DiCaprio, Moore, Willis use Web to sell films

When Leonardo DiCaprio’s “The 11th Hour” trailer went up on his MySpace page, the site got overloaded with so many trailer views that the stat counter started going backwards.

When Bruce Willis jumped into an Aint it Cool News chat to defend “Live Free or Die Hard,” the fanboys flamed him until he turned on his iChat camera and proved his identity. Then they warmed up to him. The guy who turned him on to Aint it Cool News in the first place was another star with a comeback sequel: Sylvester Stallone.

When Steven Spielberg started filming “Indiana Jones 4,” he posted a video of himself popping champagne on IndianaJones.com. His photo of Harrison Ford slouching in his Indy costume spread through Cyberspace like wildfire.

The dynamic between celebrities and their audience is shifting. The critics and the media no longer have the last word. Thanks to evolving technology, moviemakers and stars have new weapons to not only promote their projects directly to moviegoers, but to fight back against what they perceive as misinformation. They are taking advantage of their Internet fanbases to promote their projects, skipping the marketing middlemen and interacting directly with the people who buy tickets. Fan sites offer them valuable feedback about what their audiences like and dislike. But they also offer an opportunity to set the record straight. And sometimes, change the world.

The web isn’t just for youngsters like Di Caprio — several years ago, veterans Barbra Streisand and Shirley MacLaine figured out they could commune with their fans directly through their official sites; Streisand posts frequent “truth alerts,” while MacLaine offers her New Age newsletter to subscribers.

No one has mastered the art of Internet marketing more than Michael Moore, who has ceaselessly alerted those on his lists to every media appearance for his healthcare call to action, “Sicko.” (He claims his emails reach some 5 million people.) The week before the movie opened, in a video posted on his YouTube page, Moore asked visitors to post their own health horror stories; he plans to send a DVD compilation to Congress. One man, Clayton Redfield from Flint, Michigan, Moore’s home town, responded with a report about Aetna not paying $66,000 in medical costs. Suddenly, the insurer told him that he owed only a $500 co-pay. “Michael Moore, you saved my home,” he told a local TV interviewer.

If you missed Moore on Larry King Live, the Huffington Post or blasting Wolf Blitzer live on CNN’s “The Situation Room,” you’ll find clips of Moore’s myriad TV appearances on YouTube posted by his own team under the member name “mmflint.” When Moore disparaged CNN’s coverage of “Sicko,” he told Blitzer: “I’m going to put the real facts up on my website. People can go to my website and find out the facts about (CNN medical correspondent) Sanjya Gupta.”

Crazy like a Fox. The day after the Blitz Blitz, Moore’s web stats for July 10th, 2007 alone posted more than 800,000¬†¬†page views, better than 320,000 visits and almost 300,000 absolute unique visitors. In the month from June 10 to July 10, when Moore was in the mainstream media in some form or another almost every day, MichaelMoore.com registered almost 5 million page views, more than 1.5 million visits and better than 1 million absolute unique visitors.

Gary Faber, marketing president for the Weinstein Co., thinks Moore’s email crusade made a difference: “Michael has such a one-on-one dialogue with his fans that it makes it a slam dunk letting them know about the movie.”

Preaching to the fans is not new.

George Lucas has long cultivated an interactive relationship with the geekerati on all things Lucasfilm, especially “Star Wars.” Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones 4″ approach derives from the Lucas DIY ethic. “They’re keeping their fan base happy until the movie comes out,” says web-savvy director Kevin Smith. “‘Indiana Jones is presold, man! That audience is coming.”

Early Internet adopter Smith learned about a group of “Clerks” fan sites back in 1996 when he was depressed after “Mall Rats” bombed. Reading the commenters buoyed his spirits. He hired one of the site creators to build his first site. When Smith suggested doing a weekly live Q&A, he was told all he had to do was join the site’s message boards and chat with his fans directly whenever he felt like it. Ever since, Smith spends several hours a week with fans. He’s proud that the site has grown organically, adding merchandise when fans demand it. Smith uses his year-old MySpace page, which boasts more than 172,000 friends, to announce book-signings and public appearances, which promptly sell out. “I don’t organize with the studio at all,” he says. “It’s about letting us do whatever we want.” When “Clerks II” opened last year, Smith’s audience was primed: the R-rated $5-million comedy grossed $24 million.

Listening to your fans can be both good and bad, Smith says. “It’s not Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times, it’s what the guy who paid for your pic has to say,” says Smith. “You have to keep in perspective that you can’t believe the enthusiastic positive stuff or the shitty horrible soul-crushing stuff. The truth is between the two.”

Director Peter Jackson also pioneered bringing people into the “Lord of the Rings” universe through TheOneRing.net. Later, KongisKing.net featured a detailed video production diary. When Jackson’s “The Hobbit” negotiations with New Line Cinema’s Robert Shaye broke down last November, Jackson and partner Fran Walsh were able to get their spin on the record first by posting a strongly worded statement on TheOneRing.

“Scrubs” star Zach Braff started his blog when he released his directorial debut “Garden State” in 2004, but has never stopped. “He managed to go beyond PR propaganda and have an actual life and voice of his own,” says Fox Searchlight exec Nancy Utley. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” writer Joss Whedon has also used fanblog whedonesque to keep his many followers informed of his doings. When Fox cancelled his sci-fi adventure series “Firefly” after 11 episodes in 2002, his fans fought hard for a new life for the series: The DVD was such a hit that Universal produced “Serenity,” banking that Whedon’s loyal “browncoats” would launch the movie. Unfortunately, “Serenity” never broke beyond those cult followers. “He was not persuading anyone who didn’t have a vested interest,” says one Universal marketing executive. “That’s what mainstream marketing is for.”

Willis is the first major star to dive into the pit and confront belligerent fans head-on. The star had made a comment in Vanity Fair, before he saw the movie, about not being sure how he felt about the milder rating for the fourth installment of the R-rated “Die Hard” series. Stallone, who had participated in an AICN Q&A for his “Rocky Balboa,” gave Willis the Austin-based AICN webmaster Harry Knowles’ phone number. After seeing “Live Free or Die Hard,” Willis impulsively joined a heated aint-it-cool-news dissing of the film’s PG-13 rating under the guise of “Walter B” (his real name is Walter Bruce Willis), but he became frustrated and announced his true identity to the skeptical fans. So he gave out his iChat number and did talkbacks. Willis was candid; he even admitted he didn’t like working wit
h screamer Michael Bay.

When debates raged among the filmmakers about who should take credit for the summer blockbuster “Transformers,” Bay and producer Don Murphy had the advantage: their own blogs with built-in readers. Both took their cases to the web; Murphy wound up with a flattering piece in the New York Times.

While DiCaprio already has a personal web page, a political action site, and a site promoting his new eco-action documentary coming from Warner Independent Pictures, “The 11th Hour,” he had not had his own MySpace page. Now he does, complete with blog, although he’s cool enough to admit that while he reads it, he doesn’t manage it himself. “He was happy to participate,” says his press agent Ken Sunshine. “He had a lot of input.”

MySpace pages for new films are de rigueur now, but are usually run by marketing departments. The danger is that as the marketers take advantage of the web, savvy fans have little trouble distinguishing when blogs are ghost-written, as both George Clooney and Katie Couric will testify. If showbiz figures want to jump into Web 2.0, they’ll need to keep it real.

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