‘Net heads finally get some respect

Film fan sites boosting clout with studios

If next year’s “Batman Begins” is a hit and this summer’s “Catwoman” flops, execs at Warner Bros. can’t say nobody warned them.

On fan sites across the Internet, users are giving rave reviews to images of the new Batmobile and casting decisions like Christian Bale.

But the initial looks at Halle Berry’s Catwoman costume drew near-universal jeers; fans have since complained about tightly restricted access to the film’s visuals and story.

As fan sites like chud.com, joblo.com and Aint It Cool News have sprung up in the past five years, studio honchos have either feared their power or dismissed them as silly geek diversions.

Now, Hollywood is learning to love them — and work with them.

Web marketing now typically takes 3%-5% of a pic’s marketing budget; on a genre movie, between $50,000 and $100,000 may be allocated to advertising on fan sites on top of extensive PR management.

With marketing costs having risen 30% in the past year, the studios are embracing the opportunity to master a new, and relatively cheap, tool.

Through a combination of open access and ego-boosting, studios are tubthumping tentpoles — particularly sci-fi and horror — via the Internet.

They’re discovering that these sites can be promo tools for such pics, as useful in their own way as Entertainment Weekly, People and Vanity Fair.

Aint It Cool News founder Harry Knowles is even producing projects at Revolution and Paramount — a remarkable new role for a Web impresario operating at arm’s length from the studio system. Working out of his father’s house in Austin, Knowles has created a role for himself as a Hollywood insider without ever having spent time in a studio mailroom.

Studios are letting sites like Aint It Cool News talk back to them, using the chatter as an unscientific polling of elusive genre fans between the ages of 18 and 35 — who can be the hardest to reach but also the most likely to show up on opening night.

Moreover, the Web sites can fan flames. Net-savvy marketing execs note that the mainstream media often picks up on the chatter: When you hear someone talking about the buzz on the new “Star Wars,” the latest gossip on TheForce.net may be the source.

It’s part of a general maturing of Internet marketing, which had a quick rise during the dot-com boom and fall in the subsequent bust.

But there’s good reason to be wary of treating Web sites like professional outlets.

After all, a few hundred people on a message board or even the few hundred thousand who visit these sites each month will hardly register a blip when it comes to the number of people that a big-budget actioner needs to make a profit.

Message boards can be full of scurrilous gossip and mean-spirited attacks; Ain’t It Cool is known for printing leaked news about screenings of rough cuts or early drafts of screenplays (although a few studio execs have been caught planting fake news and positive reviews to promote their own movies).

Such monitoring can be quickly blown out of proportion, though, and studio Net experts all have stories about frantic phone calls from execs who just read a negative posting on a Yahoo or MSN message board.

“We do deep studies of those boards because they’re another metric and an important tool,” says WB senior VP of interactive marketing Don Buckley.

“You don’t want to draw too much out of a small group of people talking, but if you look cumulatively across sites, it can start to mean something.”

Studios are starting to realize that by feeding these Web sites, they can start a buzz that quickly multiplies in the industry and the public.

“Just about every studio, every media outlet, every office has a few people who are dedicated to online information,” says Revolution Studios head of marketing and distribution Terry Curtin. “They carry a message far.”

Revolution has felt that impact.

The company’s “Gigli” was the subject of horrific online buzz that helped turn a poorly received movie into a national joke. Its “Hellboy,” meanwhile, turned in a surprisingly strong $23.2 million bow thanks in part to enthusiastic online fans who spread the word that the pic, though based on an obscure comicbook, had mainstream appeal.

Helping fuel that buzz was helmer Guillermo Del Toro, whom Web site editors praise as having aggressively courted their interest.

Revolution took a largely hands-off approach to the management of fan site publicity, letting Del Toro converse directly with the sites and provide exclusive images and info. Site editors say that friendly filmmakers like Del Toro, Bryan Singer and Kevin Smith are some of their biggest advocates.

Enthusiasm for dealing with online fans varies greatly among studios.

Fan site editors praise Sony, New Line and WB as being the most receptive, while DreamWorks and Universal are said to be the least helpful.

DreamWorks’ position stands out, since it is a part owner of one of the top fan sites, CountingDown.com, the last remaining part of the studio’s ill-fated Pop.com Internet venture with Imagine and Vulcan Ventures.

After an initial burst of enthusiasm, the company has let Counting Down largely wither away, attempting to sell it and now operating it with just one full-time employee.

“I often had better access to content and news from other studios than DreamWorks,” notes CountingDown co-founder Philip Nakov, who was recently laid off.

Chud.com creator Nick Nunziata adds, “The relationship of sites like ours with studios is still evolving and we’re still largely treated with just a modicum of respect.

“But we’re still evolving too. We all get taken by fake news sometimes and some sites print stuff without much filter in the hope of getting that big scoop.”

Most fan site editors think that while studios could benefit from professionalizing their dealings with them, swinging too far in the other direction (as happened during the dot-com boom) poses its own dangers.

Despite the hype that surrounded “The Blair Witch Project,” they note, there’s still no evidence the Internet is ready to make or break a film.

“What we did online was unique and powerful for an independent film, but the press just took that angle and ran with it,” recalls “Blair Witch” co-director Daniel Myrick.

“The Web helped us get crucial early buzz, but its importance definitely got overblown.”

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