When Ian Schafer left his post as vice president of new media at Miramax Films in 2002, he was frustrated with the company's reluctance to promote its films online. "It's not that they paid no attention to it, but the attention was disproportionate to the amount paid to other media," he explains. "Basically, I started Deep Focus to state my case."
Four years later, Brooklyn-based Deep Focus serves as the de facto online advertising, promotion, and media planning/buying arm of The Weinstein Company, founded in 2005 by the former honchos of Miramax, Harvey and Bob Weinstein. Deep Focus also counts several 20th Century Fox and other studios among its clients. "The number of online destinations is growing so rapidly. It's pretty easy for some of [these studios] to miss the boat," Schafer observes.
On the cusp of the summer movie season, Hollywood studios continue to shift focus and dollars to the online space. Pete Snyder, founder and chief executive officer of word-of-mouth marketing shop New Media Strategies, estimates that studios now routinely commit 15 percent of their marketing budgets to online efforts, up substantially from 2001 and 2002.
"The pendulum has kind of swung back," notes Erik Flannigan, AOL's vice president of entertainment programming, who oversees Moviefone.com, among other AOL movie efforts. He recalls that one major studio, which he declines to name, axed its entire online marketing team three years ago. "They probably didn't spin it that way, but they fired a lot of people and didn't replace them. Today, we're talking with them about a huge program around one of the summer's most anticipated movies."
Though everybody has his or her favorites, most agree that the campaign that almost single-handedly revived interest in the Internet as a primary movie marketing medium was New Line Cinema's embrace-all-comers push behind the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Prior to that, studios regarded the Web with a mixture of suspicion and hostility. Warner Brothers in particular gained a reputation for siccing its lawyers on any Web site that even remotely infringed on its Harry Potter business. But after New Line leveraged the Web and a rabid fan base to spectacular effect -- the first clip from the film was viewed by 1.7 million fans in the first 24 hours after it debuted on the official site -- the rules of the game were quickly rewritten.
"The loyalty to the book was so tremendous, it would have made no sense not to take advantage of it," recalls Gordon Paddison, executive vice president of integrated marketing at New Line Cinema. "We wanted the online fans to feel like they had ownership of the property. They had my cell phone, my home phone, my aim [AOL Instant Messenger]. We listened to them and they responded."
Earning equally high marks is the Deep Focus campaign that touted Dimension's "Sin City," based on a series of Frank Miller graphic novels. The "Sin City" effort pushed the technological boundaries of the banner ad, even for Internet users conditioned to ignore pitches at the tops of their screens. Deep Focus worked with Klipmart to transform the banner ad into a projector screen of sorts. Viewers who rolled over the banner could pull it down and expand it, then view a Web-only pitch (as opposed to a repurposed TV ad or trailer) in high-quality video. "Kind of a new twist on an old trick," says Schafer, who says that nearly 20 percent of viewers opted to see the "Sin City" ad in full-screen format.
The old-is-new approach worked for AOL Moviefone, which launched its "Moviefone Unscripted" platform in 2004 with a Jamie Foxx/ Tom Cruise interview promoting the movie "Collateral." Moviefone offered a twist on the typical movie junket interview by having the two actors interview one another, with a few of the questions submitted by fans.
"At the junkets, you end up getting the exact same thing as 'Good Morning, Tucson,' " says Flannigan. "We could come up with a million genius ideas that involve a 24/7 Webcam and Scarlett Johansson, but that's not going to happen. What we tried to do is take the standard promotional arc and fit a new idea within it." The concept has caught on among A-listers: in the last year alone, "Moviefone Unscripted" has also lured Steven Spielberg and George Clooney.
Movie marketing pundits admire Moviefone's approach, especially as it pertains to creating ad and editorial content unavailable elsewhere. If there's one no-no for Web marketing campaigns, it's using repurposed content. "You just can't mimic what people have already seen on TV," stresses Tim Price, vice president of advertising sales at Date.com, which has run comprehensive programs around films as diverse as "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle" and "Kinsey."
At best, repurposed ad content generates shrugs; at worst, it actively antagonizes content-thirsty audiences who have come to expect bells and whistles in the wake of the "Lord of the Rings" promotion. Fox did well in this regard with an online promotion for "Date Movie." Actor Tony Cox spent an hour filming exclusive content for use by members of MySpace.com, in which he lambasted user profiles and offered tips on how to "pimp them out," so to speak.
Movie ads that don't ask consumers to interact any further than the ad unit, like the "Sin City" banners, also seem to be catching on. "They give you an entertainment experience without completely interrupting what you're doing. They ask less of the user," explains Matt Rosenberg, head of the entertainment practice at Organic. The most oft-cited example: a "Kill Bill" floating ad in which a sword slashes through the Web page and then folds back to reveal the film's release date.
As for online placement of movie ads, specificity remains key, as run-of-network programs around edgier fare have proven disastrous. "If you do run-of-network for Yahoo, you can end up with your action movie on a pacifist page," Rosenberg observes. "You have to demand that publishers justify why you should be where they want you to be."
Adds Snyder: "God bless Yahoo, but buying their home page is like buying a Super Bowl ad; it could be a great expenditure or it could put your movie in front of a whole bunch of people who would never see it in a million years."
Online movie campaigns are starting considerably earlier than they did before -- the Web site for this summer's "Superman" update began feeding fans a steady diet of video blogs and other content months ago. The online efforts often continue well beyond a film's initial re-lease to the DVD debut, only months later. For example, AOL Moviefone kept its "Star Wars: Episode Three" and "The Chronicles of Narnia" content churning for months after both films left theaters.
The online pro-grams should be flexible enough to accommodate pre-release buzz. For the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" flick, Disney initially centered its marketing content (online and off) around Johnny Depp and the familiar skull-and-crossbones logo. In the months leading up to its release, however, Keira Knightley's star began to rise, owing to Internet buzz over her role in "Bend It Like Beckham." The next thing we knew, every "Pirates" online treatment had been revised to feature her prominently.
"For a tent-pole property, you should be paying attention at least six months out, and probably closer to a year," New Media Strategies' Snyder stresses. "What you hear and how you adjust to it can make or break a Web campaign."