Back to Main Page

The Los Angeles Times

Sunday, June 25, 2000

Hollywood Is More Than Just Browsing
Studios buy into Internet marketing, even though it erodes their control. Why? Because they have to.


When Ron Howard had the first screening last month of his Jim Carrey-starring comic fantasy "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas," the director didn't invite a household name like Roger Ebert. He showed the movie to Harry Knowles, a tubby 28-year-old film fan who lives in the back bedroom of his father's house in Austin, Texas, where he operates, a Web site best-known for printing "reviews" of unfinished Hollywood films posted by fans who've attended industry test screenings.
Howard flew Knowles to Los Angeles on May 30, where he saw "Grinch" in the plush executive screening room at Universal Pictures, the day before the studio held a research screening of the film in San Diego. Howard wasn't the only A-list film director to give Knowles a first look at an upcoming film. DreamWorks held an exclusive advance screening of "Gladiator" for Knowles and 200 friends in February. Knowles was the first outsider to see Paul Verhoeven's new thriller, "Hollow Man." Before Michael Bay even began shooting "Pearl Harbor," the director showed Knowles test images of his special effects.
It wasn't so long ago that Hollywood wasn't so wild about Harry--he was branded a menace by studio marketers and filmmakers outraged by his Web site's negative reviews of unfinished films being shown at test screenings. In a memo to studio marketers this March, National Research Group chief Joe Farrell, the czar of Hollywood test screenings, labeled Knowles a "self-righteous monster." But today, Hollywood is eagerly courting--or could it be co-opting?--this Web-based Frankenstein.
In fact, the wooing of Harry Knowles offers a telling example of how the movie business is jettisoning its all-controlling marketing philosophy and scrambling to get up to speed with the everybody-knows-everything-at-once atmosphere of the Internet.
The rules of the Hollywood marketing game are being reinvented overnight. Box office is booming thanks in part to an explosion of media coverage of movies, in traditional outlets like newspapers and magazines as well as a fast-growing body of Internet fan, news and gossip outlets. But the boom in Internet movie coverage has been a double-edged sword for filmmakers and movie marketers, rife with as many pitfalls as possibilities.
"The Internet can be a scary thing because it allows people to get information that's not going through the studio filter," says DreamWorks marketing chief Terry Press. "It's full of uncontrolled gut opinion that can disrupt your marketing message. Any studio can take a dog and make it look funny [in a TV spot]. But if more and more people have access to information that tells them, 'We went to a sneak preview, and it's a dog,' then you've got a real problem."
In other words, it was risky for Howard to show "Grinch" to Knowles; in fact, the director didn't believe there was anything to be gained by having a test screening of the film in any public setting. But Universal, which had invested upward of $100 million in the film, strongly suggested that the director test "Grinch." Howard had his doubts. The film was missing most of its 500-odd eye-popping special-effects shots. In their place were blue-screen backgrounds and shots of crew members on ladders holding up large backdrops.
Howard knew that it might be hard for audiences to fully suspend disbelief without seeing the completed effects. But Howard also knew it was inevitable that one of Knowles' spies would get into the screening and judge the half-finished film on Aint-It-Cool-News. Last year, Howard had a private screening of a rough cut of "EDtv" for 30 select people in New York. A review was on Aint-It-Cool-News the next day. So after consulting with Universal, Howard took a calculated risk: He set up a private screening for Knowles. If Knowles was going to run a review from some kid who sneaked into a screening, why not get it from the horse's mouth?
Actually, Howard had already broken the ice: Knowles had been the only outsider allowed to visit the closed "Grinch" set during filming last year, a decision inspired by Howard's hope that after a friendly visit Knowles would agree not to post unauthorized photos of "Grinch" star Jim Carrey in full prosthetic makeup. "I made a personal plea for him not to spoil things," Howard says.
The plea worked. "I don't like to spoil things either," Knowles says. "So I told Ron I wouldn't have a problem keeping the photos a secret."
When Howard invited Knowles to see the unfinished film, the offer came with a condition: Knowles would agree not to write about it. However, after Knowles saw it and liked it, he persuaded Howard to let him review it. "I told them that if I thought the movie was awful, I wouldn't slam it," Knowles says. "But it was so good that I said, there's no excuse not to write about it--it's really a movie worth getting excited about."
Aint-It-Cool-News claims that it gets 2 million hits a day, including legions of Hollywood insiders like New Line production chief Mike De Luca, who says he visits the site every day. So it didn't take long for "Grinch" to get a hot little buzz going. The day after Knowles' review appeared, Howard says he was on the phone with director Cameron Crowe, who'd already read it and said he was excited about seeing the film.
The episode speaks volumes about how Hollywood is learning to play the Internet game. To some, this willingness to cultivate Knowles is simply the studios' crafty way of tarnishing his credibility by transforming him from an independent outsider into a coddled insider. Harry has already had bit parts in movies like "The Faculty." He has been flown, at studio expense, to the premieres of such films as "The Green Mile," "Armageddon" and "Godzilla." To others, the industry's eagerness to befriend Knowles simply underscores the importance the Internet has gained with Hollywood.
"The studios have always quietly brought Time and Newsweek in to see work prints of films," says Imagine Entertainment President Michael Rosenberg. "Twenty years ago people did the same thing with [former Los Angeles Times film critic] Charles Champlin. But they all agreed that if they didn't like the movie, they'd keep quiet about it. Today the power is with some 14-year-old kid in a mall who happens to see the first screening of 'Nutty Professor II.' And they don't keep quiet about it. Because of the Internet, one kid sitting at his computer can unravel an entire studio marketing campaign."
* * *
It was freezing cold this March in Calgary, where director Michael Winterbottom was making "Kingdom Come," an Old West gold-rush story that stars Wes Bentley, Sara Polley and Milla Jovovich. But you could visit the film set every day via its Web site (, which had the irreverent air of an online newspaper, offering visitors daily crew call sheets, excerpts from unedited rushes, virtual set tours, frank Jovovich diary entries and interviews with everyone from the stars to the guy who groomed the snow.
Built by the filmmakers themselves at a cost of $30,000, the site was a model of the kind of tell-all openness that would have given studio publicists heart palpitations in pre-Internet days. The filmmakers even briefly posted the film's budget ($16 million) on the site until nervous MGM executives begged them to take it down. But the site's cheeky attitude gave the movie an underdog appeal that is what a small film needs to compete with movies with more high-profile stars.
"A lot of people want to preserve the illusion of magic and mystery," says "Kingdom Come" producer Andrew Eaton. "But our feeling is, the more information you get, the more involved in the movie you're likely to be. Had we asked permission to put up the site, I'm sure we'd still be stuck in the business-affairs bureaucracy." (Faced with having to change the film's title, which is owned by 20th Century Fox, the film's Web site invited fans to submit alternative names and now offers a link to the Fox movie site of the rival "Kingdom Come" film.)
The issue of control remains a thorny area of debate for studio marketers, whether it involves cooperating with Knowles or giving fans a warts-and-all glimpse of filmmakers at work. Paramount Pictures threatened "Star Trek" fan sites with legal action when they displayed unauthorized photos and other copyrighted material; Fox did the same with "Simpsons" fan sites. Family-brand-conscious Disney will not link its films to fan sites, citing concerns that fan sites could in turn send Disney loyalists to pornography sites.
* * *
Fox recently banned Knowles from its meet-and-greet-the-stars at ShoWest, the major exhibitor convention held in Las Vegas, after Aint-It-Cool-News ran unauthorized "X Men" photos, jeopardizing a carefully planted exclusive the studio had given to Entertainment Weekly. And Warner Bros. has kept a tight lid on the special effects used in "The Perfect Storm," persuaded that any early access would spoil the film's magic.
However, most movie marketers have come to believe that enticing fans with inside peeks only fuels more fan interest. In December, AOL's Moviefone, along with Phoenix Pictures, invited fans to watch scenes being filmed live on the set of "Urban Legends: Final Cut," hoping to build awareness for the teen film due out this fall. Months before the release of "Sleepy Hollow," the film's Web site was unveiling director Tim Burton's sketches of characters and scenes from the film. When the Motion Picture Assn. of America refused to approve a theatrical trailer for the re-release of "The Exorcist," director William Friedkin sent it to the Aint-It-Cool-News site, where it appeared last week.
Having a great Web site encourages people to come back over and over and follow the process, notes Gerry Rich, MGM's marketing chief. "And hopefully, the more you follow the process, the more likely you'll want to see the finished movie."
By courting fans long before the film started shooting last year, "Lord of the Rings" has been the rage of cyberspace, even though the picture isn't due out until next summer. The film's Web site ( is equipped with a 3-D surround camera that allows fans to click on and move around the set. The film's unit publicist has a mini-disc CD recorder that allows her to transmit live from the set explaining what the filmmakers are shooting that day. The fan-friendly philosophy paid off: This April, when New Line premiered the film's first online promotional trailer, nearly 1.7 million were downloaded in the first 24 hours it was available.
Still, at most studios, the question lingers: How many moviegoers are we reaching? The Net has no equivalent to TV's Nielsen ratings, so studio marketers are forced to rely on an imprecise equation of Net numbers--variously known as hits, impressions, page views and click-throughs--to gauge how many people have responded to online ads and promotions.
"You still can't quantify the value of a Web site," MGM's Rich says. "And there's so much clutter on the Web that it's like driving down Sunset Boulevard, looking at billboards every block. So if I'm a producer, my first question should still be, 'What's going on with my TV ads?' When you buy an ad on 'ER,' you know you're reaching 31 million people. That's pretty hard to beat."
At a cost-conscious studio like Paramount, Internet advertising is limited. "If we spend $100,000 on an ambitious Web site, that's $100,000 we have to take away from a more traditional marketing buy," says Paramount marketing chief Arthur Cohen. "My job is to galvanize the country on a film's opening weekend, so to put money into a fringe entertainment area is crazy.
"As big as the Internet is, it's not as dependable an impact vehicle as something like 'Entertainment Tonight.' "
But what the Net lacks in big numbers, it makes up for in its flexibility in targeting specific audiences. When New Line was promoting "Boiler Room," a film about young stock traders, the studio set up tie-ins with various financial Web sites. Before Universal released its teen thriller "The Skulls," which featured "Dawson's Creek" co-star Joshua Jackson, the studio built awareness by linking up to Jackson's fan site, and other online teen sites.
The Internet also offers filmmakers the opportunity to build a more personal relationship with potential moviegoers. While shooting "Disney's The Kid," Jon Turteltaub posted weekly journal entries on the film's Web site. To announce the start of production of Rob Zombie's "House of 1000 Corpses," the rock-star-turned-film-director sent out e-mail to his fans first before issuing a studio press release.
Internet boosters offer a Zen-like maxim: The only way to achieve control is by ceding control. "The best way for the studios to succeed is to understand that they can't control the Internet--the control will always be with the individual user," says John Hegeman, the architect of Artisan's "Blair Witch" online blitzkrieg who now runs, a sci-fi-oriented entertainment Web site.
"The Internet is a very personal, anti-establishment medium, whether you're talking about Harry Knowles or Matt Drudge or Napster [the Internet site that allows fans to download music]. I'm sure the studios and corporate America will try to co-opt the Internet, in the same way that studios take an indie filmmaker and try to get him to make a big studio picture. But for every site that falls into the clutches of corporate America, someone with a computer will come along and start a new one that's not controllable."
* * *
Sony Pictures marketing chief Bob Levin remembers the old days of Hollywood--meaning two years ago--when movie producers would storm into his office, demanding that the studio buy spots on "Friends," the preferred TV show for mainstream advertising.
"Everything changed after 'The Blair Witch Project,' " Levin says, referring to the low-budget horror thriller that was last summer's surprise blockbuster thanks to an Internet word-of-mouth campaign. "Now the same producers that used to say, 'How do we get ads on NBC Thursday night?' are coming in, saying, 'How do we get a Web site for our film on the Internet?' "
Until recently, movie publicity was an orderly, confidential process run by studio marketing teams, who controlled access to film sets and orchestrated publicity campaigns with carefully scripted movie star profiles, TV appearances and press-junket interviews. Today, fueled by the Internet, movie buzz starts so early--and travels at such a dizzying pace--that the studios are losing much of their long-held command of the marketing machinery.
Over the past year, the music business has been grappling with MP3 and Napster, whose song-sharing technology threatens to undermine the traditional business model of selling copyrighted music. For now, Hollywood's Internet worries are more focused on marketing issues involving the instant availability of information. But these skirmishes are just a prelude; once high-speed broadband connections becomes commonplace across the country, fans could be sharing Adam Sandler movies the way college freshmen download Kid Rock songs. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently decreed that any films that appeared first on the Internet will be ineligible for Oscar consideration, a decision that many feel emphasizes how little the academy understands how movie distribution will be transformed by the Web.
As always, Hollywood has been slow to accept technological change. Before "Blair Witch," most of the studios' young Internet marketing wizards had little clout: With marketing expenses already spiraling out of control, few studios were willing to invest in a medium that had not proved to have an appreciable impact on ticket sales.
That all changed last summer. "Blair Witch" wasn't the only movie energized by the Web. Although New Line Cinema launched "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" last June with traditional TV and print advertising, the film was also buoyed by an Internet onslaught spearheaded by a Web site that was getting more than 1 million page views each day by the week of the film's opening. The night before the film's release, New Line had sold-out screenings in 10 cities that were booked entirely through online ticket sales.
Suddenly, movie Web sites were as hot as Prada toggle shoes. "We've been working the Net since the Earth cooled, but nobody ever paid attention to us until after 'Blair Witch' happened," says New Line Cinema Internet marketing chief Gordon Paddison. "Now suddenly I have a lot more credibility. It's like I'm the It Girl."
Earlier this year, another event set off alarm bells in Hollywood--the planned merger of Time Warner and America Online. The alliance signaled a potentially potent shift in studio marketing strategy. In essence, AOL is an Internet TV station with 22 million loyal viewers, many of whom perfectly fit the demographic of frequent filmgoers. People with a strong interest in cultural activities like movies are known as early adopters. And guess where you find them? On the Internet.
Of course, without the awareness fueled by traditional advertising, Web sites, as Sony's Levin puts it, are "gas stations in the desert--they've got the gas, but how do you find them?" Movie web sites still get the vast majority of their traffic after studios have revved up their old-media ad campaigns. When Universal launched its marketing campaign for "Nutty Professor II: The Klumps" earlier this month, it coordinated old and new media, debuting the movie's new theater trailer, TV spots and Web site on the same weekend.
When a film like "Austin Powers" is a hit, the movie's Web site also becomes a profit center, capable of selling merchandise and building a fan base for video and DVD sales, TV spinoffs and sequels. Studios can track site traffic or click-on response to movie ads, getting an instant gauge of a film's awareness or a marketing campaign's effectiveness.
Most important, the Internet is the ultimate word-of-mouth medium, where fans can download--and pass along--a variety of marketing items, from custom screen savers to movie trailers, that help extend the reach of a film's publicity campaign. To promote the thriller "Frequency" with sci-fi fans, New Line sent out ads to Palm7 users who subscribed to the Web site. By next year, cell phone users, seeing an ad while on the Web, will be able to order tickets directly online through Moviefone.
"We at the studios are still in the Dark Ages about how we do ads and collect data," says Marc Shmuger, head of marketing at Universal Pictures. "We only talk in one direction to the consumer. But on the Internet you have an interactive conversation with your customer, which is how you find out what a customer values and engage in a sustained relationship with your fan base. That's why the AOL-Time Warner merger is so incredibly significant, because AOL is so much more sophisticated than movie studios in how they communicate with their customers."
Even before the merger, New Line, a Time Warner subsidiary, had made an interactive marketing deal with AOL that gave the studio a major presence on the AOL Movies main screen as well as on other AOL entertainment areas. Last year the two companies partnered on a series of promotions involving online auctions of movie memorabilia, movie premiere tickets and fan chat sites. When New Line held an online auction of "Austin Powers" memorabilia, it sold thousands of "Austin Powers" talking cardboard cutouts and tens of thousands of Swedish penis enlargers, a device featured prominently in the film; Felicity Shagwell's Corvette went for $125,000.
"We've been trying to sell memorabilia for years, and all we had to show for it was a warehouse of stuff rotting away," says Paddison. "Doing it online, we created revenue that had never existed before."
While there is still concern that AOL-Time Warner will give preferential treatment to its film companies, other studios have made hefty AOL advertising commitments. Last winter, Universal made a $1-million advertising buy for "End of Days" on AOL, a key part of the studio's strategy to reconnect Arnold Schwarzenegger with younger audiences. The studio recently agreed to a yearlong commitment for advertising and editorial space for its films on various AOL areas.
"It's a strategic choice for us to be on the inside, not on the outside," says Shmuger. "I don't want us to be the guys who said, 'Uh-oh, we missed the boat.' "
* * *
Marketers have learned that the best kind of publicity, known as viral marketing, is done word-of-mouth style, without appearing to originate from a studio source. For "Final Destination," a New Line thriller about cheating death that was a surprise hit earlier this year, Web site visitors could send Death Stalk cards to friends with ghoulish descriptions about exotic ways to die.
"The best way to advertise your product is to have your best friend advertise it by sending it to you," Paddison says. "That way the message doesn't come from New Line, it comes from someone you trust."
Of course, studio marketers sometimes use more nefarious means to get their messages across. Several filmmakers say that studios have posed as fans and planted fake test-screening reviews on Aint-It-Cool-News, touting their own movies or bad-mouthing rival pictures. One studio recently expressed outrage about a fan site displaying bootleg outtakes from a popular film and gained considerable media coverage by denouncing a fan site that, as it turned out, was secretly created by the studio itself.
But Internet enthusiasts say that in an era in which movie marketing has become a shouting match of 30-second TV spots, the Web opens the door for creativity.
"Until now, the success of your campaign was based on the amount of money you spent to get your message out," Hegeman says.
But the Internet levels the playing field. Hegeman says that the "Blair Witch" Web site ran for six months on a budget of $25,000. "On the Internet, any individual can take on any corporation in terms of ingenuity and creativity," he explains, "because what you're saying has more value than what it costs to say it."
* * *
Patrick Goldstein is a Times staff writer. He can be reached at
- - -

Patrick Goldstein Is a Times Staff Writer

Visit the Gallery