Developers must stay abreast of consumer demand

Creating hot movie sites is an emerging art all its own, especially as the Internet evolves from a primarily text-based medium into one with more audio, video, 3D animation and multiplayer games. There also is the challenge of meeting the expectations of the growing community of web-centric movie fans who expect a movie’s Web site to offer trailers, interactive chat capabilities and even the ability to get movie show times for a particular region with a simple click of a mouse.

To try and meet these expectations, “We try to have a tickets and show times feature accessible from every page within a Web site,” says Ira Rubenstein, director of film for Columbia TriStar Interactive. As part of the team that develops and maintains the 2-year-old main site for Sony Pictures, Rubenstein is keenly aware of the pressure to create movie sites that offer all the expected amenities and also have a look that makes them stand out.

His team is currently at work on the upcoming site for “The Mask of Zorro,” for which they intend to employ the emerging web animation technology of Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML). This was used in sites for “Starship Troopers” and “The Fifth Element,” but for “Zorro,” he explains, “We’re going to have the first multiplayer VRML game that allows you to fight your friends. It will be interesting to see how it goes. With the coming generation of Web browsers, it’s going to be easier to do a lot more VRML.”

Band-width restrictions are certainly something that Web site designers must consider as they load their sites several moving images.

While the software required to view these images can be acquired for free, it remains time-consuming for most Web surfers to download huge image files. Rob Walton of the online magazine Rough Cut says, “You can achieve the same goals without cluttering up your site with high-memory graphics. If a Web site takes forever, people just go to another one.” He believes lengthy downloads should be optional, not a barrier to viewing a site. “Even after there were color TVs available,” he observes, “there were still lots of black-and-white shows.”

Rubenstein agrees with that opinion — to a point.

“We try to make the majority of our sites pleasurable for a 28.8 modem by keeping the graphics small, but to be honest, people come to film sites expecting to get the latest and greatest. When you’re known for that, you’ve got to constantly keep raising the bar.”

He also has learned you can’t go back.

“About a year-and-a-half ago, I took trailers completely off because there was such a big download that I couldn’t imagine anyone really wanting them. We got slammed with e-mail. People want them.”

Interactive mechanisms may turn out to be the most enduring feature of successful movie sites. Enabling the public to interact with movie talent like directors and actors “is a powerful attraction,” says Thomas Lakeman of the Web site design company Box Top/iXL. While not all movie talent will make themselves available for online chat sessions, notes Lakeman, “Getting the talent involved in the creation of the Web site makes the best use of the medium. People want to be close to those creating a film. Even if the talent isn’t talking directly to the audience, their fingerprints should be on the Web site.”

Lakeman admits that it’s a difficult challenge “to draw people close to a film on the Web since you can’t show the film. One way besides involving the talent is to show how the film was created — providing a window on the magic.” But he cautions, “You’ve got to respect that you’re selling the fantasy of the movie and not just how many tons of structural steel were used. The art of creating a powerful Web site largely lies in helping to foster the fantasy as well as the reality of moviemaking. People don’t want to ride in airplanes … they want to fly.”

Since movie studios hope their Web sites will live long and prosper, the best sites will be those that can evolve over time. Lakeman envisions “The Holy Grail of all Web sites is one that continues to maintain itself, where the fans themselves are largely generating the content by participating in the chats and posting their messages and continuing to interact with it.” He believes that creating the framework for this kind of enduring success will take strong creative partnerships between filmmakers and the Web site designers.

“If the filmmaker is John Lennon, I want to be George Martin.”

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