September 19, 2000
Getting the Word Out
on the Web
Netizens are the dream moviegoer -- endlessly loyal, with enough expendable income to cough up the coin to see a movie several times. Appropriately then, the Internet allows studios to take advantage of this, getting the buzz out on a film months -- even years -- in advance.
That's the marketing strategy behind two films that are taking polar-opposite approaches to get to the movie theater. New Line Cinema's Lord of the Rings trilogy of films has extensive studio support -- and money -- for Internet initiatives, including deals with E! Online and Web browser designer NeoPlanet.
On the other end of the spectrum is the guerrilla marketing behind Dungeons & Dragons, a film that hasn't been scheduled for distribution in the United States but has countless online pages and message boards dedicated to the movie's developments.
More and more, the key words for online film marketing campaigns have become community and evolution. Studios are trying to entice people to a Web site -- and keep them returning by putting up new content regularly.
It's a concept that some studios have grasped more than others.
Twentieth Century Fox recently sent out a cease-and-desist letter to Netizens who had created fan pages for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X Files, and Millennium with images akin to those used on the studio's Web site, alleging infringement of copyright and trademark. There are now Web sites dedicated to the Web sites that have been altered because of Fox's demands.
Fox execs said the letters were sent to egregious sites that altered scripts and used Fox properties as enticements to porn sites or to unauthorized e-commerce locations -- but also to those that tread a little too closely on company turf by using audio, video or design elements from the series. The letter encourages Netizens to alter their pages and to also include a note stressing that the characters on the Web site are the property of Fox.
Compare that to the approach taken by New Line for Rings: After embracing fan sites by sending out countdown alerts in the days before a trailer bowed online, the preview received a record number of downloads in the first 24 hours -- eradicating a mark set by Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
"The goal at the end of the day is to build awareness of the property and to inform fans what is going on in New Zealand about their favorite trilogy of books," says Gordon Paddison, VP of worldwide interactive marketing and development at New Line.
Before the trailer bowed, Paddison contacted almost 35 fan sites, sending out electronic greeting cards that hyped the preview. In addition, he farmed out teaser footage for independent Web masters to post on their sites.
The intense push obviously worked. The popularity of the preview extended beyond the initial day, with it being downloaded 6.6 million times in the first week and 10 million by the end of three weeks.
"We work with fan sites, not against them," said Paddison. "If you let people in, you get results."
New Line teamed with E! Online to bring the developments of the filming beyond the dedicated Hobbitheads. Executive editor Scott Robson said there is always a spike in user traffic during the first few days of the month -- the time when new and exclusive Rings material is put up on the site.
E! Online reporter John Forde has been granted a tremendous amount of access by New Line, having been on the set in New Zealand for months before the filming of the trilogy started. "It's a different kind of content, for people who might not know the difference between Frodo and Sam Gamgee," Robson said.
Features of the E! Online coverage include the primer "30 Things You Need to Know About Lord of the Rings" and interviews with Cate Blanchett, who stars as elf Queen Galadriel.
Paddison admits that there is the potential for information overload: There's a fine line between creating a living, breathing entity on the Web and making the populace sick to death of the film before it comes out. The first film in the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, doesn't open until December 2001, with the other two to open in successive years.
"The last thing you want to do is exploit it and make it seem like you're whoring your brand," he said. "The speed of the Internet is faster than the spin of the studio."
Paddison is performing a balancing act by carefully weighing where promos for the movie are placed. A Middle Earth browser created by software developer NeoPlanet that allows Netizens to surf in a Rings environment is included on the DVDs of other New Line releases, including The Astronaut's Wife and Frequency.
"We've heard of people going out and buying additional units (of the DVDs) just to get the Lord of the Rings content," Paddison said.
Once teaser elements are put on the Web, the viral aspects of the medium -- the ability to forward e-mails and multimedia content from one user to another -- take over at impressive speed.
For others, the hope is that the Internet is enough to get their foot in the door. While the online marketing for The Blair Witch Project was orchestrated to not look orchestrated, the buzz generated for Dungeons & Dragons is almost entirely Netizen-driven.
At DnDMovie.com, there are frequent updates on the progress of the film, links to sites with unfinished footage that originally was shown on the Web site for the French version of Premiere and a slowed-down version of the footage so fans can catch every glimpse of dragons and swordfighting in excruciating detail.
Knowing its fan base, the site offered a survey that asks Web users how many times they've watched the footage: Thirty-three percent responded "between five and 10 times."
Although it proclaims that "fantasy will never be the same," is it an official site? No -- and thus reads the disclaimer: "This site is done out of our total fanaticism for the game and the whole D&D scene. It is not affiliated with ... any of the companies involved in the marketing, production or distribution of 'Dungeons and Dragons' the movie. If it was, we wouldn't have to keep our day jobs."
Don Whetsell, a 33-year-old Web site designer from Oklahoma, is the Webmaster behind DnDMovie.com. He has been playing Dungeons & Dragons for 20 years and maintained a fan site on the role-playing game that slowly evolved into a shrine for all things related to the movie that receives upwards of 500,000 hits a month.
"I haven't spent a dime on any kind of marketing for this site," Whetsell said. "There's tremendous community online, a tremendous number of fan sites out there. When I started the fan site about the movie, my whole aim in life was not to get sued."
Far from it. Whetsell sent an e-mail to Grant Boucher, the former CEO at Station X Studios, an effects house that is working on the film. As his relationship with those on the set progressed, insiders started feeding Whetsell exclusive info about the movie.
Viral marketing also played a factor. On a whim, Whetsell posted word of the French footage he linked to on SlashDot.org, a site that proudly deems itself "News for Nerds" -- and within the first hour the trailer on DnDMovie.com got 20,000 downloads.
"As far as my peer group is concerned this is a huge thing," Whetsell said.