Internet movie promo at a screen near you: The success of the site for the Blair Witch Project was supposed to usher in a new age of Web promotions for movies. Instead, Hollywood is still dipping its toes into the Internet waters. Claire Atkinson reviews

With summer just around the corner, all kinds of media outlets are preparing their annual roundup of the season’s new movie releases. This year is different, though. It’s not just the picture that’s being sized up. Publications from the Los Angeles Times to Entertainment Weekly are taking a close look at the films’ accompanying Web sites.

With summer just around the corner, all kinds of media outlets are preparing their annual roundup of the season’s new movie releases. This year is different, though. It’s not just the picture that’s being sized up. Publications from the Los Angeles Times to Entertainment Weekly are taking a close look at the films’ accompanying Web sites.

With summer just around the corner, all kinds of media outlets are

preparing their annual roundup of the season’s new movie releases. This

year is different, though. It’s not just the picture that’s being sized

up. Publications from the Los Angeles Times to Entertainment Weekly are

taking a close look at the films’ accompanying Web sites.



Such promotional sites are the province of the studio’s interactive

marketing divisions, and publicists are intimately involved in their

creation and maintenance. The power of Web sites - both official movie

presences and fan and trade sites - to spark the all-important

word-of-mouth buzz has made them an essential part of any publicist’s

tool kit.



While great strides have been made in the area of audience research,

most experts agree that when it comes to movie publicity, the Internet

is a work in progress. Many sites still disappoint.



Take this review by Time Digital’s Noah Robischon of the site for

Mission Impossible’s sequel, M:I-2: ’Site theme: Your mission should you

accept it, is to fork over your demographic info to Paramount’s

marketing department.



Highlights: Insanely flash-heavy online experience, let’s you play eight

missions. According to moldy press bios here, Tom Cruise’s next film

will be Magnolia.’ (Magnolia, of course, was already well in the

past.)



The Web site for The Blair Witch Project, last year’s breakout success,

is largely credited with spurring many movie marketing executives to

rethink their Web strategy. It isn’t hard to see why. At the film’s

peak, the site was attracting eight million hits a day and reached 300

million in the first eight months of its existence.



Much credit is due to the filmmakers who realized the publicity benefits

of e-mail and set up the site long before Artisan Entertainment bought

the movie. To try to sell the film, the makers put together an e-mail

list of 1,700 influential industry people, who then helped generate buzz

by forwarding the message to others.





Chasing the Blair Witch



What’s been happening on the Web-publicity front since then? Buzz about

Blair Witch 2 has already begun, but this time Artisan has opted to

shroud the project in secrecy. As of yet, there is no Web site connected

to the sequel.



While Artisan is holding back on Blair Witch 2, practically everyone

else involved in the movie business is clamoring for clicks. Sites have

evolved to include gimmicks like sophisticated computer games and

clothing promotions - get tips on killer looks and e-mail from

protagonist Patrick Bateman at the American Psycho site. Streaming-video

trailers are also standard now, but the clips are not always

downloadable.



Gordon Paddison, New Line Cinema’s vice president of worldwide marketing

and development, says that the Web has an integral part to play in

publicizing movies: ’Web sites are a constant call to action. Awareness

of the Web site is now above outdoor and equal to radio and is a very

strong consideration because the budgets are miniscule.’



Movie publicists have a huge role to play in what information is offered

via movie Web sites and through other consumer and trade sites. ’So many

people are unaware of what publicity is, it’s bizarre,’ says Paddison, a

former publicist with New Line. ’Publicity has taken on a much more

important role and it has become almost seamlessly integrated. We do

everything together, and (publicists) influence everything.’



Yet the Internet is proving to be a real headache for promotions

executives in a number of ways. Though many admit to having a bunch of

cyber-pseudonyms and using them to post positive reviews on message

boards, publicists are also battling bad buzz.



But experts agree that there isn’t much you can do. Says Paddison, ’You

can’t use information as propaganda on the Web. It can only be used to

create a dialog. The Internet is a two-way medium, and blasting out

propaganda is flawed.’



Paddison has contacts with hundreds of fan sites and says he expects

that they will post most of his correspondence with them, complete with

phone number and e-mail address.



Jeremy Walker, head of New York agency Jeremy Walker and Associates,

backs up that point: ’When it comes to the Web, it is not about

combating bad opinion about a movie. It is about getting people talking

and using the novelty of the medium.’



But Paul Pflug, Artisan Entertainment’s SVP of national publicity and

corporate communications, disagrees: ’The Web has caused a lot of

problems because of the lack of integrity. In our business, perception

is reality and there is a lot of hearsay. When someone (on the Web) says

they’ve seen a preview and it was terrible, that could be a competing

studio or a disgruntled producer. I am all for freedom of information,

but there needs to be some barriers to entry.’



Artisan worked closely with the movie site Aint-It-Cool-News on the

Blair Witch Project, giving the infamous reviewer Harry Knowles an

exclusive trailer. The site has already carried negative reports about

the sequel, however, prompting Variety to wonder if Artisan will bestow

such access again. Pflug refused to discuss the issue.





Which sites are worth the effort?



Another problem for publicists is sorting out who the important players

are in the dot-com sphere. The incredible growth of movie Web sites was

in evidence at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Walker

explains that in previous years reporters from dot-coms were considered

second-class citizens, but this year around half the accredited

reporters were new-media players.



’Web journalists have their own separate needs,’ says Walker. ’They file

instantly. A lot of sites are now hiring quality journalists.’ At one

festival, Walker was so overwhelmed with media interest in American

Psycho that he wasn’t sure how to handle it. He ultimately decided to

throw the doors open and allow sites to bring their own digital cameras

to broadcast the press conference.



Most publicists have a sixth sense about which sites are important. They

know what’s being talked about rather than what the numbers are. Traffic

figures fluctuate so wildly around release dates that it is hard to

judge.



Confusing the picture further is the fact that there are two separate

firms, Nielsen and MediaMetrix, reporting on measurement.



To reach consumers, publicists start with the big portals’ movie

offerings, such as those at AOL, Yahoo and MSN, and stick with

established sites like Entertainment Weekly Online and E!Online. Of the

newcomers, the most important are Aint-it-Cool-News, Mr. Showbiz and

Showbizdata.



Publicists looking to create buzz among industry insiders can do no

better than hit the business-to-business oriented sites like Indiewire

and Ifilm.



Getting your movie idea written about on Indiewire can virtually

guarantee that a major studio chief will be reading about it, says one

publicist.



If the Web is at the heart of any interactive campaign, then e-mail is

surely its lifeblood. The DuVernay Agency, a niche marketing firm that

specializes in helping studios reach out to certain ethnic groups, is

currently spearheading campaigns for Miramax Films and Trimark

Pictures.



Ava DuVernay, who heads the agency, has a list of 10,000 ’tastemakers’

spread across the country. She sends details of movie releases to get

the word out about her client’s projects. The key here is promote via

word of mouth.



’We don’t want it to feel like it’s coming from a studio,’ DuVernay

says.



She estimates that e-mails are forwarded to around 10 people on average,

adding up to 100,000 recipients (in what is called viral marketing).

Walker says, ’The question is what are you sending, who’s getting it and

what are they doing with it?’





Putting it all online



In terms of movie sites themselves, New Line’s offering for Lord of the

Rings is rapidly looking like the next Blair Witch site. The Internet

trailer, released April 7, was downloaded an eye-popping 1.7 million

times in the first 24 hours of the site’s existence, moving up to 10

million within 21 days. The studio offers comparative trailer download

figures for the last movie to have a hit Web site, Star Wars: The

Phantom Menace, whose home page recorded one million hits in the first

24 hours and eight million in the first 38 days.



Despite all this attention, movie sites are generally thought of as

behind the times. Thomas Lakeman, a former Universal publicist who is

now an executive at West Coast-based DNA Studio, which helped create

sites for movies such as The Insider and Fight Club, says ’movie sites

are behind the curve’ because most are not e-commerce sites and the

studios have a hard time figuring out their return on investment.



Indeed, studio chiefs have been eager to figure out how their Internet

investments are paying off - but that’s difficult to determine. Sites

can cost anywhere from dollars 50,000 to dollars 250,000. But savvy

publicists have been quick to point out that there is value in creating

a community around a movie. The two-way nature of the Web helps inform

marketing plans. Kevin Campbell, vice president of new media at

Universal Pictures, relates that visitors to one movie site convinced

the studio that an actress who wasn’t a big part of the marketing push

should be.



Movie publicist Walker says, ’Listening to the Web is a great way for

film distributors to hear what people are saying about their

movies.’



New Line’s Paddison says the benefits of having the Web site are

enormous, even after the film has been released. New Line’s site for the

Austin Powers movies will help it promote all the windows of

exploitation, from DVD to its TV debut. New Line has also used the site

for e-commerce, even conducting a Web auction for the car featured in

The Spy Who Shagged Me.





Not all movies make for good sites



But try as they might, publicists are having a hard time arguing in

favor of a Web site if it doesn’t ultimately drive ticket sales.



In some cases, they admit that not all movies are suitable for Web

exploitation.



’It will work if it’s edgy or mysterious or about a secret or if it’s

dirty,’ says Walker. ’The anonymity of the Web can really help speed the

sense of mystery and the forbidden.’ DNA’s Lakeman adds that a Web site

will persuade few people to see an Adam Sandler movie if they are not

already fans.



Some studios are recognized as better at their Web efforts than

others.



’Fox took enormous risks when they built (the site for) Titan AE,’ says

one Web consultant, referring to the investment in animation on the

site.



But, obviously, not all are as good. ’Universal has had a hard time, and

Miramax is just cheap,’ this consultant says. Another film pro, who

works with Miramax, comments that the company’s Web site is ’an

afterthought.’ (Miramax didn’t return calls seeking comment.)



Lakeman says that studios tend to spend on their Web sites in relation

to the size of the movie release rather than looking at whether there is

an existing loyal audience to be tapped.



Not everyone thinks that the Web is the best place to promote theatrical

goods. Desiree Gruber, president of PR and production company Full

Picture, is skeptical about the benefits of adding too many bells and

whistles.



’How many people can actually watch trailers with their connections?’

she asks.



Even New Line chairman Robert Shaye is reserved about the Web.

Commenting at Variety’s annual Big Picture conference this year, he

said: ’I don’t think the Web is really a very good platform for

promoting films yet.



The streaming quality is still not very good and the audience is

fragmented.’



But as everyone knows, the Internet doesn’t stand still and it won’t be

long before those in charge of sites begin to make the actual movie

available through broadband networks. Then publicists will have an even

greater role to play in driving traffic.





NOW SHOWING: MOVIE WEB SITES ARE FOREVER



The Insider



Release date: May 11, 1999



Web site: www.theinsider-themovie.com



Web site developer: Touchstone Pictures/DNA Studio



The numbers: N/A



Highlights: The site attempts to convey the angst of the characters

involved in the dark drama about the tobacco industry. It features a

black-and-white newspaper-style photo of Al Pacino, who plays 60 Minutes

producer Lowell Bergman. Scroll down and you get a dark screen complete

with wafts of smoke and stills of the pivotal scenes and trailers.





STAR WARS: PHANTOM MENACE



Release date: May 19, 1999



Web site: www.phantommenace.com



Web site developer: Lucasfilm



The numbers: First trailer released November 1998, second released April

1999. Combined, the two trailers have been downloaded 35 million times

to date.



Highlights: The site caters to the Star Wars junkie’s every need,

offering information about all Star Wars movies and news about the

production schedule for the upcoming Episode II. There are also links to

fan sites and a special kids zone.





THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT



Release date: July 14, 1999



Web site: www.blairwitch.com



Web site developer: Artisan Entertainment and Haxan Films



The numbers: Averaged eight million hits per day and reached 300 million

hits during the first eight months of operation



Highlights: The site currently displays the movie’s trademark stick man

and not much more. Click through the stick man to the story of Rustin

Parr, a serial killer. The site is due to be updated shortly to include

BW2 material, according to Artisan.





AMERICAN PSYCHO



Release date: April 14, 2000



Web site: www.americanpsycho.com



Web site developer: Lionsgate Films



The numbers: The site received 60,000 requests for e-mail from the lead

character Patrick Bateman



Highlights: The site features haunting stills of the killer, Patrick

Bateman, along with a few product endorsements about how to get his

’Killer Looks’ from designers such as Nino Cerruti. There are also

autographed posters and cast details.





TITANAE



Release date: June 16, 2000



Web site: www.titanae.com



Web site developer: 20th Century Fox/DNA Studio



The numbers: 10,000 average users a day for April/May; 250,000 people

have signed up to play the site’s game Highlights: The site offers two

options on the opening page: learning about the movie or joining the

operation (the animated game). The movie, which is about the end of the

earth, offers users the opportunity to view the trailer and learn about

the crew. There are also gimmicks such as screen savers.





LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY



Release date: Fellowship of the Rings, Christmas 2001. The Two Towers

and The Return of the King, Christmas 2002/2003, respectively.



Web site: www.lordoftherings.net



Web site developer: New Line Cinema The numbers: 1.7 million trailer

downloads in the first 24 hours and 10 million in the first 21 days of

operation



Highlights: The site shows the ability of the Web to exploit interest in

the occult. It has areas for existing fan sites and tries to foster

community with message boards and picture postings.



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