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Web movie promos become business as usual

Web sites promoting movies have become such an accepted part of the Hollywood publicity machine that it’s hard to believe the first movie Web site debuted less than four years ago, when Digital Planet created an online destination for fans of “Stargate.”

Now, even serious, non-effects films such as “Amistad” have Web sites. “The benefit we found was that we knew we could get to people interested in films in general, or in a particular filmmaker, and give them ammunition to get their friends to see the film,” says Thomas Lakeman, senior vice president of creative services at Web site design company Boxtop/iXL. Web users, he adds, tend to be better educated and more affluent, a demographic that coincides exactly with the most frequent moviegoers.

Jason Yim, founder and creative director of Media Revolution, says the movie Web site business has gone through three phases in its short life. At first, he says, no one knew quite what to do with their web sites. Soon, though, it became apparent how elaborate the sites could be, and the goal became to make them as big as possible. But now, he says, as the concept matures, studios are honing their ideas and targeting audiences in more specific ways.

The sites vary, he says, based on who the intended audience is, what they want to see, and how gamey and interactive a site they expect.

“Our look changes depending on the project,” says Yim, whose company has done Web sites for films including “Amistad,” “Deep Impact” and “The X- Files: Blackwood.”

Nearly all movie Web sites have a few standard items in common, such as cast and crew lists, downloadable clips, audio bytes and photos, information about the story and, often, behind-the-scenes notes. But beyond those basics, sites can be very different from one another.

“Variation is the key to interesting content,” says Mike Bonifer, Boxtop/iXL’s vice president of creative development. Bonifer, who created the Web site for “Toy Story” before arriving at Boxtop/iXL, stresses the importance of a site having multiple stories for visitors to follow. “What it does is, it lets you choose your thread,” says Bonifer.

For example, a site for a film done with computer animation might give visitors a chance to manipulate images of the characters in the movie. Another site might delve deeper into the subject matter of the film.

Media Revolution’s site for “Deep Impact” has many facts about asteroids and comets crashing into Earth. “We had to do tons of research,” says Yim.

Games also are an increasingly important and expected feature of the sites. On New Line’s “Lost in Space” site, a game by Red Ant Media Group lets visitors design their own planets, trying to build one that can sustain the Robinson family. The player receives e-mail mes-sages from the family on the newly created planet, with details on how they’re surviving, so the creator can adjust the planet, if necessary. Over 80,000 planets exist in the site’s database, and a large number of visitors come back again and again to tweak their planets, according to Scott Fishkind, vice president of Red Ant.

Live online chats with the movie’s key personnel also are becoming more common. “Zero Effect” had two with star Bill Pullman and director Jake Kasdan. Roberta Heiman, an executive producer at Boxtop, says Pullman’s participation exemplifies another growing phenomenon in the evolution of Web sites: “The actors themselves are getting much more involved.”

For Media Revolution’s “Alien Resurrection” site, performers from the film even read lines that were later incorporated into the site’s game. The actors were also interviewed for a Web site “digizine” that was updated every couple of weeks. Yim believes turning over content rapidly is important for Web sites, and it certainly seemed to work for “Alien Resurrection,” which, according to Yim, had a couple million page views a day at its peak.

Nevertheless, he adds, Web sites are an adjunct to traditional advertising, not a replacement for it.

“As soon as traditional marketing goes up, our traffic goes way up.” Ideally, he says, posters and trailers will spark moviegoers’ curiosity and lead them to the Web site, where they can see much more detailed information.

To establish a presence on the Web, producers can pay anywhere from $10,000 for a basic site with credits and production notes, to as much as $100,000 for a site heavy with graphics, animation and games. A game alone can cost from $20,000-$50,000.

But, says Gordon Paddison, New Line’s director of interactive marketing, “I guarantee I’m driving more revenue than it’s costing anyone for my efforts.” The site for “Lost in Space,” he says, has had over 60 million page views and, in addition to pushing people to the box office, also guides them to New Line’s online store. “What the studio gets for the efforts we put into this is astronomical.”

The web site also is a powerful research tool for studios and producers.

“The most exciting thing about that kind of dynamic architecture is that it makes it so easy to learn about your audience,” says Lakeman. “You can see how audiences are using your information. That’s when it becomes a really valuable tool for marketers.”

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