunes store. It would be appropriate to revise your app to integrate more iOS functionality and interactivity.”
To be honest I was shocked. Basically what this meant was that during the period in which I had developed and submitted my App, Apple had changed their App Store Review Guidelines, which now rejected apps that they had previously accepted. Simply put, within the months I had been working on my app, Apple decided to change its rules and it was just “too bad for me.” I immediately thought of South Park’s “HumancentiPad” episode, which among other things pokes fun at how often apple changes their iTunes agreement.
The rejection included an option to appeal the decision. Having just invested a considerable amount of time and money into creating the App, I was not only starting to realize that I actually had no control over it, but that it was possible all the work put in to the App could end up meaning nothing. Here were some of the main points I made in my appeal to Apple hoping they would reverse their decision to reject my App:
- I specifically based my App model off of Apps that had already been approved and were currently for sale in the Apple App store. The Apps I referenced continue to be for sale in the App store today. I then listed the links to the movie apps I had referenced and also offered to provide additional examples of as many currently sold movie apps as would be necessary to verify. (To this they responded by saying that Apple’s submission requirements had been less conservative in the past and they thanked me for making them aware of Apps that might be out of compliance so they could take necessary action, as appropriate.)
- As long as I have complied with Apple’s programming requirements, why is Apple determining if the App is a good idea, instead of letting it go to market and allowing the consumers to decide? (I didn’t receive a response to this)
- What difference does it make whether my movie is in the form of an App or the form of an iTunes movie download since Apple owns both stores and would make money on it regardless of what platform it is in? (I didn’t receive a response to this)
- Since Apple has made it so difficult for an independent filmmaker to offer his or her movie in iTunes, creating a movie app is an amazing way a filmmaker can make his film available to anyone in the world with the added benefit of providing extra content, features and interaction that simply couldn’t be offered in an iTunes movie download. Rejecting my App simply because the primary focus of my App is a movie only leaves me wondering why Apple would even care what the focus of the App is as long as it wasn’t blatantly offensive? If my idea gives me a chance to reach out to my audience through an App and make it a success, what reason is there to stop me before I can even try? Especially since Apple would have nothing to lose and everything to gain from it? (I didn’t receive a response to this.)
- Thinking I might actually be experiencing a light at the end of the tunnel, the appeal process led to me receiving a phone call from a rep that explained she hoped I would consider adding more interactive features to my app so that it could comply with Apple’s current guidelines. I responded by telling the rep that I thought Apple had lost touch with what an individual has to go through to even assemble an app and that adding additional “interactive” features to my app, would not only mean I would have to go back and double the amount of time and money I had already invested in the app – especially since it was just as interactive if not more interactive than many of the Apps off its kind currently for sale in the App store today, but that by doing so, I would end up with an app that was no longer something I had wanted to create, but rather an app that Apple wanted me to create. As a creative free thinker, if creating an Apple app only means I’m only allowed to create the App that Apple wants me to make, where does Apple’s requirements begin and my creativity end? I also mentioned that even if I did create a new app concept that was within Apple’s “interactivity” guidelines today, how could I have any assurance that Apple wouldn’t modify their guidelines between now and the future causing me to find myself in the same situation again? (To this the rep just referred me to some of Apple’s developer videos which explained the type of interactivity Apple is currently promoting)
…I could go on, because trust me, the more I thought about it, the more insane it was that Apple would reject an App like this. In the end, the main response I got was that Apple apps (which were once the source of a totally open platform where anything was possible) are now required to specifically be “interactive”. However, the definition of “interactive” is up to Apple, and that definition can change at ay time. Interestingly, that same week, I saw an “alarm clock” app featured as an editor’s choice in the app store. Why my movie app wasn’t considered to be at least as interactive as an alarm clock app, I’ll never know. Looking in to it further I learned that I wasn’t alone as I ran across similar stories of app makers also rejected for foggy reasoning. The one common thread was that Apple could pretty much come up with any reason to reject an App even if that reason didn’t make any sense.
In the end, after considering all the factors involved, I decided this was a situation where I just needed to cut my losses. Yeah I guess I could have gone back and spent more time and money developing the App in to something I didn’t even want it to be, but Apple hadn’t given me any reason to believe that things would be any different the second time around. In fact it only revealed how unpredictable I could expect the experience to be in the future. Would this have all been different if I had come up with an App concept that had been approved? Sure. But what I ended up learning about Apple’s app industry the hard way is that the fate of your App’s acceptance hangs on whatever the App Store Review Guidelines happen to be that particular month, plain and simple. And yes there’s also the option to give it a whirl on Android, but at this point I think I’m just done with it for the time being.
What I learned from my experience is that as an app maker, I am not in control. I learned that the app world operates on a set of rules that can change at any time. I’ve always been careful not to put myself in situations where the fate of my hard work is in someone else’s hands but in this case I didn’t see it coming. On the other hand this is how phrases like, “sometimes life just isn’t fair” are born, right? At least that’s the phrase I’m going with to chalk this one up to, but life goes on. Speaking of which, on a positive note, my experience with Amazon was a success. Click here to view Annihilation Celebration as an instant movie download on Amazon.com or learn more by visiting AnnihilationCelebrationMovie.com. Thinkpierce, Films & Books by Jonathan Pierce.