- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 13, 2006

“The Blair Witch Project” did more than prove a film with no stars and a microscopic budget could become a blockbuster.

It demonstrated the drawing power of the World Wide Web.

Internet sites blurring the line between fiction and reality built a mystique around the 1999 horror hit. Was its tale of three doomed campers true or just an elaborate prank given credence by some anonymous Web postings?

Movie studios have been scrambling to leverage the Web ever since.

Name a current or future film, and you’ll find a Web site dedicated to it. The sites, which once featured just a few press notes and photographs now regularly include trailers, directors’ diaries and interactive features.

But — do they draw people into the theater?

Dan Federman, co-founder of the creative marketing agency Big Spaceship, says “The Passion of the Christ” might not have ruled the box office as mightily as it did without the Web.

The 2004 movie’s Web site included downloadable promotional fliers, among other features, so fans could spread the word about Mel Gibson’s vision.

“The stunning performance of ‘Passion’ had a lot to do with that basic viral marketing technique,” says Mr. Federman, whose Brooklyn-based firm has been creating movie Web sites for such studios as Paramount and Sony since 2000.

Last year’s smash “Wedding Crashers” also optimized the promotional potential of the Web and broke a few rules along the way.

Mr. Federman says marketers are loath to tamper with the movie trailer or the stars’ images in any fashion.

The “Crashers” Web site ignored those maxims, allowing visitors to upload head shots of themselves and substitute them for the heads of the film’s stars, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, in the film’s trailer.

“It blew the industry away,” Mr. Federman says. “It’s a real sea change in terms of the internal studio marketing philosophy.”

That said, marketers often are hard-pressed to quantify exactly how influential a Web site can be.

They do have some clues, though.

For Sony’s “Underworld: Revolution,” exit polls taken during screenings showed half the audience had learned about the film from the Web. That could mean they dropped by the Big Spaceship-produced site www.entertheunderworld.com and downloaded the multiplayer game on the site, or they read about it on a fan Web site or blog posting.

The broadband revolution is allowing the creative forces behind movie Web sites to consider features that many couldn’t access years ago.

Dwight Caines, executive vice president for worldwide digital marketing strategy with Sony Pictures, says his company once built such elaborate Web sites that the average user couldn’t download them quickly enough.

“They pushed the limits of existing technology at the time,” Mr. Caines says.

The trend is shifting away from razzle-dazzle design toward community building in the www.myspace.com mold.

“That’s the power of the Web,” he says, adding that a feature such as a frequently updated director’s blog can keep potential moviegoers coming back for more.

“A blog has become a staple of our marketing approach, but not on every movie,” he says. The format might not click for a period drama, but for a superhero film, it’s ideal.

“For ‘Spider-Man,’ we start blogging probably ten to twelve months before the movie opens, nurturing a very loyal fan base,” he says. “The hope is it will generate conversations among the fans.”

Movie Web sites can boost smaller films, too.

Ryan Werner, vice president of marketing with IFC Films, says his company is working overtime to support the upcoming “Wordplay” documentary online.

The film follows the New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz — which means the Web site will skew differently from the typical movie site.

“Research tells us the audience for the movie is a bit older, but we’re working to create video and interactive features to broaden the audience to a bit younger, make the film seem cool,” says Mr. Werner, who adds that more money is being funneled to movie Web sites than ever before.

One of Mr. Werner’s most recent Web campaigns, for writer-director Miranda July’s “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” capitalized on Miss July’s blog reflections on the movie’s creation.

“That definitely connected with the audience,” he says.

Just because a studio builds a Web site doesn’t mean potential audiences will come.

Nielsen/NetRatings reports that a sampling of sites for movies currently in release — “Inside Man,” “Brick,” “Scary Movie 4” and “Ice Age: The Meltdown” — showed none drew enough visitors to meet the firm’s threshold requirements for measurement.

That cutoff point is roughly 360,000 unique visitors.

The ratings firm also reports that Twentieth Century Fox devoted nearly $4 million to the Web site for “Ice Age,” while Universal Pictures dedicated $665,400 to get the Web site for “Inside Man” running. The figures are calculated by Nielsen’s AdRelevance service. Both movies became big box-office hits.

Mr. Federman foresees movie Web sites eventually steering people to other devices.

“You’re going to see more broadcastlike motion and an even stronger tie-in with off-line movie marketing,” Mr. Federman says. “The Internet will be less of a medium and more a distribution channel … you can watch content on your mobile phone or video IPod.”

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