Originally created 01/17/97

Movie studios, looking to the future, compete for hipness on the Web



Pelt Cruella with eggs.

Play Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto.

Kill Martians and win cool prizes.

Hollywood's latest releases are playing at a Web site near you - high-concept destinations on the Internet baited with video games, contests, puzzles, sound and motion.

Since they debuted two years ago, movie studios' Web pages have seasoned quickly. From places where fans could simply view movie stills, plot summaries and actor bios, they've evolved into interactive adventures. Now, nearly every movie has an Internet address, publicized in ads with fine print that typically begins "http://www."

Marketers are still researching whether cybersurfers' curiosity translates to ticket sales. In the meantime, they're hedging their bets, developing novel ways to draw a crowd and learning more about their visitors than you might suspect.

"It's all really practice for what it will be in ... three to five years," said Blair Rhodes, new-media manager of Trimark Pictures. "The people who figure out the models now are those who will know what to do when (the Internet) reaches the mass consumers."

Though the technology changes daily, Hollywood is still a ways from transforming computer monitors into desktop projection screens. Most computers have a hard time handling space- and time-hogging movie trailers. With a typical household modem, capturing a two-minute preview can take as long as it takes to see the entire film in a theater - and many with Internet access still pay by the hour. Even for those with a lightning-fast rig, glitches and frustration rule.

At the "Daylight" site, those hoping to rescue people trapped in the fictitious "Manhattan Tunnel" may find they can't move their virtual Sylvester Stallone. Oops, everybody drowns. After downloading the software to annihilate aliens at the "Independence Day" site, the hapless user may find his spacecraft careening into canyon walls. And at the "Star Trek: First Contact" site, she may never get off the observation deck.

But Hollywood learns fast, and studio sites are improving their gadgetry and turning to simpler effects the typical Internet user can appreciate.

Disney's "101 Dalmatians" site - which offers opportunities to dress Cruella De Ville, adopt virtual pups and train the dogs to fetch - has registered well over one million "hits" a day, which translates into about 100,000 visitors, said Brett Dicker, the company's senior vice president for promotion.

Castle Rock's "Striptease" site, where gawkers solve a puzzle to gain entrance to the Eager Beaver strip joint, was equally popular last summer, though undoubtedly with a different audience.

At the site for "Meet Wally Sparks," due out Jan. 31, Trimark invites visitors to sign up for e-mail from Rodney Dangerfield, who plays a talk-show host in the film. Those who log on are promised a joke, animation, audio clip or photograph daily.

Of course, Trimark gets something out of the deal. Just by visiting the independent studio's site, Web surfers reveal their Internet service, whether they live outside the United States (a surprising 25 percent do) and if they're from a university, business or government group. Should a visitor opt for e-mail, or enter a contest to see a Dangerfield show in Las Vegas, Trimark learns even more.

"If you signed up for `Wally,' I'll know you like comedy and Rodney," Rhodes said. "Maybe when we have another comedy film I can possibly send you an e-mail saying, `Please come to our Web site.' Any information (the studio) can get is important information."

Those who drop by 20th Century Fox's elaborate "ID4" site are encouraged to leave an e-mail address because the site "is very episodic in nature." Presumably, they'll also be notified if the world comes under attack again.

Re-evaluation of the medium is constant. Disney's Dicker, for example, has concluded that shorter is sometimes more effective.

"If the average Web surfer is coming into "101 Dalmatians" and spending 4« minutes, to me it's ridiculous to build a site that has 30 minutes of entertainment," he says. "All I really have to do is give them five great minutes. As a marketer I can get the same message across."

But can the Internet move that message as effectively as more traditional vehicles, such as movie trailers and TV spots?

Dicker is gambling that it will, eventually. He sees Disney spending more to advertise on the Web - probably money that in the past would have been spent on broadcast spots.

"My own kids used to spend a certain number of hours watching TV," he said. "Now, instead of two hours of TV, it's an hour at the computer and an hour of TV."

Fine Line Features hasn't committed a lot of resources to the Internet, said Liz Manne, the studio's executive vice president of marketing. Nor is it big on advertising in other locations on the Web, though it has put word of its films on special-interest electronic bulletin boards. For example, information on "Some Mother's Son," the Helen Mirren film about the 1981 hunger strike in Ireland, was posted to Irish interest groups.

The notion of the typical cybersurfer being a 13-year-old boy raised on Nintendo isn't far off, said Manne - not exactly the audience for sophisticated film.

Right now, "it's very much a shoot-from-the-hip, cowboy, Wild Wild West environment," she said, with competition for the hippest Web site more of an ego thing among studios.

The cost of mounting a site can range from $40,000 to 10 times that, marketers say, though most account for far less than 1 percent of a movie's promotional budget. Once up, however, they cost little to maintain, which enables studios to hang onto them through their films' video launches.

The democratic nature of the Internet allows smaller studios to compete with the giants, though much of a site's attraction comes in the form of attitude, which needn't be expensive to produce.

Miramax, the art-film division of Disney, operates a site called the Miramax Cafe, which aims for hip audiences with features called "Buzz" and "Dish." A form for e-mail to the studio begins with such boilerplate introductions as "I hate it when ... ," and "I can't believe you guys were dumb enough to ..."

A page for the recent Miramax documentary "Microcosmos," a close-up of insect life in a French meadow, teems with coy copy: "You think you know all about the birds and the bees? Not until you've seen snails do it. Ladybugs do it. Even stag beetles locking horns do it."

A Trimark feature called "Variety Hour" offers irreverent tips to those interested in Hollywood careers. Subtitled "I don't make coffee," it was written by new-media manager Rhodes, 29, shortly after moving to Southern California from graduate school. The page isn't designed to promote a specific movie, said Rhodes; it's intended to seduce visitors with the studio's sensibilities.

Marketers talk of respecting the antiestablishment culture of the Web, though that's tricky when you have stuff to sell.

One movie site in particular reflects the tension between art and commerce: Go to Disney's "Evita" page and in one column you find a photograph of Eva Peron with links to academic papers on the history and people of Argentina, complete with footnotes. Then, in the right-hand column there's Madonna ("a Renaissance woman in the truest sense of the term," one learns), with links to her bio, audio clips of songs from the musical, and the singer-actress' account of playing the "role of a lifetime."

One thing marketers know the Web sites are good for is to set the hook early. At Universal's site, one can now jump to "The Lost World: Jurassic Park."

The movie isn't due until Memorial Day, but already there is a promotional clip and a teaser that "something has survived" from the dinosaur theme park you thought was destroyed at the end of "Jurassic Park."

To learn what, they hope you'll come back soon.

How to take in a movie with an Internet browse

You'll need a decent Internet browser, a modem that connects at no less than 14.4 bps. and real-time patience as you download software such as Shockwave, which most movie Internet sites make available to best appreciate their wares. Here are some ways to go to the movies from home:

  • "Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition." Dinosaur-like beasts of burden. A meeting between Han Solo and Jabba the Hut. Find out what other high-tech updates George Lucas has made to his sci-fi classics, the first of which returns to theaters Jan. 31.
  • "Independence Day." Shoot down aliens. E-mail in Morse code. Make the fat lady sing.
  • Castle Rock Entertainment. Castle Rock has just launched the latest studio site with links to lots of movies.
  • "101 Dalmatians." Out damned spot! When you pelt Cruella with enough eggs, a pig pins her to the floor in this kid-oriented site.
  • "Toy Story." Gadgetry and loads of stats about the making of the first completely computer-animated feature.
  • "Mars Attacks!" Hunt for Martians in Manhattan. See Tim Burton's sketches for the big heads from the red planet.
  • "Shine." You'll play Rachmaninoff-by-numbers on a virtual grand piano.
  • "Mission: Impossible." Stand by for retinal scan. The fuse is lit, and you're off.
  • X X X

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