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
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
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
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
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
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
Publicists looking to create buzz among industry insiders can do no
better than hit the business-to-business oriented sites like Indiewire
Getting your movie idea written about on Indiewire can virtually
guarantee that a major studio chief will be reading about it, says one
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
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
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
Movie publicist Walker says, ’Listening to the Web is a great way for
film distributors to hear what people are saying about their
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
’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
Some studios are recognized as better at their Web efforts than
’Fox took enormous risks when they built (the site for) Titan AE,’ says
one Web consultant, referring to the investment in animation on the
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
’How many people can actually watch trailers with their connections?’
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.