Friendship has its privileges for brands, pix

CAN A MOVIE have friends? That’s a question I’ve been pondering since discovering the profile of “The Ringer,” the Fox Searchlight comedy starring Johnny Knoxville as a corporate lackey who tries to rig the Special Olympics.

MySpace, for those of you living off the grid, is the social-networking Web site acquired by Searchlight’s parent company, News Corp., for $580 million last summer. There are about 40 million people who use MySpace to fashion online identities for themselves, organize their offline lives, download music, post pictures of their friends and hook up.

One of the curious things about MySpace is that you don’t have to be a human to join. The profiles of real-life teenagers commingle indiscriminately with profiles for corporate entities like NikeSoccer, Vans Warped Tour, Cingular, Starbucks, the Toyota Scion and the Dell DJ Ditty, a variation on the iPod Shuffle with an FM radio.

Click on the profile for the Dell DJ Ditty and you’re presented with a short commercial starring the company’s spastic mascot, Mitch Ferrence, “maestro of air guitar, lip sync and dance,” along with a collection of videos and testimonials from more than 100,000 friends. Here’s a note from one of the Ditty’s “friends,” a 20-year-old guy named Kit from Eagle Pass, Texas: “Mitch, I mold my lifestyle to yours and it rocks.”

Turns out “The Ringer” is even more popular than Mitch. According to MySpace, the movie has 261,000 friends.

THE IDEA OF BEING friends with a movie, a brand or a fictional character is kind of pathetic.

But it’s a mark of a cultural shift that’s only gradually dawning on big media companies as they struggle to connect with a generation of consumers spoon-fed on wireless technology.

One of the best ways to reach these networked youngsters is to create content that slips seamlessly into their everyday social discourse: quirky downloads, games, wallpaper, screensavers, buddy icons and sweepstakes.

Hence the viral effectiveness of things like Mitch Ferrence air-guitar videos or slapstick short films from “Viva La Bam,” a “Jackass” spinoff on MTV (403,733 friends on MySpace).

Producer Matti Leshem is trying to establish the same traction for the USA Rock Paper Scissors League, which is just what it appears to be: a sports league for rock paper scissors players, promoted in thousands of bars across the country, with a tournament in Vegas, a cash prize of $50,000 and a one-hour special on A&E, all of it announced earlier this month at the TCA, along with a sponsorship deal from Anheuser-Busch.

“The point is, I didn’t want to sell a TV show,” Leshem told me. “I wanted to create an experience that was tactical and could spread on the Internet and on television, where it could reach the widest possible audience.”

The USARPS (just 154 friends so far) has some PR work to do if it hopes to close the distance with Mitch Ferrence or “Viva La Bam.” Buts its fans are downright evangelical. As Joe, a high school senior from Elmurst, Ill., puts it: “Soon One Day I will Rise through the ranks and become NUMBER 1!! EYE OF THE TIGER”

TALK TO SUNDANCEGOERS about the efficacy of the various marketers there and most of them say the least obnoxious was Moviefone, which hired 40 actors from Salt Lake City, dressed them in Moviefone snowsuits and deployed them on Main Street as “do-gooders,” feeding parking meters, unloading trucks and offering directions.

The Moviefone do-gooders were, in a sense, the real-world equivalent to the Dell Ditty mascot. They were walking billboards posing as friends.

MySpace had a presence at the Sundance Film Festival, too. The company was there to promote MySpace Film, a new feature designed to enable users to promote their own film and videos. MySpace also threw a party for the Beastie Boys concert film “Awesome: I F**kin’ Shot That,” a documentary directed by fans using Sony Hi-8 digital cameras.

“Awesome” is evidence of what companies like Yahoo!, MSN and MySpace like to say is a paradigm shift from “mass media to my media,” in which the goal isn’t just to create content for consumers, but to provide consumers with the tools to create it themselves.

It’s a good way to make friends, provided it’s clear that “friendship,” thus defined, is something you have to pay for.

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