Studios take film sites seriously
Online writers now a key part of marketing plansTHR's chief film critic on reviewing in the Internet Age
Devin Faraci remembers the bad old days -- way back at the turn of the millennium -- when studio publicists treated his film Web site CHUD like a plot-spoiling scourge or, at best, a home for student journalists.
"Back then, the online guys, no matter what site they were from, were always getting lumped in with the college papers at press events," Faraci says. "There would be a couple of guys who did it full time and then the girls from the Stony Brook Herald or something. Getting one-on-one face time with the talent was the impossible dream."
It takes only a quick glance at CHUD to see the dream is now a reality. The site, like hundreds of other niche-oriented filmgoer sites that have cropped up the past few years, is packed with Faraci's largely fawning accounts of studio-enabled visits to the sets of such movies as "The Hangover," "Land of the Lost" and "Watchmen" and one-on-one interviews with stars and filmmakers including Daniel Craig and Judd Apatow.
The studios, which once regarded the sites and their scribes with a mixture of fear and disdain now incorporate into their publicity campaigns a wide swath of online writers repping demographics and psychographics far beyond the traditional fanboy hubs -- everyone from faith-oriented mothers (MovieMom.com) to senior citizens (ReelGeezers.com).
"It used to be, if you wanted the geeks, you'd go to Ain't It Cool News," says Gordon Paddison, head of indie marketing firm Stradella Road and an online movie marketing pioneer during his 14-year stint at New Line. "Now, there are a lot of subsegmented sites that also may reach women 25-plus. There are mommy sites that may actually be a huge differentiator for 'Up' or 'Ice Age' because that's where the audience might be getting their true information from, as opposed to People magazine."
The reason, studio publicity execs say, is that online writers tend to treat readers like peers. They communicate dude-to-dude, mom-to-mom and interact directly in online forums with a passion that often translates into excitement about a film.
"They're a very trusted source for these people because I think they feel they are much more one of them," says Michael Tritter, senior vp interactive marketing at Warner Bros. "The key is to get them rooting for your film because when you're making evangelists out of these very trusted sources, it can be very effective to work with these guys."
That means a studio publicist who once might have spent his or her time courting film or consumer magazines or well-known Web sites might now troll online looking for early fan chatter about a film project.
"We'll sometimes identify who the leaders or the administrators are and give them special opportunities because they can communicate directly with fans," says Jack Pan, executive vp marketing at Summit Entertainment, which has released online faves "Twilight" and "The Brothers Bloom."
A few years ago, the viability of the Web as a film- marketing vehicle was a big question mark. After an initial surge of hysteria during the late 1990s, the dot-com bubble burst and fan sites went from cautiously courted to calculatedly left out.
"The accessibility and the invites definitely dried up for about two years," says Jeffrey Wells, who left People to write for the Mr. Showbiz site in 1998 and later launched his own site, Hollywood Elsewhere.
A bigger problem has been the lingering perception that writers working for these sites tend not to be trained journalists but rather provocateurs who revel in revealing secret plot points, reviewing unfinished work prints and posting ill-gotten images.
"Ten years ago, online was the Wild West," Faraci says. "You would run a picture no matter where the source got it from, whether it was stolen or whatever."
Today, partly as a result of studios granting access to sites that play by their rules, the most contentious issue is typically embargoes on stories and reviews.
"Some Web sites are one- or two-man shows, and they're like, 'Wow, if I can get my 'Transformers' review up four days early, then I'll get a lot of traffic that the other guys won't," says Scott Weinberg, managing editor of fan site Cinematical. "I can see why he'd want that traffic, but it sets a bad precedent." The bottom line is, he adds, "Either you act like a pro and get treated like a pro, or you act like a child and you're treated like a child."
Some online writers argue that studios don't treat all the kids as equals.
"We'll be under embargo for a review, then four days out every newspaper out there has their review, and we have to wait until 24 hours before the release," says Ryan Turek, managing editor of horror site ShockTillYouDrop.com.
Drew McWeeny of HitFix.com -- famously banned for life from Skywalker Ranch after writing a plot-spoiling script review of "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace" for Ain't It Cool News in 1998 -- says studios have become much more savvy about using online scribes to promote projects via a slow drip of exclusive stills or access to sets.
"There is a sense from a lot of studios that they have beaten the system and now control how the information gets out again," McWeeny says. "They've definitely co-opted the idea of the early peek because if an outlet were to cross the studio too dramatically, it can be cut off from access completely. I think the studios are now well aware of the power of that."
Such access often includes trips to far-flung movie locales on the studio's dime, replete with stays in four-star hotels, per diems and meet-and-greets with stars and filmmakers -- trips that many in the mainstream media never would be allowed to accept.
The cozy relationship has prompted questions about whether some fan sites push studio agendas, but IGN senior editor Jim Vejvoda says trips to the set of "Quantum of Solace" in Austria and Chile did not influence his opinion of the movie.
"Work is work," says Vejvoda, who declined to reveal who paid for those trips. "It's cool to be on the set of any movie, but at a certain point you just want to go home."
But Tritter says that, as a community, online writers are anything but jaded.
"When you've got a good movie and you have one of these writers who loves it, there's no substitute for that," he says.