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Fans lured with free preview promos

Among the millions of fans checking out “National Treasure,” some in the crowd may seem a bit inattentive during the first 10 minutes.

That’s not necessarily bad news for Disney. They may have been drawn into the theater by a Mouse House marketing strategy that’s becoming increasingly common in Hollywood — giving away content for free.

Disney’s placement of the first 10 minutes of “National Treasure” on AOL’s is just one example of a risky course studios and networks are taking to break through the advertising clutter.

In an age in which every movie trailer is available online and consumers are barraged with ads and promotions disguised as entertainment news, Hollywood’s looking to get attention with the polar opposite of flashy, fast-cutting ads: lengthy clips from films or entire pilot episodes of new TV shows.

Enabled by the proliferation of digital technologies, this recent phenomenon has grown out of the need for fresh, attention-getting marketing tactics. With more than half of Americans now surfing the Internet with high-speed lines, studios can put 10 minute-plus movie clips and entire 44-minute-long TV episodes online and know they’ll reach a sizable chunk of their audience. And with DVD players nearly ubiquitous in middle-class American homes, the distribution of entire television episodes on free DVDs can reach most TV viewers.

Examples abound. Entertainment Web portals like Moviefone, MSN Movies and Yahoo! Movies regularly feature lengthy clips from pics such as “Before the Sunset” and “Collateral.” AOL offered the entire pilot episode of “Jack & Bobby” to its subscribers. And magazines like Entertainment Weekly have recently shipped with DVDs of the pilots of shows like “Huff” and “House.”

Snap judgment

It’s a risky strategy, since it leaves media companies vulnerable to what some marketing departments are specifically looking to avoid: judgments of the actual movie or TV show. If consumers don’t like the first 10 minutes of “National Treasure” they watch for free, no number of savvy ads can draw them to buy a ticket.

“It’s becoming increasingly hard to get a product sampled, and we always need to be looking for new ways to break through,” said WB exec veep of marketing Suzanne Kolb, whose net put pilots of both “Jack & Bobby” and “The Mountain” online and gave out the former show to Entertainment Weekly subscribers on DVD.

“If you really believe in what you’re putting on the air, there’s no better way to make people aware than to let them watch it.”

Kolb became a believer in the strategy after seeing feedback from AOL, where 700,000 users watched the “Jack & Bobby” pilot, the majority of whom are not regular viewers of the WB.

Nets seem increasingly confident that the way to draw viewers into a drama is to get them to sample the pilot, so much so that they’re willing to pay significant amounts of money to produce DVDs and bind them into magazines.

Cheap on Web

The strategy is much less costly online, where Web portals are eager to feed their users content they can’t find anywhere else. Yahoo!, MSN and AOL often compete for clips from studios and heavily promote those they have exclusively.

“They get a great piece of entertainment and we get exposure, so it’s win-win,” noted Disney marketing chief Oren Aviv.

Studios are also taking advantage of some corporate synergy to promote extended clips, with the Mouse House putting seven minutes of “The Village” on ABC over the summer, for example.

Only a year ago, such tactics were rare, with the first few DVDs going out and extended online clips just starting to become common.

But, especially on the Internet, they’ve become so commonplace so quickly that insiders say even a few free minutes aren’t enough to make a movie really stand out among the new clutter of clips on the top entertainment Web sites.

More, better stuff

So studios are beginning to pair clips with behind-the-scenes documentary shorts specially produced for the Web. Aim is to give consumers not only an extended look at a pic to whet their appetite but exclusive footage to make them feel like insiders before they even see the product.

“We started with trailers and moved into extended clips, and now we’re finding produced behind-the-scenes looks do extremely well,” observed Moviefone VP and general manager Stephen Yee. “Studios are finding they have to get more and more creative with these clips to stand out.”

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