At first glance, the marketing campaign for the upcoming film adaptation of JRR Tolkein's fantasy classic Lord of the Rings looks like it's already kicked into high gear. The official New Line Cinema web site (www.lordoftherings.net), which has been up since May 1999, is averaging close to a million unique visitors a day. In addition, nearly 30 million people have already downloaded the trailer for the movie - including 1.7 million in the first 24 hours, smashing the record previously held by Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.
Content from the three Lord of the Rings films, which are currently in production in New Zealand, is being syndicated to major entertainment portals such as E! Online (www.eonline.com), as well as 35 official fan webzines and 300 more content sites. And some 80,000 enthusiasts have already gone so far as to download a 'software skin' that turns their browser into an interface from Middle Earth, the setting for the mythical adventure.
But before you begin lining up at your local multiplex, one quick note - New Line won't release the first film in the series, The Fellowship of the Ring, until Christmas 2001. The second and third films in the series - The Two Towers and The Return of the King - will be released in 2002 and 2003.
Following the theatrical release, New Line will continue its online promotions through the films' release on home video, pay-per-view, and, no doubt, various box sets. We will see a lot of the films. 'I envision this to be a 10-year window,' says Gordon Paddison, New Line's senior vice-president for worldwide interactive marketing and business development.
Welcome to online marketing, Hollywood style, where it's never too early to begin building a buzz about a movie, where no promotion is too outrageous for at least one studio to take a serious look at - and where there's no rest until the last DVD or video cassette has been plucked from the discount bin at the local retailer.
Led by a new breed of marketer, of which Paddison is one example, and Universal Film's Kevin Campbell is another, Hollywood's film studios are quickly reinventing not only the way movies are marketed, but also the basic relationship filmgoers have with screen idols and directors. 'We want to reach the enthused fan at whatever age and have them become our people on the street,' says Pattison. 'Those are the people who will tell their friends, who will stand there and say: 'Oh my God, this is going to be the coolest'.'
As with many other industries, the internet changed the game for Hollywood.
For starters, movie studios are now competing to be the first to use the latest online marketing tools. 'You've got these companies that are aggressively learning on the fly,' says Joshua Rahn, director of strategic partnerships for New York-based Indimi, one of a host of companies that provide the software for many of these interactive movie campaigns. 'The entertainment field in general, and the movie industry in particular, has almost an early adopter mentality.'
No one expects the internet to replace all, or even part, of the television, radio and print advertising blitz that accompanies a film's release. But the proliferation of movie-based web sites shows that Hollywood has grasped the internet's potential to build not just word of mouth, but also a living, breathing community centred around its films and stars.
Web-based promotions have been around since 1994 with films such as Stargate and Mortal Kombat. But they have built up a head of steam over the past few years, especially since the release of Artisan Entertainment's The Blair Witch Project. That movie's online content and the 'is it truth or fiction' pseudo-mystery that surrounded the web site prior to the film's launch turned the shoestring production into one of the most surprising hits of the last decade.
Since then, no studio has quite been able to match the online marketing success of Blair Witch. There have even been some well publicised failures, such as Lions Gate Films' American Psycho, which fizzled at the box office despite a viral campaign centred around receiving emails from a serial killer. There are even some doubts that Artisan itself can recapture the magic with Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. But that hasn't prevented every other studio from wanting a campaign just like that for Blair Witch - only different.
Hollywood comes to the internet with several in-built advantages, the most important of which is the knowledge of how to create content that appeals to a mass market. Sites such as the Digital Entertainment Network (www.den.net) and Stephen Spielberg-backed Pop.com struggled with business models based around the delivery of short film entertainment - DEN ran out of money in May and Pop.com blew up in September, before it had even launched. But millions of people flock to studio sites to download the latest trailer for an upcoming movie. 'With online movie campaigns, most consumers actively seek out what is marketing by nature, but which feels like content to them,' says Stacey Herron, an analyst for Jupiter Communications.
Most consumers have an appetite for what Hollywood is selling, which means they will be receptive to its ads as well as its content - whether the format is text, rich media, interstitials, downloads or email. Jim Wuthrich, vice-president of internet marketing for Warner Home Video notes that even the much-maligned banner ad can be an effective tool for marketing a film, since the studio doesn't necessarily need consumer clickthrough to deliver a more detailed message. 'Our challenge is just to get the word out that a particular movie is now available on DVD and VHS,' he says. 'Most people are familiar with the film, so we don't have to educate them about it.'
Lord of the Rings notwithstanding, movie sites tend to be put up anywhere between three months to a year before the movie's release. 'You want to have your site up when the first trailers are being shown in theatres,' says Paddison. About two to four months out, most studios begin to augment that content with online promotions, the bulk of which are viral in nature.
For New Line's Lost Souls, a horror thriller starring Winona Ryder, Paddison set up a viral campaign where you can send a friend a message which puts a countdown clock on their desktop and gives them 24 hours before the computer is possessed by the devil. A second promotion, centred on the seven deadly sins, gives the winner a trip to 'Sin City,' (Las Vegas) and dollars 666 (about pounds 459 - not quite so evocative) in spending money.
'These promotions run every two to four weeks,' Paddison explains. 'And then for the two-week window leading up to the film we'll do a lot of interstitials, rich media and plain old banners on a lot of sites.'
By and large, online movie marketing is extremely cost-effective. While most executives were coy when asked how much they spend on a typical online movie campaign, Jupiter's Herron estimates that it is usually less than 10 per cent of the overall marketing budget. 'We're cheaper than dirt,' jokes Paddison. 'The studios are traditionally very hesitant to put any sort of budget against something that doesn't have a tangible return on investment.'
Since most of the content that appears on a site is re-worked from the film itself or from other marketing material, the only costs are promotions, online ads and site maintenance. Paddison says that with the right film-related merchandise such as T-shirts and posters for sale on a site, online movie campaigns may end up as zero-cost efforts - and even turn a modest profit.
And it's not just the money men who are smiling. The internet's potential as a powerful marketing tool is not lost on the directors and stars. Andrew Robbins, head of new media for Miramax films, says directors such as Wes Craven, whose new film Wes Craven Presents: Dracula 2000 opens in the US this Christmas, now shoot additional video footage exclusively for the web site. And actor Mark Wahlberg recently chatted with fans during an online event for the movie Three Kings.
Paddison says actor Mike Myers was instrumental in getting Virgin Airlines as the key on- and offline promotional partner for the Austin Powers films because he thought Richard Branson and the Virgin brand had just the right qualities to exemplify the international man of mystery.
Of course the participation of talent online does add another layer to the already complex negotiations between the film studios and the agents that represent the directors and stars. 'It's a nightmare because issues of control and ownership are beginning to come up,' grumbles one movie executive. 'A star such as Tom Cruise, for example, has control over every single image for every medium all the time.'
One way around the egos of the stars is to use animation to promote the movie and its characters. Not only are these characters owned by the studios, they have the added advantage of being inherently viral in that consumers collect them on their desktop and pass them along to friends.
New York based Indimi has provided ScreenMate characters to promote films such as Stuart Little, as well as the video release of Pokemon: The Movie.
For Universal's comedy hit, Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, more than 1.2 million people downloaded the character and 23 per cent passed it onto friends.
Indimi chief executive Mark Wachen says ScreenMates not only provide entertainment value in their own right, but the messages built into them can be changed as the film's marketing evolves. 'One of the key benefits we give the studios is to always provide a gateway back to the movie's promotional site,' he says. 'For Nutty Professor II, when you right-click on the ScreenMate you can be linked not only to the studio's web site, but also the Moviefone site to order tickets.'
This type of marketing gimmick isn't limited to blockbusters. For instance, the site for Paramount Classics' art house film The Virgin Suicides lets fans create their own film-branded stationery.
One thing participants from all sides of the process warn against is trying to standardise the online marketing process. 'Each film takes a different treatment and what works on one is not necessarily going to work on another,' says Douglas Textor, chief executive of Canned Interactive, which has created promotional material for sci-fi blockbuster The Matrix and Dreamworks' Depression-era golfing drama The Legend of Bagger Vance, directed by Robert Redford.
Despite his online successes, including the Austin Powers movies and Jennifer Lopez sci-fi thriller The Cell, which the New York Times called the summer's best movie web site, Paddison says he still fights for the little things, such as the type size of the web address on the movie poster.
'The art department will tell me, 'This isn't a movie about a web site',' he says. 'But my argument to that is, what other type of marketing is there where a consumer can decide to interact with your content on their time?'
But Paddison is also realistic about the current potential for online marketing, saying he laughs when people predict internet campaigns will quickly replace traditional print and television promotions. Part of this is the fact that, in the movie business, timing is everything. While an internet marketing campaign may eventually reach 30 million people, an ad on a TV show such as Friends or ER is almost guaranteed to reach 30 million people the night before your film opens. 'The last thing I ever want to do is be on the line for opening a movie,' says Paddison, adding it often takes the launch of an offline campaign to trigger a surge in traffic to a movie's web site.
'You have to remember that the internet has a skewed demographic,' he adds. 'If you're going to put a web site on the internet, you're going to get a certain type of person who will come to it.' For example, online campaigns for horror, science fiction and action films tend to generate more traffic than, say, romantic dramas, because the younger audience that flocks to those genres is more likely to have the leisure time, the interest, and the technical know-how to log on and look for content.
Miramax's Robbins also argues that it is important for movie marketers not to focus solely on driving traffic to a film's official site. 'We want to create overall awareness across the web, so we'll give content to entertainment sites to reach as broad an audience as possible,' he says.
Kevin Campbell, Universal's vice-president of new media marketing, echoes that theme, saying it's naive to think an online campaign can consist solely of a web site. 'There are online advertising, promotions and deals with third-party content sites,' he says. 'It's a lot more than just a web site.' For the upcoming release of Universal's Jim Carrey vehicle The Grinch, Campbell is using a number of tools to build enthusiasm online, including online sales of film props, sweepstakes, downloads of the film trailer and the efforts of promotional partners such as AOL.
The good news for the studios is that, given their access to behind-the-scenes content and information, portals and other entertainment sites often clamour to be allowed to join marketing campaigns. Syndication of official film-related material is becoming an increasingly powerful tool in building that highly sought-after buzz. With Lord of the Rings, New Line has a deal with E! Online to provide a monthly feature from New Zealand on the shoot as it progresses. Since the E! Online demographic is 70 per cent female, it provides an opportunity to reach an audience different from the typical Tolkein fan.
It seems as though the studios have found the right formula for integrating content and marketing. But film executives say that they are just like any other business, still scrambling to figure out what works and what doesn't.
'It's still seat of the pants,' Paddison says. 'But the sad thing about that is that it makes us sound like we don't know what we're doing. And I know exactly what we're doing. I couldn't hire a consultant to do it for us, because I don't know anybody who's doing it better than we are.'
THE PERFECT STORM
If the web has done anything for Hollywood, it's been to bring the home video and theatrical divisions of various studios closer together.
'Warner, like other studios, is very divisional,' says Jim Wuthrich, Warner Home Video's online marketing vice-president. 'Everybody is responsible for their own piece of the pie. And because of that, everyone is pretty competitive. The internet has broken down some of those barriers. It's all starting to meld together.' For summer blockbuster The Perfect Storm, Wuthrich and the home video division were involved in online marketing from the outset, months before the action film reached cinemas.
As soon as the film's web site, www.theperfectstorm.net, went up, Wuthrich installed a link enabling consumers to sign up to be notified when the movie became available on DVD and VHS cassette.
Web marketing for the film focused primarily on the movie's strongest feature - its special effects. Six weeks before the film's release, the site began to run a regular feature explaining how some of the effects were created.
By the time Warner Home Video began revamping the site for the video release, all the material it needed was already there. 'We usually don't change the content too much,' Wuthrich says. 'From our research, we've found that most of the people that buy the DVD or video have seen the movie. Often it's simply a matter of adding a small notice of when the movie will reach stores, along with a link to the Warner Brothers Studios e-commerce site.'
But marketing for home video can be a double-edged sword. While The Perfect Storm was well known to most filmgoers by the summer's end, Wuthrich faced a challenge to re-enthuse people about the film months after it left cinemas.
As he has done with video versions of other films, including Pokemon: The Movie and The Matrix, Wuthrich put together a title-specific online promotion to build awareness for the retail debut.
The viral campaign used a Java application from RadicalMail, which lets internet users watch streaming video on their PC without the need for an installed player.
To help ensure a strong viral chain of transmission, Warner pledged a donation to a relevant charity, such as the Coast Guard or American Red Cross, each time a consumer sent the email on to a friend.
'We feel this combines the best of both worlds,' Wuthrich says. 'We've got content that's compelling, and we want to make a statement that we support the types of rescue missions that are featured in the film.' While the company was silent on future promotions, Warner Home Video continually pushes to keep fans involved in films long after the home video release. One innovative tool is online movie screenings, where consumers can sit at their DVD-Rom-equipped PC and be guided through films such as The Matrix or Three Kings as they chat online with the people behind the production.
'We feel this is a whole new opportunity to take filmed entertainment beyond being a passive experience, into one where people from around the world can form a community and get closer to the makers of movies,' says Wuthrich.
Talk about a match made in demographic heaven (or, in this case, 'hell'): heavy metal music, red-hot film star Adam Sandler and the internet all have great appeal for exactly the same 13- to 28-year-old male audience.
New Line Cinema is taking advantage of this synergy for the online campaign behind the US release of Little Nicky. The film stars Sandler as the not-quite-evil-enough, heavy metal-loving, youngest son of the devil, played by Harvey Keitel. Sandler ends up travelling to New York to foil his brothers, who want to turn the city into hell on earth.
The comedy is expected to be a hit, especially given the success of Sandler's recent films such as The Waterboy and Big Daddy. While it is being backed by a traditional marketing push, New Line senior vice-president Gordon Paddison says he wanted a 'fun, ridiculous' online campaign, that plays off the irreverent humour of the film.
Thus the official Little Nicky web site (www.littlenicky.com) features 'Radio Hell': 24-hour streaming audio broadcasts of hell- and death-themed songs such as Van Halen's Running With the Devil and Blue Oyster Cult's Don't Fear the Reaper.
The site also includes a viral email campaign called 'Send a Friend to Hell', as well as 'Weather in Hell' - a meteorological parody featuring daily temperatures ('flesh melting hot') and sulphur, fire and ash counts.
And because the Satan character continually loses body parts during the movie, Paddison set up a 'reverse hangman' game, in which the goal is to take off as many limbs as possible.
But given the enthusiasm of Sandler's fan base, Paddison also wanted audience input into Little Nicky. He set up a promotion involving popular online music technology MP3.
Through a deal with online music site garageband.com, musicians were invited to submit MP3s of either an original or classic rock song.
The contest, which ended in September, was backed by ads on AOL, as well as targeted sites such as Snowball.com. The winning song, Worm, chosen by Little Nicky director Steve Brill as well as from votes on garageband.com, appears in the film.
The second stage of the competition will see fledgling filmmakers compete to make the best video for the song. 'We will then either put the video on the DVD release, or on the web site,' says Paddison.
TIPS OF THE TRADE: 10 TOOLS TO ENHANCE MOVIE MARKETING
1. Software skins Software available for download from the official film site can effectively turn the consumer's PC into a billboard. One example is the 'Middle Earth Browser' for Lord of the Rings.
2. Downloadable characters Downloadable animated characters such as Granny Klump developed by Indimi for Nutty Professor 2 (see below) not only provide entertainment value, but can be passed along in a viral marketing campaign.
3. Trailers Perhaps the perfect short-form marketing vehicle, movie trailers can be downloaded and viewed over and over again as consumers whet their appetite for an upcoming release.
4. Online sweepstakes Run separately from traditional marketing campaigns, online sweepstakes can drive traffic to the film's web sites, as well as those of promotional partners.
5. Consumer forums Feedback from visitors to movie sites not only assist in tweaking your marketing message, but they also help consumers feel they have an emotional stake in the film's success or failure. Fans of the X-Men franchise debated hard in the months before the film's summer release, but the arguments helped get more people interested in seeing the movie.
6. Streaming audio New Line Cinema's web site for satanic comedy Little Nicky features 24-hour broadcasts of hell- and devil-themed heavy metal songs such as Van Halen's Running With the Devil, acting as a humorous and continuous reminder in the run-up to its release.
7. Content syndication Exploiting public fascination with movies and movie stars, studios can syndicate their content to a wide variety of entertainment sites and portals, shifting their strategy away from driving traffic to a particular site to creating awareness of a film product through the internet.
8.Online auctions/e-commerce By selling props and other merchandise, movie sites can provide more than just content, and at the same time offer studios a potential revenue stream to mitigate the costs of online campaigns.
9.Online/DVD events Companies such as Canned Interactive and Interactual have been helping studios such as Warner Brothers create online film events, where consumers with DVD-Rom equipped PCs can log on and be guided through the movie as the director and stars answer questions about production and characters.
10.Interstitials/rich media By providing much more than just a plain 'vanilla' web site, studios can present their content in the best possible light, using images rather than text to generate buzz about an upcoming movie. Much of this rich-media content can also be incorporated into email format and become part of a viral campaign.