A real kick in the asp

How 'Snakes' and other pix corral the wild Web

Operating as a mysterious, almost radioactive element, the Internet’s enormous power of buzz recently turned a low-profile, low-budget New Line action film, “Snakes on a Plane,” into a cult hit months before its August premiere.

Of course, it can work the other way, too, as Fox found out two years ago, when the pre-

release buzz turned sour for the comic adaptation “Elektra.”

Studio marketers are still a long way from having complete understanding and control of the viral process that makes a film hit or miss on the Net. But a number of new services and technological tools have emerged to suggest they’re getting closer to taming the wild, wild, Web.

Take Los Angeles-based viral marketing firm M80, which specializes in marshalling waves of Internet fans to work — for free — to promote films and TV shows through such things as blogs and message boards. The fledgling company boasts as clients Sony Pictures, Miramax Films and cable net Comedy Central, among others. It also has a reported yearly income of $2 million.

Or take Seattle-based ScreenPlay, a firm that brokers and monitors the use of studio film trailers. The firm now deals with every major studio, supplying more than 400 Web sites access to their film trailers. According to company president and CEO Mark Vrieling, the service provides security and convenience to its studio clients, since trailers are accessed off a central server, and the studios no longer have to serve these myriad Web-based constituencies with tapes.

“And since we’re streaming it to users, we can provide the studios with metrics,” Vrieling adds. “We can tell how much a user streamed and when they clicked out.”

Beyond better marketing tools, USA Network and Sci Fi Channel topper Bonnie Hammer conveys what seems to be a better understanding these days among entertainment marketers of how Internet fan buzz develops.

Several years ago, for example, fan chatter took Sci-Fi to task when the channel was developing a miniseries remake of “Battlestar Galactica,” criticizing such things as the decision to cast character Starbuck — played by actor Dirk Benedict in the original ABC series — with actress Katee Sackhoff.

But before the mini launched, creator Ronald Moore reached out to various aggrieved Web-based constituencies, sharing portions of the script; he even made a trip down to San Diego to campaign for the show at the Comic-Con convention.

“That turned the fan base around to the point to where they were at least open-minded about it,” says Hammer, describing initial reaction to a property that went on to become the Sci Fi Channel’s biggest series hit today.

In the case of “Snakes on a Plane,” New Line had changed the Samuel L. Jackson-starrer’s name before realizing that the original moniker was inspiring rampant fan blogging. Fortunately for New Line, the studio makes it a habit to stay closely in touch with the Web buzz for its films, and it was able to respond quickly and change the name back in time to capitalize on the phenomena.

Still, marketing execs hesitate to reduce the methodology involved with harnessing online buzz as merely a science they’re getting a better handle on.

“Internet marketing is still very much an art form with no set formula for success,” says Lionsgate theatrical films prexy Tom Ortenberg. “A lot of it depends on the kind of movie you have, the audience space you’re looking at and the budget you have.”