PLUGGING THE PIX

In cyberspace, everyone can hear you spin

Anyone looking for information about movies — or a place to sound off about them — need look no further than the Internet. Cyberspace abounds with movie-related destinations: official sites created by studios to promote their releases, unofficial fan sites by the thousands, and all manner of online magazines, newsletters, chat rooms and bulletin boards devoted to films.

Cutting through the clutter is nowhere more appropriate than on the tangled World Wide Web. Glossy official sites, complete with movie trailers and promotional offers, are becoming as common to movie marketing as posters and press kits. Paramount Pictures’ “Titanic” site is fittingly multi-tiered, while “Godzilla” gets humongous treatment by both Sony Pictures and Centropolis, home of the film’s creators, Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin.

And while such sites help disseminate information, the ultimate usefulness of the Internet for filmmakers may not be what they put out but what they hear back. Because it’s so easy for the public to post their comments or enter online contests, the Internet is a market researcher’s dream.

“You’re dealing with an audience capable of responding directly in an unfiltered way to what the studio is putting out,” observes Thomas Lakeman, a producer for Web site developer Box Top/iXL. “The Web adds an information and community channel to existing media, which makes it possible for a two-way relationship between the artist and audience to occur.”

Internet-savvy filmmakers are exploiting this to great effect. At Columbia TriStar Interactive, which develops Web sites for parent company Sony, GM Lynda Keeler notes “The ‘Godzilla’ site has been launched almost a year, and the feedback has played an important role in giving Roland and Dean information on what fans really feel.” Devlin even uses the site’s message board as a conduit to personally respond to rumors about the film.

And rumors do abound on the Internet.

“Ain’t It Cool News” credits a network of “spies” delivering news on upcoming projects, and disavows any material that touts “the studio line.” The site also publishes reviews from preview audience members, and provides a forum for all kinds of opinions. The grist of “Rumor Central” at the Corona Web site is also supplied by information from fans, such as things they’ve spied from movies shooting on location.

The reliability of this information is understandably uneven. Scrolling through the various postings made over time reveals many retractions and contradictions. Sites like these, especially those which are updated daily, feed the endless buzz about movies and shrink the news cycle ever shorter.

Because the price of entry to the Internet is relatively low, anyone can be a publisher, and sites like the e-zine “Zentertainment” and the biting reviews of “Mr. Cranky” have built loyal followings. The public’s voracious appetite for such movie commentary hasn’t gone unnoticed by the entertainment conglomerates.

Along with their sites promoting individual movies, they’re also funding online magazines that feature celebrity interviews, movie reviews and industry news. Fox Online offers its TV Guide Entertainment Network while the Mr. Showbiz site recently became the sole property of Disney.

With Hollywood now being covered from every conceivable angle, carving out a unique perspective is difficult. Time Warner’s TNT has attempted to do this with its Rough Cut site, which parallels somewhat the TV show of the same name. Rob Walton, the site’s managing editor, says “We differentiate ourselves from other programming on the Web in that it’s not gossip and hearsay. This is genuine journalism for people who love movies. It’s not about who’s in rehab.”

Sites like Rough Cut demonstrate the role that the Web is playing as a complement to traditional media outlets. If the “Rough Cut” TV show does a celebrity interview, Walton notes, “It’s often boiled down to 45 seconds or a minute of screen time. We can offer more depth, and publish entire transcripts on our Web site. That benefits us both.”

The show drives traffic to the site by mentioning the Web address, sometimes adding the incentives of contests or giveaways. “Having a drive from television opens up a Web site to a whole new audience of people,” believes Walton.

Giveaways, like movie posters and T-shirts, are provided by the studios, of course, but Walton stresses that his site “is not an arm of the studio publicity mill.” Nor does he feel any pressure to provide favorable coverage of Time Warner projects.

“We did an Internet Movie Awards last year and a Warner Bros. movie was named one of the worst of the year,” Walton says. “I must say it crossed my mind whether it would fly for us to publish that but at no point did anyone say ‘That’s bad politics. Don’t do that.’ ”

What the studios do seem to expect from the Internet is a cost-effective way to keep their a movie properties in the public eye for as long as possible. Sony’s Keeler notes, “We can market a film in a way that maximizes the number of eyeballs as it goes from feature to pay-per-view to television.”

Sony is, in fact, hoping that its “Men in Black” site, fueled by the success of the animated TV show, will still be active when the movie sequel eventually arrives. With so many different types of sites devoted to movies, it’s unlikely that references to any film will ever completely disappear from cyberspace. Ask any of the top Internet browsers to search for a movie title and you’re likely to find a smorgasbord of choices — from a Mr. Cranky pan to a newsgroup devoted to the film’s leading man.

To make it easier to navigate through this burgeoning mass of information, the Internet directory Yahoo recently launched a special movie.com site of its own, which organizes information about movies and provides a gateway to movie-related sites. An alliance with Hollywood Online allows Yahoo visitors to quickly retrieve information about movie show times as well as get industry news like box office results and release schedules.

Site producer Linda Buckel sees this as an extension of Yahoo’s role as a “super-aggregator of movie links, from official sites to Mr. Cranky.”

She believes diversity on the Web “is part of the mass consumer appeal.” Like many other industry observers, Buckel says the growing dialogue about movies on the Internet may ultimately turn out to be the most significant phenomenon of all.

“Our ‘Titanic’ message boards, for example, have thousands and thousands of messages on them. There’s an amazing community of people on the Web who just want to talk about their favorite movies.”

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