Flash animation, extra content help studios market pix

Say the word technology to a roomful of studio execs and you’ll get more blank stares than if you ask a group of Netcasters how they plan on making money on the Internet.

But that doesn’t mean there is a lack of sources — Web design shops, tech companies — to help the major studios stay ahead of the new-media curve and provide more style over substance to online auds for their pics.

Take a look at the Web sites for this summer’s crop of big pics and it’s evident that stagnant text-based sites are out. Words and images must now zoom across the computer screen at all times or be interactive games.

“People want something fun to come to,” says Darren Chuckry, creative director and executive producer at Van Nuys, Calif.-based Web design, f/x and vidgame shop Dream Theater, which created Columbia TriStar Interactive’s Dawson’s (Creek) Desktop and sites for “Armageddon,” “Starship Troopers,” “Bicentennial Man,” Jim Henson’s “Muppet World” and “The Sixth Sense.” “If it’s something they’ll enjoy, people will download anything. They’re coming to a Web site because of the content. They want to be rewarded.”

Flash animation

Due to its ease not only for Netizens to view but creators to use, several studios have adopted Flash animation — a product of Macromedia, which spun off Netcasting site Shockwave.com — as the new tool to tell stories on the Web. Load up a site and it’s tough not to view Flash-produced images.

Both Disney’s “Gone in 60 Seconds” (studio.go.com/movies/goneinsixty) and “Dinosaur” (www.disney.go.com/disneypictures/dinosaur) open with trailers for the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced pic and computer-generated animated pic, respectively.

MGM and Universal released a downloadable Flash trailer for “Hannibal” (www.mgm.com/hannibal) far ahead of the pic’s release next year that didn’t require footage from the pic or Anthony Hopkins to step in front of the camera in character.

“It’s hard to do just Flash and make a difference for your site,” says Thomas Lakeman, prexy of Los Angeles-based DNA Studio, which has built a business out of creating Web sites and Flash animation packages for studios. It recently has launched the online sites for Fox’s “Titan A.E.” (www.afterearth.com), DreamWorks’ “Road Trip” (www.roadtrip-itsgood.com) and Disney’s “The Insider” (studio.go.com/movies/insider), among others.

“You have to use Flash for what it’s really good at — visual storytelling. If you’re using it for a passive experience, then it’s not a good investment,” he continues.

Using more video

Then again, there’s always streaming video, distribbed via RealNetworks’ RealPlayer, Apple’s QuickTime or Microsoft’s Windows Media Player.

“But people look at streaming video and think they can take everything they have in their libraries and put it on the Internet as it is,” Chuckry says “It doesn’t work that way. There are different viewing habits online.”

For Disney’s “Sixth Sense” site, Dream Theater is adding hours of behind-the-scenes video and interviews with the pic’s cast, as well as the script.

The site for the upcoming Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner “The Sixth Day” will feature more video, even Webcam footage recorded by Schwarzenegger himself.

However, too much video “can become a SAG issue or union issue,” Chuckry says. “Current rules only allow you to show 10 seconds of an actor online at a time, which is something that must change.”

Virtual tour

IPIX, which hit Hollywood through its representation deal with the William Morris Agency late last year, is increasingly enabling Netizens to not only read about a film’s production online but virtually tour its sets through photographs.

Using its 360-degree photo technology and a mouse, iPIX is letting visitors walk around the waterlogged sets of Warner Bros.’ “The Perfect Storm” (www.perfectstorm.net). Last year, iPIX let Paramount offer tours of 10 sets, including the entire town in “Sleepy Hollow” (www.sleepyhollowmovie.com),plus its forest, church, graveyard and covered bridge.

Web sites cost money

Still, even with the new tech tools to hit the Web market, studios still haven’t devoted more dollars to their sites. In fact, DreamWorks for some time was handing off its official Web sites to other dot-coms to design and handle, including e-tailer Amazon.com and Pepsi.

Over the past two years, the average cost has hovered around $50,000, with bigger sites costing as much as $100,000. Up to 90% of a studio’s marketing dollars are spent in the last 30 days before a pic’s release, with little left over for the Web.

“Studios say, ‘We want a Web site, here’s the script, here’s some promotional art, put something together,’ but they don’t realize how much they can do with a site,” Chuckry says. “Studios won’t expand their Internet budgets until the studios can show that Web sites put people into seats. It’s all about selling tickets, which is so short-sighted. It’s so primitive now to what it will be.”

New Line recently announced a promotional deal with America Online, guaranteeing lucrative placement for its slate of pics across all of AOL’s properties, including Moviefone, which would then sell tickets.

“A lot of studios feel they’ve got bigger fish to fry,” Lakeman says. “The biggest limiting factor is the vision of the Web site as a promotional tool for a property. If the studios change that perspective and think about it as a way to build a closer relationship with an audience, we’ll see more money spent intelligently. You’ll see more money spent on online audiences through content.”

However, with all the style and substance, there’s also a new low-tech trend on the horizon.

Audience-driven sites

“Studios are really starting to look at whether these sites attract audiences and are trying to measure the return on investment,” Lakeman says. “They’re trying to use the Web now to find out how to learn more about its audience and monetize the experience.”

Thus more exit polls and quizzes are beginning to make an appearance online, enabling studios to build a database of behavior patterns or launch chat services to create a sense of community.

Paramount’s “Mission: Impossible 2″ (www.missionimpossible.com) site lets visitors become agents, for example; Disney’s “Dinosaur” site lets visitors send D-Cards to friends.

“Sites are becoming more community-driven or viral,” Lakeman says. “Then again, that’s what good sites do well, anyway. People don’t go to a Web site to make a decision whether or not to see a film.

“Everyone wants to create a destination that has a life of its own. When you do that, you lay down the foundation for an encore business. When you find a way to monetize it, it can create a new revenue stream for your film. You really leverage your offline resources. Until then, the Web will be seen as a loss leader.”

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