‘Witch’ hunting

Studios fail to match 'Blair' flair on 'Net

In a business that loves to replicate success stories, Hollywood industryites trying to travel the same immortalized marketing trail as Artisan’s campaign for “The Blair Witch Project” are stumbling.

Eight months ago, mystified marketing mavens at rival distributors quickly concluded that “Witch’s” runaway success must solely be due to the Internet — since that was the one marketing element that they hadn’t mastered — but time has allowed a revisionist history of last summer.

Now, calmer heads are realizing that the “Blair Witch” site was not an added-on marketing tool but was designed as part of the film experience — one that tapped into fans of the horror genre, which often inspires cult followings. And experience has proved that there’s only a slight correlation between Web hits and ticket-buying.

In a sense, it was a one-time phenomenon tough to repeat.

Despite pie-in-the-sky predictions of ‘Net-fueled glory, not one film has been able to successfully fill theater seats using the Web since “Blair Witch” apparently did so.

Wake-up call

Still, “Blair Witch” served as a wake-up call, and the majors and indies are now including the Internet in their portfolio. It may not be the key to any film’s success, but it’s one more avenue to tap into — and still a relatively modest one.

“Because of the high expectations about the Internet following ‘Blair Witch,’ nothing else has emerged as that kind of phenomenon,” said Jim Rosenthal, prexy of New Line New Media.

“How often does a phenomenon happen?” asked John Hegeman, prexy of worldwide marketing for Artisan Pictures, who masterminded the “Blair Witch” ‘Net campaign.

“The one thing that can’t happen is anyone duplicating the process that was done for ‘The Blair Witch’ Web site. What anyone can do is use the concept that’s now been proven: that the Internet is a great tool to launch entertainment properties of any kind.”

But that doesn’t mean studio marketing execs aren’t trying to re-create the magic.

Sony Pictures has launched its Internet Marketing Strategy Group. Fox is increasing its marketing efforts through Fox.com, even planning a digital studio on the lot. Barry Diller’s fledgling USA Films is turning to the Web to give an edgy veneer to pics such as “Pitch Black.”

USA’s sci-fier “Pitch Black” bowed with a $13.4 million gross over Presidents Day weekend, and some of the credit for that strong showing goes to the film’s flashy Web site.

It almost mimicked “Blair Witch,” offering a site full of murky, atmospheric images and plot and character details. The pic’s campaign also featured a pseudo-docu that aired on the Sci Fi Channel, similar to the “Blair Witch” docu.

Currently, Internet marketing makes up 3%-5% of overall promotional budgets. If a major allots $30 million for a pic’s print and marketing, that means a film’s Web site could cost up to $1.5 million — a huge jump from the $20,000 budgeted a few years back.

Still, most industryites agree that a hit cannot be created online.

Said Dwight Caines, veep of Sony’s newly created Internet Marketing Strategy Group: “People tend to forget that the offline campaign (for “Blair Witch”) was so well integrated into what they did on the Web — the missing posters of the unknown cast, the TV spots perpetuating the myth that missing footage was found and that they should go to the site to see more. The Web was just another channel to deliver the message.”

Newpics online

Paramount is pushing “Mission: Impossible 2” online, Universal is floating sub thriller “U-571” with a dot-com and Warner Bros. has sites for “The Perfect Storm” and “Battlefield Earth” (it scored big with a site for “Any Given Sunday” that featured nearly 30 minutes of Oliver Stone-donated video footage cut from the pic). But many of the major sites feature little more than the cast lists and downloadable trailers. One exception: New Line’s “Lord of the Rings.”

In fact, most movie Web sites are little more than online press kits, with still photos and dry text.

One reason for that tame approach is that many event films have enough traditional ad dollars to have a good chance to succeed with or without a Web site. Though “Blair Witch” is often cited as a model for film Web sites, it was hardly the most elaborate. And clearly, Web success doesn’t always spell B.O. bonanza.

On its Web site, WB’s “Deep Blue Sea” offered more than “Witch” (including behind-the-scenes artists’ renderings, interviews with helmer Renny Harlin, cast members and f/x technicians) and brought in $74 million in domestic B.O. Conversely, Universal’s “Jurassic Park,” the No. 5 all-time domestic grosser with $357 million, never had a dot-com.

Still, what has helped smaller pics like “Witch,” “Black” and New Line’s “Boiler Room” is that their Internet counterparts offered more than the studio norm.

Citing uniqueness

“You want to provide unique information, but you also have to present it in a unique way, as well,” Hegeman said. “It’s all about how you represent it. For ‘The Blair Witch,’ it worked. The site was a balance of both of those elements.”

The site for “Boiler Room” plugged the New Line release about young, mercenary stockbrokers by emulating other finance-themed sites and even linking visitors directly to them.

Bob Friedman, co-chair of marketing at New Line, sees the fast-penetrating ‘Net becoming more and more like a traditional medium. But if that means the direction is leaning toward the TV model, he said, that means an awful lot of clutter to cut through.

The content imperative is especially key considering that young auds drive most movie blockbusters and that that population is ‘Net-savvy. “Young adults are a better target because they’re more open,” Rosenthal said.

Yet a good Web site doesn’t necessarily matter.

Fox’s site for “The Beach” was lauded for its design and offerings to fans of Leonardo DiCaprio, including downloadable music. The pic so far has taken in only $30 million.

Fox’s “X-Men: The Movie” has been hit hard by negative reactions regarding its teaser trailer for the pic (available to download online first).

Comments everywhere on sites from Harry Knowles’ Ain’t It Cool News to individual message boards complained that the trailer, downloaded by more than 600,000 Netizens in its first weekend, didn’t feature a single tantalizing shot to whet their appetite for pic.

Instead of countering bad online buzz by offering exclusive photos from the pic or even of cast members in character, Fox simply offers the teaser trailer and news on one of the character’s campaign for the presidency.

More “exclusive” content is planned for “The X-Men” site to bow in the coming months, including chats with cast members and helmer Bryan Singer, video footage and behind-the-scenes content to appeal to the online sci-fi, gaming and Internet contingent.

“The Internet skews a little hipper,” said Barry London, prexy of Destination Films, which created a fairly popular site for “Bats.” “You have to surround the consumer and give them something that makes them stay because they’re sophisticated enough to find something else.”

Most ‘Net strategies assume users are going to visit sites after seeing the movie. That’s one reason why many players feel merchandising is the mother lode yet to be mined.

“The bulk of ‘Blair Witch’s’ 56 million visitors came after people saw the movie,” said one studio exec. “Artisan could’ve sold a lot of stick figures had they thought ahead.”

Despite the growing flashiness of movie Web sites, there is still no evidence that studios are designating more marketing dollars specifically to the Web. One reason for the delay — at least among majors — is that traditional media deliver more reliable bang for the buck.

TV time may be getting increasingly expensive, but it’s still the main promo route any serious B.O. contender must take. (Again consider “Pitch Black,” whose Web efforts likely drew far fewer auds than USA’s expensive primetime and Super Bowl TV ad buys.)

Measuring success

“Until we can figure out a mechanism to measure whether the Web is an influence in bringing people into theaters, it will always be something to consider and nothing to really demand a ton of marketing dollars,” Caines said.

Artisan’s Hegeman next is developing the online campaign for “Blair Witch 2,” skedded to begin shooting this year for a likely release in 2001.

“I feel pressure, yeah,” Hegeman said of repeating the success with the new site. “Every picture is unique. Every site is a fine balance of character and plotlines or the actors and behind-the-scenes information. It depends on the project. There is no blueprint for any of this.”

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