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.
By PATRICK GOLDSTEIN
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 Aint-It-Cool-News.com, 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."