Hollywood Goes Digital To Promote Summer Fare

As the all-important summer blockbuster season nears its peak, movie studios are aggressively distributing trailers and other film material across a raft of digital channels that didn’t exist even a year ago.

Some of these studios are enjoying massive exposure by placing marketing materials on smaller, cutting-edge sites that emphasize on-demand and user-generated content, as well as video sharing. While still promoting their films through standard ad buys on big-reach portals like Yahoo!, MSN and AOL, many studios are seeding their content on smaller venues and banking on their fans to form their own distribution channels.

Video-sharing sites have emerged as powerful enablers of fan-powered distribution. Movie studios now regularly upload their trailers on YouTube, Google Video, iFilm and others. Doing so can lead to big payoffs. Thanks to being highlighted on YouTube’s front page, Dimension Films’ Scary Movie 4 trailer is among the site’s 50 most-watched clips of all time, played 2.5 million times. It was so successful that Dimension agency Deep Focus chose to premiere The Weinstein Co.’s Clerks II trailer on the site in April to build momentum for its July release among director Kevin Smith’s die-hard fans.

A unique feature of video-sharing sites is the embeddable player that lets users copy a snippet of computer code to put videos on their blogs or MySpace profiles. “That’s an endorsement, which is the ultimate form of word-of-mouth advertising,” said Ian Schafer, CEO of Deep Focus, an independent agency in Brooklyn.

Such viral distribution increasingly represents the Holy Grail for movie marketers. Universal Pictures created a MySpace profile for The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, which is set for release Friday. The studio has loaded trailers on the page, inviting users to put them on their blogs through the MySpace video player, which, like those from YouTube and Google, offers an easy way to post video to sites. Launched May 30, the Tokyo Drift profile added 10,000 “friends” in a week, and a number of MySpace users have added the trailer to their profile pages. “You want to offer the content in a way that makes sense for them,” said Doug Neil, svp of digital marketing at Universal, of the movie’s young target audience.

The ability to tap into fan fervor is especially important to established franchises. Take Superman Returns. The big-budget summer release from Warner Bros. is using an array of new channels to build buzz among hard-core fans before the movie’s June 28 release. In addition to being seeded across video-sharing sites, the movie’s trailer was distributed through Microsoft’s Xbox 360 game console as an option for gamers in the “trailers” section usually reserved for game previews.

Going beyond standard trailers, Warner Bros.’ marketing department recorded 27 video journals with director Bryan Singer during the movie’s shoot that are being distributed through Verizon’s V Cast service, the Sony PlayStation Portable and Apple’s iTunes Music Store. “Bryan’s Journals” has been downloaded 59 million times from iTunes since December, according to Don Buckley, svp of interactive marketing at Warner Bros. “I had those responsible check the numbers because I didn’t believe it,” he said.

The next step is involving moviegoers not just in distribution but also in the creative process, say studio marketing execs. Tokyo Drift did this through a promotion on social network Live Digital for fans to show off their cars. Universal partnered with Google Video to solicit user tales of relationships meeting bad ends as part of a promotion for The Break-Up.

One drawback is the vast amount of coding needed for different video platforms, Buckley said, and the added problem of compiling metrics for each channel. But that’s eased by another characteristic of new digital venues: They’re free or typically low-cost, so much so that they’ve had little impact on other media spends.

“I don’t think the analog to the TV spot has been created for the Internet yet,” he said. “Maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe the analog isn’t one thing, but many things.”