Blurbmeisters casting a wide Net

Studio pix draw auds from the web

When the Internet boom collapsed, studios were left wondering whether the Web would ever become a serious advertising medium.

That’s not a question film marketers ask today, as they bombard movie fans checking showtimes and buying tickets online with ads for nearly every major release.

And as evidenced by major ad buys across top sites for pics such as “Underworld,” “Radio” and “Hidalgo,” more films are starting campaigns far earlier to try to build more buzz.

“We’re seeing a new trend where studios are staking an online claim for their films many months ahead of the theatrical release,” says Doug Hirsch, Yahoo entertainment division topper.

Fox Searchlight used that approach with “28 Days Later,” largely eschewing pricey TV spots for an Internet campaign a month before opening that cost upwards of $1 million.

That’s for a genre horror pic that cost just $8 million to make. It paid off too: The film opened at $10 million and has remained in the top 10.

“Early online advertising can help to ‘event-ize’ the picture and get people talking about it well in advance of release, especially with young males,” says Stephanie Allen, SVP of creative advertising and new media at Fox Searchlight.

Advance marketing can also take advantage of one of the Internet’s prime capabilities: spreading “viral” content, such as “E-mail this” material, message boards and chat rooms. Smart use of those resources can get fans doing the buzz-building on a studio’s behalf.

“By getting out in front, you can get the buzz builders talking and give them a few months to spread the word,” says IFilm CEO Adam Frank. “Those are the people whose enthusiasm turns out others en masse.”

But a big online campaign — some can cost $2 million — doesn’t guarantee any more success than any other medium. “The Hulk” took over every Yahoo movie-related page (and the home page) a week before opening, but it didn’t lift the green guy to a box office bonanza.

Some marketers prefer to create online interest in other ways. New Line began seeding the Web with giveaway material 18 months before the first “Lord of the Rings” pic debuted, but didn’t advertise until a month out.

Philip Nakov, a managing partner at CountingDown.com, says his fan site often uses free, studio-generated content such as trailers and production photos, but says marketers can be underhanded in some of their techniques.

Some, for instance, regularly pepper message boards with promotional blurbs supposedly written by fans. That can undermine a site’s street cred if it happens too much.

Nevertheless, online advertising continues to grow.

Yahoo carried ads for 53 films in the second quarter, up from 13 a year ago and part of the portal’s 44% jump in overall marketing revenue.

It’s evidence studio execs are taking the Net more seriously.

“The studios have some extremely sophisticated guys doing very strategic online media planning,” says Art Levitt, CEO of ticket seller Fandango.com.

Recent studies show that frequent filmgoers are most likely to be heavy Net users. A smart campaign targeting those users can quickly boost ticket sales and message-board chatter.

“There was a time when we’d beg people to run banners for free and print out hundreds of pages from chat rooms to see the results,” remembers Dwight Caines, SVP of Internet marketing strategy for Columbia TriStar. “Now we’re able to fund research efforts that help us do more informed campaigns. That’s a big shift.”

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