'Phoenix' soars into Second Life

Virtual avatars credited with boosting film's Imax 3D showing

NEW YORK -- A virtual marketing campaign for "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" engagements in Imax theaters that transformed Second Life avatars into "buzz agents" for the movie is getting credit as the main impetus behind Imax breaking all of its boxoffice records.

In a campaign run by This Second Marketing Llc., a relatively new agency that specializes in brand marketing in Second Life, about two dozen avatars were recruited and paid real-world wages to act as virtual street teams, handing out free virtual promotional items and engaging fellow avatars in discussions about the film at Imax theaters.

Dressed in white futuristic-looking outfits with the Imax logo and a cube with the "Phoenix" Imax 3D poster floating above their heads, the buzz agents gave out virtual 3-D glasses, Imax T-shirts, directors' chairs with the Imax logo and virtual movie tickets. Only the virtual movie tickets had a real-life use, with all 300 available redeemed for Imax "Potter" tickets via a link to Imax's Web site.

According to Imax and This Second Marketing, 15,099 unique avatars engaged in conversation about the Imax "Potter" and accepted promotional items during 840 total hours of street marketing efforts in the week surrounding the Warner Bros.' film's July 11 opening. The campaign logged 25,189 individual Imax brand interactions when including all conversations with Second Life avatars, many of which occurred on more than one occasion.

"As far as everyone can tell, this was the highest one-on-one branded interaction known to date that ever took place on Second Life," said Greg Foster, chairman and president of Imax Filmed Entertainment. "Reaching 15,000 people in exactly the demographic you're shooting over seven days is sort of hitting the marketing bonanza."

Foster said Imax's market research indicated that the Second Life campaign "closed the deal" for many of the moviegoers who went to see "Potter" in Imax theaters.

"A huge proportion of our opening weekend tickets came from advance Internet purchases, and a large number of those people came from interacting on Second Life," he said. "We had more than 15,000 one-on-one unique interactions on Second Life, and we captured over 15,000 avatar names. Those people virtually became walking billboards," he said, referring to the fact that whenever an avatar put on the virtual 3-D glasses, the "Potter" Imax cube appeared, spreading the viral campaign.

"Phoenix" led Imax to its largest worldwide opening at $9.4 million, its biggest first-week total at $11.6 million and its largest second weekend at $3.9 million, the company said. The film reached the $10 million mark faster than any other Imax DMR release. (DMR is the company's digital remastering technology that allows it to digitally transform any conventional motion picture into an Imax film.)

Foster said the campaign helped Imax reach its target 12- to 34-year-old "techie" demographic that is a "a little bit more illusive these days in terms of coming to movies."

According to Joni West, president of This Second Marketing, the Imax campaign was much more effective than those implemented by many other marketers who have just created "islands" in Second Life without any marketing or advertising campaigns to get people to go there.

"Some companies have built islands, and they've expected people just to show up, which is not a realistic expectation in Second Life. For Imax, we decided to go and bring the brand and the story to the people," she said.

Imax also opened an office on This Second's island, where avatars can get free promotional items for future Imax movies. West's company has also run smaller buzz agent campaigns for 1-800-Flowers and Careerbuilder.com in recent weeks.

Many other entertainment companies that have marketed their content in Second Life have also been quite successful. An island created for Showtime's "The L Word" -- which features a virtual coffee shop like the one in the series, a street with mostly women's clothing stores, vacation homes for sale, a nightclub and a screening room where whole episodes of the show are streamed -- has attracted more than 50,000 avatars since it launched in January, according to Electric Sheep Co., the company that created the island for Showtime. The avatars have visited the "L Word" island an average of three to four times a week and stayed an average of 20 minutes per visit.

An assassination game created by Electric Sheep and played throughout Second Life to promote Universal Pictures' "Smokin' Aces" drew 1,200 players, Electric Sheep said. To promote "Live Free or Die Hard," 20th Century Fox orchestrated a Q&A with Bruce Willis and his look-alike avatar in Second Life for media and a select number of fans who won a competition to attend.

"It was very well attended and definitely successful," a Fox spokesman said.

In May, Fox also hosted the first online virtual premiere party for "X-Men: The Last Stand," attracting about 18,000 Second Life residents to its movie-themed Avalon island, where the 19-hour party was held. Because of the party's success and high demand from avatars who couldn't get in, the party was extended to last the whole week, drawing thousands more fans to the virtual event, the studio said.