Marketers explore new online tactics

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The staples of movie marketing -- poster and trailer design -- have been around for a hundred years and have been distilled over time to something of a science. By contrast, online marketing of films is more akin to the Wild West. Over the past seven or so years, the small group of thought leaders in the field -- such as Sony's Dwight Caines, New Line's Gordon Paddison and Paramount's Amy Powell -- have been free to try just about anything, and their mandate is pretty much to break new ground with each campaign.

Experimentation is rampant, but the official movie Web site is a perennial favorite and often the most costly component of an online campaign. Official sites can set a studio back hundreds of thousands of dollars for sci-fi and fantasy movies whose fans expect an elaborate destination, while even cost-conscious indies might pay $10,000 or so for a basic site with a few nifty frills. At the extreme low end -- and don't laugh, because it has proven effective -- films and TV shows are setting up MySpace home pages to engender a peer-to-peer approach.

Indeed, the strategy of the moment seems to be seeding movie content across multiple Web sites, thus increasing the likelihood that consumers will find the material and interact with it. That can take the form of anything from establishing blogs to hosting content created by the fans themselves -- or at least designed to look like it is.

"The Internet gives us a fantastic opportunity to (have) consumers educate themselves about a film, instead of us 'marketing' to them," Buena Vista Pictures president of domestic marketing Jim Gallagher says. "There are endless pipes into the online world." BV tapped into a few of them for its Disney/Pixar release "Ratatouille."

The company mounted a network TV ad campaign May 1 that included a pricey 90-second commercial spot aired during Fox's "American Idol" directing viewers to a nine-minute clip appearing exclusively on Disney.com in what Gallagher says was a movie first for cross-media promotion using broadcast to push Web traffic. It generated more than 1 million views in two days. The company also had 14 single-topic video podcasts available for download via iTunes and other platforms, each targeting a different audience segment.

"Consumers are very savvy in self-selecting the content that they desire, and so they will more actively engage with that content," Gallagher says.

"It's about creating impact, and each movie requires a custom solution," adds 20th Century Fox executive vp marketing Kevin Campbell. "The movie is the thing that determines how you modulate the campaign, the technologies you use and destinations."

For its "Live Free or Die Hard" site, Campbell's division came up with a rich media experience that includes original videogames (for computers and mobile devices), downloads and even MySpace tools that allow consumers to add content related to the film onto their personal pages. "We're not just communicating our marketing message, but we're giving consumers real value" by associating with the new Web tools, Campbell notes.

Timing is another flexible aspect of Web marketing. Campaigns can go up early and tend to linger through to the DVD release, and sometimes beyond.

An "official" Web site for the Aug. 5 release "Hot Rod" hadn't yet debuted on May 5, when Paramount launched stuntmanforever.com, an amateurish-looking effort purportedly "homemade" by the adoring younger step-brother of the film's main character Rod Kimble (played by Andy Samberg of NBC's "Saturday Night Live"). Interestingly, the site does not specifically reference the film.

"Consumers are smart enough to make that association themselves," says Amy Powell, who is senior vp interactive marketing at Paramount. "What we're doing is letting people become involved with the character. With this type of Web site, we're creating entirely different worlds and letting people get engaged in those worlds as a virtual extension." To drive traffic, YouTube is hosting stuntmanforever.com and Paramount launched a viral campaign directing consumers to the Web site that includes a 40-second video on Yahoo Movies.

To introduce the Dec. 7 release of fantasy epic "The Golden Compass," New Line Cinema launched a Web site in April to familiarize audiences with the creatures that inhabit the parallel world of the Philip Pullman novels on which the film is based. According to the movie's mythology, people's souls dwell outside their bodies in the form of friendly, animal-like "daemons," and the Web site allows visitors to take a simple test to discover which daemons best represent their personalities. The Web site will add content in the weeks ahead, eventually giving users a "flyover" view of the film's fictional world with visual navigation, New Line Cinema executive vp new media marketing Gordon Paddison says.

Among the more innovative campaigns for which Paddison is renowned is the one for "The Number 23," which involved setting up a "confession booth" at night spots where consumers could stream their testimonials online.

Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Marketing Group has had success building Web games that complement promotional efforts. Dwight Caines, the studio's executive vp worldwide digital marketing strategy, says he likes games that highlight specific movie elements because they fuel better word-of-mouth than broader-based movie games. "We want to engage people with themes of the movies so when they talk with friends later they can't help but reference the movie," says Caines. In the online fighting game for "Spider-Man 3," each player experiences themselves in the good-guy Spider-Man role and opponents as the villain.

As more elaborate online marketing components like games gain traction, past practices fall by the wayside. For example, opt-in email campaigns -- which were popular a few years ago -- have experienced a decline in consumer sign-ins. "We used to consistently get 25,000-50,000 opt-ins for just about any film five years ago," Paddison says. "But with spam and technologies for filtering, people get information other ways and so these days sign-ins have dropped maybe 50%." Still, don't completely write off emailing. In what is perhaps a high-water mark, Paddison's email campaign for the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy piled up 800,000 consumer email sign-ups (including those generated by the film's marketing partners).

Despite all the heat on movie marketing via new media, it accounted for just 3.6% of marketing expenditures for major studio releases in 2006, according to the MPAA, though that number has climbed steadily since 2002 when it was a meager 0.9%. "Across all industries, most marketers spend on online/digital media, usually in the 4-6% range," says Christian Anthony, co-CEO of new media agency Special Ops Media. "But consumers devote much more of their time with digital media, as much as five times higher than that percentage. That indicates advertising budgets will tilt more to new media simply to follow the audience."

Hot shops
Anew breed of marketing services agencies specializing in digital media is redefining movie marketing. Their services can include online syndication of movie content, search marketing, executing official Web sites, creating games and contests, conceiving viral campaigns and more. What follows is a list of some of the bigger players in the sector.

Big Spaceship
Principals: Co-founders Dan Federman and Michael Lebowitz
Credits: Created multiplayer games for Sony's "Spider-Man 3" and the studio's 2006 release "Casino Royale." Other credits include the Weinstein Co./Dimension Films' "Grindhouse" (Web site) and 2006's "The Da Vinci Code" (Web site and Google treasure hunt).

Deep Focus
Principal: Founder & CEO Ian Schafer (a former vp new media at Miramax/Dimension Films)
Credits: The company, which won a Webby Award for its work on the Web site for 2006's "Pan's Labyrinth," also created the social networking components for Fox's "Live Free or Die Hard" and "The Simpsons Movie."

Heavenspot
Principals: President/creative director Chevon Hicks, executive producer Seth Silver
Credits: Created the Web site and banner ads for 2006's "Snakes on a Plane" and is building Web sites for New Line's upcoming releases "Shoot 'Em Up" and "Harold & Kumar 2."

Ted. Perez. + Associates
Principals: President Taj Tedrow and executive creative director Eric Perez
Credits: Universal's "Evan Almighty" (Web site) and "Leatherheads" (Web site and games), Miramax's "Eagle vs. Shark" (Web site and online ad creative) and Paramount's "The Spiderwick Chronicles" (Web site and online creative).

ProjectC.net
Principal: Founder John Christiano
Credits: Designed official Web sites for Paramount's "Transformers,"
Universal's "The Bourne Ultimatum," Paramount's "Zodiac" and the 2006 films "Miami Vice" and "Children of Men."

65 Media
Principals: Albin and T. Rief
Credits: Mounting official Web sites for Fox's "The Simpsons Movie," Buena Vista's "Ratatouille" and Paramount's "The Kite Runner." Credits from 2006 include "Cars" (games and online), "Eragon" (community and contest) and "You, Me and Dupree" (banner ads and interactive).

Special Ops Media
Principals: Co-CEOs Christian Anthony and Jason Klein
Credits: Fox's "The Simpsons Movie" (online publicity/promotion) and Rogue Pictures' "Hot Fuzz" (media placement, fan community and publicity/promotions). Other credits include Universal's "Knocked Up" (online publicity/promotions) and the 2006's "Borat" (online publicity/promotion).

Trailer Park
Principal: Scott Zimbler, senior vp Internet/new media
Credits: Created games in online ads for Buena Vista's "Ratatouille" and "Wild Hogs." Other credits include Warner Bros.' "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" (Web site) and "Nancy Drew" (Web site and banner ads).
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