Cybercrix put exex in fix

Hollywood studio ventures on the World Wide Web may be making money, breaking even, or getting close, and all seem to have serious business plans that anticipate real revenues. But no one is talking about competition, or even harassment, from non-studio Web ventures.

The question never came up at Web Market Hollywood on Monday, a confab sponsored by Red Herring, the Silicon Valley techie finance magazine.

Among the studio interactive division honchos speaking were Richard Wolpert, head of Disney Online; Matt Rothman, of Sony Online Ventures; Edmond Sanctis, of NBC Digital Prods.; Jim Moloshol of Warner Bros. Online; Ron Frankel of MGM Interactive; and Glenn Entis of DreamWorks Interactive.

The one person missing was Harry Knowles.

As proprietor of a Website on the Internet, the rotund, bewhiskered 25-year-old movie buff, who dwells in Austin, Texas, and makes a living selling vintage movie memorabilia with his dad, is the point-man for a proliferating online cult hooked on invading Hollywood studio test screenings and publishing their film reviews on the Internet.

Beyond Knowles’ Website, where reviews recently appeared of James Cameron’s “Titanic” (shown to a Minneapolis audience as a work print), a throng of self-styled Internet film critics have studio marketing chiefs clicking their Web browsers in fury.

For as Hollywood spinmeisters attempt to colonize and exploit cyberspace for their own purposes, they are finding that the Web is a big, unruly place that resists the best efforts of studio control-freaks who depend on carefully crafted buzz to launch their movies.

‘Computer is a newspaper’

“Buzz is no longer two people at a cocktail party,” Warner Bros. marketing chief Chris Pula fumed. “Now anybody with a computer is a newspaper.”

“Batman & Robin” helmer Joel Schumacher recently referred to Knowles indirectly in publicized statements denouncing the Web for its prejudicial prerelease buzz on pics. Schumacher was peeved about erroneous online reports that reshoots were required on the Warner Bros. film.

It didn’t help Schumacher’s mood that Web word-of-mouth on “Batman” has been almost universally bad, even after his film was released.

“The credibility is questionable, but the existence of these opinions are very real,” said producer Sean Daniel, whose upcoming pic “Jackal” was a recent point of discussion on the Internet. “The preview must be confidential in order for it to be of value to the filmmakers and the studio. If each preview of each cut of a movie becomes the next day’s Website discussion, then what we have is a whole new ballgame.”

“What’s disturbing,” WB’s Pula told Daily Variety, “is that many times the legitimate press quotes the Internet without checking sources. One guy on the Internet could start enough of a stir that causes a reactionary shift in the whole marketing program.”

Indeed, Daily Variety has verified that at least one of Knowles’ sources is a mischievous intern at a production company who, for several months running, e-mailed spurious items that appeared as news on Knowles’ Website, Ain’t-It-Cool-News (www.ain’t-it-cool-news.com).

Learning to love the Web

On the other hand, studios love the Web when the buzz is good. New Line’s “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” was boosted by good Webword, as was Howard Stern’s “Private Parts.” Warner Bros.’ latest newspaper ads for “Contact” use laudatory quotes from Internet users under the tagline “On the Internet America Makes Contact.”

Pula himself launched a Net buzz campaign two weeks ago for Kevin Costner’s “The Postman” by offering a live Netcast of Costner directing a scene for the movie. (The server crashed from the download crush, but the media widely reported the novelty.)

After the secret screening of “Titanic,” delighted 20th Century Fox execs cited a flurry of mostly positive comments on Knowles’ site as evidence that their $200 million ship will sail after all.

Many studios are putting up official Websites particularly designed to spin the Net their way.

Sony’s “Men in Black” has enjoyed months of Web buzz, much of it centering on a site that for a long time masked its Sony backing.

“We built an online fan club (meninblack.com) and an online community around the themes of the movie, such as alien technology, without mentioning the movie itself,” said Ira Rubenstein, director of marketing for Sony’s Columbia TriStar Interactive.

That site revealed its Sony provenance just before “Men’s” release, with an official promotional site popping alongside the already-running fanzine side.

Rubenstein’s job, a new and expanding category in most studio hierarchies, is to build Websites for the studio’s entertainment divisions, including film, TV and homevideo.

According to Rubenstein, studio research has shown a positive correlation between those with Internet access and frequent moviegoers.

How does Ain’t-It-Cool-News obtain its reviews? It often begins with a mysterious phone call, according to Knowles.

“A beautiful feminine voice spoke out of the receiver with, ‘You will find ‘Titanic’ if you search the Twin Cities of the Earth,’ ” he recalled.

Deciphered, the tip meant that a secret preview of Cameron’s film was slated somewhere in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Knowles posted an advisory on his Website asking volunteers to report back where and when the screening was being held and to go see it if they could get in.

“I got back 250 e-mails,” Knowles said “The spy thing is a romantic concept.”

The search for the “Titanic” screening resulted in 31 of Knowles’ correspondents discovering it at the Mall of America billed under “Great Expectations,” another Fox film.

Knowles received 18 personal opinions and published three of them (“the most typical”) on his Website the next day.

Despite the fact that it was a 3-1/2-hour work print, people said they generally liked the picture, including the performances of stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Of course, there was no way to verify the writers’ credentials as true civilians, studio ringers or Web weisenheimers.

But taken at face value, the reviews circulated electronically at Digital Domain among the computer dweebs currently toiling over the visual effects on the Cameron pic and said to be in need of a pat on the back.

Registering a complaint

The reviews drew the ire, however, of Joe Farrell, head of National Research Group. Farrell’s firm is the leading arranger of test screenings for Hollywood studios. He phoned Knowles attempting to persuade him to quit violating the privacy of test screenings.

“We had a pretty good conversation,” Knowles said. “Joe has a job to conduct screenings that allow anonymity. What I do with the Internet compromises that. It puts his job and the NRG at risk. I understand that.”

Farrell confirmed to Daily Variety that the conversation occurred, but pooh-poohed the notion that his job or his company is at any risk. His concerns, he said, are for the filmmaker.

“I’m afraid that what he is doing could diminish the opportunities for a filmmaker to fine-tune his film through audience reaction before presenting it to the studio or to exhibitors.”

For his part, Knowles said that he is at heart a film fan, and that he would back off from a work-print screening if the filmmaker asked him to.

Fair game

But not all onliners are so kind (or as eager to get famous filmmakers on the phone), and most see studio test previews as fair game.

Matt Drudge, who culls reviews from Net sources such as Knowles to include in his Drudge Report (www.drudgereport.com), an online digest of news links, as well his own commentary, opined, “That’s what they get for treating the public like guinea pigs.”

Drudge said his own tipsters come from a lot of places, including NRG and the studios. He’s getting the most heat these days for posting Friday- night box office results on Saturday morning.

One studio phoned and asked him to stop the practice. Drudge said that he offered instead to omit that studio’s films from the listing. Seeing that as a worse alternative, the studio backed off.

Now Drudge is threatening to release closely guarded storylines from certain films, such as “Eyes Wide Shut,” the upcoming Stanley Kubrick film. Drudge claims to have the script.

“That ought to cause a commotion,” he snickered.

Studios bid for control

What can studios do to control fan sites?

“We’re turning it on its ear by actively encouraging it,” Sony’s Rubenstein said.

With the “Starship Troopers” site launched last week, the studio is offering create-your-own Website kits for fans to download, with a link-up to the official site and an interactive game. WB is doing essentially the same thing for “Contact.” Whether it helps curtail the spread of amateur fan sites remains to be seen.

Perhaps the Web, with its egalitarian ethic, is a place where filmmakers may hunker down with everyday moviegoers and share with them on a one-to-one basis the artistic process that goes into the making of motion pictures.

But then again, there’s the example of Cameron — or, more likely, someone purporting to be the filmmaker — posting a message on a film buff Website, saying, “I’d be happy to help any of my fans. Anytime you want to ask me something just go ahead. I read this board every day and can’t wait to chime in.”

To which one of the director’s devoted fans responded: “Can I have Kate Winslet’s phone number?”