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IQ News: Analysis - If Studios Build Them

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Will they go? No one knows if movie sites net moviegoers.
Promotional sites for movies are becoming more and more elaborate, but do they actually get people into theaters? Who knows? And at this point, say many producers, who cares?
Jason Yim, president and creative director of interactive entertainment marketing company Media Revolution, Santa Monica, Calif., has worked with most of the giants, including DreamWorks SKG, Universal New Media and Paramount Pictures. "When we started," Yim recalls, "Hollywood was trying to just jump in--but no one knew how to gauge how successful a Web site would be, so they were just throwing money at it." Today, little has changed; studios are still unsure about what their Web dollars buy them.
Media Revolution tries to tell them, however, incorporating tracking and site analysis applications into sites they build. Says CEO Mark Levy, "It's difficult to quantify and it has been from the beginning. We've found that people stay on our sites longer--they were staying 13 to 15 minutes on Prince of Egypt."
But here's the punchline: "I can't tell you whether that experience helped the movie or not."
In fact, none of the studios interviewed by IQ for this story even tries to measure the efficacy of their Web sites. "I wish I had a definitive answer, but I don't," says Brett Dicker, senior vice president, promotions, for Burbank, Calif.-based Buena Vista Pictures Marketing, whose sites for big animated Disney features draw over 1 million hits a day. But that hasn't stopped Dicker from espousing the benefits of online marketing.
"The one that showed me how valuable the Web is was Toy Story," he says. "We did a great Web site, entertaining and fun. We added an e-mail section and I said, 'Just hook this up to my personal e-mail so I can come in in the morning and read them.' I came in the first morning and it was smoking--I'd gotten thousands of e-mails."
Though ticket sales would seem to be the best measurement of how well a site works, Columbia TriStar and Buena Vista are the only studios interviewed for this story that sell tickets on the sites. "Our number one goal is to drive people to the theater to see the movie," says Ira Rubenstein, vice president, marketing for Columbia TriStar Interactive (CTI). "To achieve this, from any page on our site, you can click on the button, enter your zip code, find the show time and actually buy the ticket." CTI also sends e-mail announcements the day before a film opens with a link for show time information.
For small independent films without a lavish promo budget, a Web site can spread buzz and alert fans to sometimes sporadic screenings. Paradise Lost, for example, a 1996 documentary about three Goth teenagers in Arkansas convicted of murder, was produced for HBO, which gave it a single showing.
Then, directors Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger of New York-based Creative Thinking, handled the theatrical release. "When you distribute a film yourself, you use any means to get people out there," Sinofsky says. "The Web site was critical I think it probably increased our attendance anywhere from 15 to 20 percent."
But it may be the medium, not the message, that matters when it comes to movie-themed Web sites. According to a study by Marion, Iowa entertainment and media research company Frank N. Magid Associates, whiz-bang sites may not pay their way. In a survey comparing Internet users with non-users, word of mouth was by far the most important source of movie information for both online and offline moviegoers; only 9 percent of online users said the Internet and online sites were very important. Of those who did go online to decide what movie to see, the top four destinations were Yahoo!, America Online, Excite and E! Online.
"The studios are grappling with what's the best technology for tracking whether Web sites are effective," says Magid Assoc. director of research Mike Vorhaus. He points out that studios do plenty of the old-fashioned kind of tracking--calling people on the telephone or buttonholing them on the way out of the theater. "Some of the studios report that [the Web] can help a movie to open strongly."
Part of the problem is that while it's easy to track what people do while they're on the Web, it's no easier to correlate a Web ad with dirt world behavior than it is a TV ad. "Nielsen can tell you how many homes were tuned in," says Don Buckley, senior vice president of theatrical marketing and new media for Warner Bros., Burbank, Calif., "but they can't tell you, nor can I, how many left the room when the spot came on." Buckley says he relies on "available evidence--page views, responses to research, and the huge volumes of e-mail we generate when we present the opportunity."
Success is not measured by movie seats alone. Sometimes a site takes on a life of its own. The Paradise Lost site begat many parallel sites and social action groups, formed by people spurred by the film's premise that the teens were railroaded. "Even today," Sinofsky says, "they get thousands of hits every day wanting to know when the new film is coming out and what's happening with these three young men." Those hits should translate into eyeballs when the follow-up, Paradise Lost: Revelations, airs on HBO this fall.
New York-based Palm Pictures, founded last year by veterans of the defunct Island Pictures, produces edgy, lower-budget films with mainstream potential. Its first feature release, Black and White, about rich white kids dabbling in hip hop culture, is scheduled for release this September. Palm's Web sites strive to be more than promotional.
The Black and White site includes commentary on a journalist's claims that she was plagiarized and a discussion of improvisation. Hoonan Majd (the company eschews titles) explains, "We want students of film and future generations to be able to look at the Web site and be able to understand our process." He also hopes it will encourage unknown screenwriters to submit their ideas.
Even if it's not a perfect process, movie makers are ahead of the curve when it comes to integrating off- and online advertising, a recent revelation for Web-based businesses. For Message in a Bottle, Warner Bros. uses all the e-tricks. Fans can turn the eponymous message into an Internet chain letter. On the site, they can listen to cuts from the soundtrack, or download the first chapter of the book--both Warner Bros. properties--and then buy either.
Maybe this kind of Web promotion will be able to generate some of those elusive numbers.