Web sites' techno tattle has H'wood rattled

Cyberbuzz is giving Hollywood a case of the crazies.

On the one hand, movies such as “The Blair Witch Project” and Tim Burton’s upcoming “Sleepy Hollow” benefit richly from positive gossip on the ‘Net.

But on the other, the proliferation of Web sites claiming to put forward the latest hot news is sowing paranoia and confusion among agents and clients as well as studios and networks.

Thanks to the Web, Hollywood is suffering from an overload of information — and misinformation — on everything from on-the-set rumors to breathless test-screening reactions to script coverage. Anyone with a computer and some cash can launch a Web site that potentially makes or breaks a deal, and that influences the public on whether to see a pic.

And, in the “Drudge-ification” of showbiz, there are no checks on most of these rumors.

“There are so many Web sites out there (about films and the industry), they’re sprouting up all over the place, I don’t know how to keep track, much less control the information,” said one exasperated studio PR maven.

Sometimes the effect is beneficial: Studio execs said B.O. bonanza “Titanic” hit the ground running thanks to positive cyberbuzz.

Impossible project

On the other hand, rumor sites say “Mission: Impossible 2″ is one of the most troubled high-profile projects to be shot since “Titanic,” with reports of crew defections, over-runs, and director John Woo’s frustration with the project reportedly issued directly from the set.

Some rumors start on the Internet and spread to mainstream publications: Time magazine last week reported that Michael Ovitz and AMG are having trouble selling Michael Crichton’s novel “Timeline” to Hollywood — speculation that first appeared in online magazine Salon.com.

The phone lines of agents Alan Gasmer and Rob Carlson were clogged with calls asking if they were leaving William Morris — exactly the same time that one ‘Net item posted on FilmShark site’s “Rumor Mill” message board maintained that “two WMA agents to set up own shop” (and went on to whisper: “We hear that two agents, perhaps best known for ruling the spec world not long ago, are striking out on their own”). The duo denied that they are leaving.

Other examples of ‘Net effect:

  • Web spies have raved over Tim Burton’s upcoming “Sleepy Hollow” for Paramount, especially citing one scene where the headless horseman slices a character in half with a sword. Netizens have begged Par to keep the scene, calling it “a classic.” It’s understood that the scene may stay, since the pic has received an R rating.

  • Agents last week claimed to Daily Variety that GoCoverage.com, which assesses scripts on the market, killed several script sales for their clients.

  • Sony lost control of its plan to keep Godzilla’s new look secret, when the first full images of the rampaging lizard were unveiled on the Internet. Sets from the top secret “Eyes Wide Shut” also were first seen online, despite Stanley Kubrick’s efforts.

  • Feedback from Netizens has been said to have influenced casting of Fox’s “X-Men.” Casting rumors ran rampant, with final choices first reported online before the first press releases could ever be finished.

According to studio publicists, there are a handful of Web journos whom they regard as “legitimate.” They are invited to advanced screenings of pics, and to junkets as are their print and broadcast counterparts.

Anonymous sources

But much of the ‘Net’s culture stems from the way it celebrates anonymity. Sites such as Ain’t It Cool News, Dark Horizons, Coming Attractions and Mr. Showbiz generate much of their news (and reviews) from tips e-mailed in from production personnel or extras working on the sets of pics.

According to Coming Attractions founder Patrick Sauriol, the purpose of his Web site “is to provide information about upcoming movie projects in various stages of development, so it’s really up to the individual reader how they wish to use that information.”

DarkHorizons.com, run by Garth Franklin out of Sydney, Australia, says his site is non-commercial (it does not generate revenues through ads).

Franklin said he gets about 75% of his information “from various newspapers, TV and other media sources from around the globe. The on-set reports aren’t normally as reliable but can be just as, if not more, interesting.

“Determining what goes on is sort of a skill that one picks up. I will print something if it’s been confirmed by a least one major media source, or from a trusted source.”

Sauriol added, “I’m not paid by any studio or production company to generate buzz. I leave it up to my scoopers to tell whether the movie’s shaping up to be a good one or stinking up test screenings.”

Ain’t It Cool News, the site run by Harry Knowles, the Texan who incites fear in studios for sending his army of spies to test screenings and publishing results on his site, is read by an estimated 1.5 million people daily.

The site was first to spread word that “Titanic” was actually good, based on the pic’s first test screening in June 1997, nearly six months before the film’s December release.

1,200 daily e-mails

Knowles has said he receives about 1,200 e-mails per day, some with tips, others merely fan mail. Franklin said he generates more than 100.

But it’s not just sites run by self-described “movie geeks” that are grabbing attention.

Warner Bros. Online hosts message boards on each of its movie Web sites, enabling visitors to post their thoughts, uncensored by the studio.

The studio’s comedy “Three to Tango,” starring Matthew Perry, Neve Campbell and Dylan McDermott, is being thrashed by the public before it opens, with one typical comment being that the fan “hoped it would be better.”

“It’s funny,” said one studio worker. “We’re paying for the site, but people are saying our movie sucks.”

Even Hollywood is getting in on the act of providing sources for news.

FilmShark.com provides industryites with tracking boards, job listings, writers and directors. The site also posts a “Rumor Mill” section, touting “the latest news and gossip concerning our industry’s executives at studios and production companies.”

The site is rarely updated; as of Oct. 15, the last posting was dated Sept. 29. And while it can reflect the coffee klatch of the industry, it often relies on blind items: It was responsible for the WMA rumors, as well as posting copies of internal e-mails sent by Jim Wiatt and Dave Wirtschafter to staffers when they each left ICM for WMA.

In addition to broadcasting short films for free, IFilm Network is offering tracking boards, job listings and a “Buzz” section through its IFilm Pro service. Among the rumors being tracked on the site is speculation about Fox 2000 prexy Laura Ziskin and whether she’s ankling the label to become a producer.

GoCoverage.com, launched by producers Steve Tisch, Jon Avnet and Howard Baldwin, last week listed coverage, both positive and negative, of scripts sent to the service.

Pulled the plug

But the site’s creators decided to pull the plug after it enraged agents, inspiring lawsuits and even inciting them to threaten producers that they will be banned from future scripts should they send a script to GoCoverage.com to be covered.

“Our goal was to do something entrepreneurial that benefits the entire industry,” said Judd Payne, the site’s co-founder and veep of the Steve Tisch Co. “We got some incredible responses but we didn’t want to hurt our relationships. Because of that, we’re walking away from the site. The last thing we wanted to do was alienate anybody.”

One incensed lit agent blames the site for not only killing the hopes of a spec he had sent out last week, but also for potentially changing the way material is submitted.

“I’ve talked to several agents at my place and at other agencies, and some of us decided that we will go directly into the studios with our specs, rather than to producers,” the rep said. “I’d rather take my chances with the studio’s reader than some anonymous Person X on the Internet. And though we might lose out on commissioning the producer, for the writer’s sake, we’ll let the buyer decide on the producer.”

With most gossip sites appealing to sci-fi and action fans, it comes as no surprise that much of the news revolves around New Line’s upcoming “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Warner Bros.’ two “Matrix” sequels, its troubled “Superman” pic and Fox’s “X-Men.” Most sites couldn’t care less about such dramas as Par’s “Angela’s Ashes.”

Studio insiders said poor buzz that appears on one Web site and spreads to others can kill a pic or deal. Positive buzz can help fill theaters or boost stock behind an artist. But it’s not always a guarantee. Rave reviews on the ‘Net failed to boost Warner Bros.’ animated “Iron Giant” at the B.O.

Publicists at the majors admit that they’ve had several meetings to discuss how to handle ‘Net mavericks.

Sauriol said Coming Attractions is “getting the cold shoulder from about half of the studios” though the majors “are slowly opening up more to communicating with Internet-based entertainment sites.”

One studio publicist said that while “we treat it (the Internet) like another journalistic medium, some of these guys are more reckless, and we make sure they’re not invited to screenings.”

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