Surfing a new wave

Online pic promos turn to well-traveled waters

If you build it, will they come? No, not necessarily.

Plagued by tunnel vision during the dot-com heyday, the studios’ strategy of creating pricey Web sites to promote their pics has all but proved useless in a world where Netizens habitually visit the same five to 10 sites and use the same instant messaging and email services and chatboards they’ve relied on since first going online.

But with over half of all Americans logged on, studio marketeers know the Net is still a valuable marketing tool, and a change in philosophy is sending them and their online marketing dollars to where ticket buyers are surfing the most.

During the dot-com frenzy, some 2% of a pic’s average $30 million P&A budget was customarily set aside for the creation of a Web site, but that money is now being used to plug a property across multiple Internet channels.

“We’re trying to identify who the audience is, where they live online and how to get that audience to see our movies,” said Dwight Caines, veep of Internet marketing strategy at Columbia Pictures. “It’s like finding the fish where the fish are. We’re not trying to build communities anymore; it’s about going to the community that already exists and deploying them on your behalf.”

Recent campaigns include:

  • an increase in flashy clickable banner ads that have appeared across the tops of highly trafficked Web portals such as Yahoo!, MSN and AOL.

  • plastering characters, including the lead green creatures of toons “Shrek” and “Monsters, Inc.,” on film-news Web sites and within the toolbars of Internet browsers, including Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.

  • the ability to chat with the “characters” of pics, including John Travolta’s techno-villain from “Swordfish,” on AOL’s popular Instant Messenger product.

  • increased notes on fansite message boards hyping pics.

  • the creation of games based on pics, such as Sony’s “A Knight’s Tale” and Revolution Studios’ “The One,” that can be played online or downloaded onto handheld devices such as Palm Pilots.

  • the promotion of pics on movie-ticket selling sites like AOL Moviefone and Fandango.

  • the syndication of film trailers across multiple Web sites, including major portals, beyond the pics’ official site, long before their release in theaters. Also hitting the sites are exclusive behind-the-scenes film clips that can be emailed to other moviegoers.

Trailers alone have proved to be major hits among Netizens.

Not only were trailers for “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and “The Lord of the Rings” seen by millions, but spots for smaller pics also are attracting auds. Sony’s teaser for comedy “Not Another Teen Movie,” for example, was downloaded more than 1 million times before the pic’s official Web site ever launched.

Trailer perks

“A trailer gets the job done,” Caines said. “It’s got the talent in it and the emotional impact. Trailers are the jumping-off point for Web traffic.”

Hollywood’s previous approach to the Web mirrored its age-old marketing rules: The film biz creates a pic and then puts its marketing muscle behind it. So producing a single Web site and trying to attract as many Netizens to that site in an effort to turn them into ticket buyers made sense.

Not anymore.

The movie marketing game must now involve stretching Internet dollars to reach more consumers.

The major portals, such as Yahoo!, MSN and AOL, combined attract roughly 600 million unique users per month. AOL’s Instant Messenger and ICQ messaging products are used by 41.7 million subscribers, while Yahoo!’s messenger boasts 11.9 million subs.

Together, independent cinephile sites — such as Ain’t It Cool News, Dark Horizons and Coming Attractions — attract millions of film-obsessed fans.

Buzzing along

“Hitting those sites has been really powerful,” Caines said. “Not only do the large portal communities put you on the map with consumers, the cinephile sites put you in front of the opinion leaders. Buzz is buzz. If people are talking about our movie, that’s one less conversation that you have to start.

“You often hear that the Internet is all freaks and weirdos. That’s wrong. Everybody is online. You can reach any audience online,” he added.

While studios admit that they are buying more banner ads than before, budgets for Internet marketing campaigns still represent roughly 2% of a pic’s overall P&A budget. The budgets for the creation of film Web sites still hover at $150,000-$300,000.

“We’re doing more and more ad buying because the idea is we want to generate as many conversations as we can about our property,” Caines said. “Our spending all depends on the properties.”

But the studios aren’t giving up on creating compelling sites for their pics — especially for big films such as “Harry Potter,” “Lord of the Rings” and “Spider-Man,” which boast a young, plugged-in Internet audience. “We’ve asked ourselves, ‘Why are we doing this?’ ” Caines said of the need for a “Spider-Man” Web site, on which the studio reportedly spent some $500,000. “This movie is an event movie, and it’s going to deliver. But the first expectation is, ‘Oh, there’s got to be a Web site.’… There is also an opportunity on the Web to take hard-core fans and make them marketers for you.”But does Internet marketing work?

Although the dot-com bubble has burst for many industries, the importance of the Internet as a marketing and potential revenue-generating tool has only grown for Hollywood’s players.

Tangible results?

It is tough to quantify whether an online campaign boosts the B.O. of a pic, since the formulas still don’t exist to measure the result of a Web campaign on ticket sales.

“But they’re not there in television, radio or print, either,” said Kevin Campbell, senior veep of new media at Universal Studios. “The Internet is just another channel to communicate your message.”

Yet some say they have proof that it has helped: Exit surveys for “Charlie’s Angels” on its opening weekend revealed that 33% of auds polled said the Internet was an important source of info for them, Sony said at the time.

“We’ve seen the number of people who say they use the Internet grow,” Caines said. “When we started two years ago, we went from 60% of people who use the Internet to 80% now. All we want to know is that you log in.”But many marketeers wrestle with the question of how to focus dollars on an effective Net campaign.

“Technology is great, but you have to find a way to harness the technology in such a way that you can convey a really important marketing message,” Campbell said. “Otherwise, you’re just deepening your relationship with an existing consumer and closing the circle. If they’re going to the trouble of coming to your site, you’ve probably already sold them a ticket.”

No matter what strategy is carried out, the goal is still to get into the mindset of every consumer.

“At the end of the day, you have to see if we’ve gotten something in front of the consumer,” Caines said. “If our property pops up there, we’ve been successful. If it’s relevant, it’ll resonate with the moviegoer.”

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