Studios go online to woo audiences

In a new marketing ploy taking advantage of the interactive age, movie studios have begun trying to reach moviegoers through the personal computer.

Subscribers to America On-Line, one of several on-line services, can call up a full-motion trailer to Columbia Pictures’ “In the Line of Fire,” as well as production notes, stills and background material on the stars. As a lure, subscribers can call for free tickets to a screening at a local theater.

The service, which has been up for about a week and a half, has been reasonably successful. Some 170 people have dialed into AOL with their computer modems, typed Hollywood On Line, and then retrieved the data by downloading to their hard drives or disks. The program itself exists in a forum, or electronic room, on AOL’s main computer in Vienna, Va. The service has 30,000 subscribers.

“It was a new on-line experience for me,” said Susan Sandler, an L.A.-based consultant and head of the International Interactive Communications Society’s marketing committee. “I’d only participated in forums with text. To see graphics and full-motion images was nice. It’s a very good application of interactive marketing. Based on the number of subscribers, it has the potential to reach many millions of people.”

Columbia executives won’t comment. Nor will Teleflix Inc., the Mount Laurel, N.J., company that put the program together.

Also experimenting with on-line marketing is Walt Disney Co. For the past two months, the studio has quietly put short promotions of “Life with Mikey,””Guilty as Sin” and “Super Mario Brothers” on CompuServe Inc.’s service. Subscribers with Macintosh computers are able to retrieve an animated movie. “Super Mario,” for example, has received 200 downloads.

The process has its drawbacks, though. AOL currently supports a very slow communications package, taking over an hour to download a complete program with video. With CompuServe, subscribers can receive a similar, albeit shorter program in 15 minutes.

It’s also unclear who the studios reaching. The demographics for subscribers to on-line services are typically kept under wraps.

“With the advance of technology there’s going to be a lot more of this marketing or advertising,” said Mike Hogan of Hogan Communications, a marketing firm specializing in reaching college moviegoers. “It’s tough to say how effective it’s going to be until we try it.”

While this is the first time the movies have come to the PCs, TV has been at it for awhile. Last year, the producers of “Brooklyn Bridge” used Prodigy, an on-line service jointly owned by IBM and U.S. Sprint, to get feedback from fans. And Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno have appeared on Prodigy’s forum and answered questions from viewers.

The services won’t be relegated to the computer screen much longer. Prodigy, for one, announced a deal last June with cable-box maker Jerrold Instruments to include a computer chip that would put the service on TV screens.