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Sure, They'll Download Photos, but Will They Pay for a Ticket?

October 09, 1994|Robert Levine

In the future, feature films may travel directly to viewers' televisions via the information superhighway, but studios have already started to use telecommunications technology to send their marketing campaigns straight into the homes and onto the computer screens of potential moviegoers.

In the last year, almost every major studio has done marketing for at least one of its films on such commercial on-line services as America Online and Compuserve. The studio's interactive kits, which subscribers choose by browsing through a listing of what's available, and then selecting and downloading onto their hard drive, present basic information in tailor-made ways.

For last summer's action film "Blown Away," for example, users cut colored wires connected to bombs to read biographical information on the stars, look at production notes, or view very short scenes from the film in a small onscreen window. The kit for "Forrest Gump" lets users point to a timeline to see various scenes from the movie, and Forrest himself even gives a multiple-choice quiz on recent American history, offering users a piece of chocolate when they answer questions correctly, and making such comments as "Stupid is as stupid does" when they do not.

On-line marketing can give potential moviegoers more information about a film than a conventional print or television advertisement, and though the reach of such services is limited, studio marketing executives see on-line marketing as a key part of Hollywood's inevitable future.

"I think you have three groups," says Paramount marketing chief Arthur Cohen of film marketing decision-makers who are trying to evaluate on-line media. "Enthusiastic people, people who go along out of fear (of being left behind), and people who say we didn't need it before and we don't need it now."

Cohen places himself in the first group, though he goes on to say that on-line marketing's current effectiveness is difficult to measure statistically because of the relatively small size of the audience it reaches.

Paramount and other studios including Columbia and Fine Line do much of their on-line marketing through Hollywood Online, a Santa Monica-based company that has emerged as a leader in the field.

Using mostly existing media materials such as film images and production notes, the company creates "interactive multimedia kits," which take about 20 minutes to download with a fairly high-speed modem. They can now be downloaded from Compuserve, America Online and eWorld, and Hollywood Online is now in discussions with other services about making them available elsewhere.

"(The kits) definitely help sustain word of mouth on a film," says Steven Katinsky, president of Hollywood Online. "It's a very small investment for (the studios) and they're getting a very large return."

Hollywood Online wouldn't say how much that investment is, although company officials and studio marketers agree it is still a very small part of a major film's marketing budget. The distribution package generally includes the creation and on-line distribution of the interactive media kit and the on-line distribution of downloadable video clips and still pictures.

That distribution can vary considerably according to the public's interest in a film, and though the interactive kit for "The Mask" has been downloaded by more than 3,100 users on America Online alone, the kit for "It Could Happen to You" generated just 300 downloads. A star's popularity can influence the number of times a film still is downloaded, and though a picture of Harrison Ford from "Clear and Present Danger" was downloaded an impressive 1,600 times on America Online, a picture of the comely "Mask" actress--and relative newcomer--Cameron Diaz was downloaded by more than 4,500 people. A still from "The Scout" has already been downloaded 50 times.

There are also other offerings for movie buffs. America Online, for example, also offers an on-line "auditorium" for hosting film stars and directors who answer members' questions (Oliver Stone recently fielded softball questions about "Natural Born Killers" on America Online, under the auspices of Wired magazine), and bulletin boards dedicated to such subjects as new films, foreign films and Hollywood gossip.

In many ways, the bulletin boards are more of a forum for discussion and networking than part of a marketing plan, although they spread word-of-mouth about movies to an audience very interested in films.

"Sometimes Hollywood Online makes me want to see something more than I would have if there are glowing reports," said Lincoln Kupchak, 24, while on America Online.

Deborah Baumrucker, who looks at the information in Hollywood Online every couple of weeks, said that she saw "Natural Born Killers" because of an on-line recommendation. "Someone whose opinions I trust said it made 'Reservoir Dogs' look like 'Mary Poppins,' " she said via America Online. "I guess it was easier than flipping through papers or news directories."

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