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Can Studios Tame the Net?

The film industry loves the buzz generated online. But negative reviews and a boom in pirated copies reveal the beast within.

May 16, 1999|AMY WALLACE | Amy Wallace is a Times staff writer

More than money, more than fame, the key to having juice in Hollywood has always been control. Directors want final cut. Actors want script approval. And studio executives want to unveil their pictures and garner publicity according to their own carefully orchestrated schedules.

No wonder the Internet is making Hollywood sweat.

Just as videocassette recorders in the 1970s first alarmed and later revolutionized the film industry, the information superhighway is throwing Hollywood for a loop. Unregulated, immediate and relentlessly democratic, the Internet can be harnessed, of course, to promote movies--all the major studios (and most of the minor ones) have Web sites. But movie fans are exchanging more than just information about upcoming films. More and more they're trading pirated copies of them, forcing the industry to rethink how it does business.

Piracy is a growing problem. Officials at the Motion Picture Assn. of America say that stolen copies of recent movies such as "The Matrix," "8mm" and "Shakespeare in Love" already have been discovered online. Meanwhile, the creators of "Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace," which has been the focus of frenzied Internet activity leading up to its Wednesday release, are bracing for their film to be illegally posted on the Web.

The scenario goes like this: "Star Wars" fans, armed with hand-held digital cameras, descend upon theaters on opening day. Suddenly, without permission, the film appears on the Internet. It may take an eternity to download, and it will assuredly be of poor quality, but--if suspicions prove true--it will be there.

"Publishing was the first [business to fall victim to Internet piracy]. Then music. Now here comes the beast creeping toward us," said MPAA spokesman Rich Taylor, marveling at why anyone would spend time accessing a herky-jerky, small-format copy of a movie that was still playing in crisp 70 millimeter at their local theater. "I think a lot of it is like 21st century baseball card trading--'Look, I got "Matrix"! What do you have?' It's not so much that you watch it, but that you've got it."

Theft, however, is just one example of how the proprietary culture of Hollywood is chafing against the technology-for-the-people realm of the World Wide Web. Now, for example, it has become impossible to hold test screenings without reading about it the next day on a variety of fan Web sites. The result, said producer Jerry Bruckheimer: Some filmmakers are "[reluctant] to show their movies too early because they know they'll be reviewed."

And yet, if an early online review is positive, others say, fan sites such as http://www.aint-it-cool-news.com (the creation of a 27-year-old Austin, Texas, native named Harry Knowles) can influence studio executives' decisions about advertising budgets, release schedules and even the editing of the film.

"Let's say you don't want a lot of competition around your movie. If somebody starts raving on the Internet, other movies will move away [from your release date]. And I know of many examples where someone wants to get a good ad budget for their movie and uses the Internet buzz to do it," said one writer-director who asked not to be named because he--like many filmmakers--wants to cultivate a relationship with Knowles.

"I know how powerful he is," this Oscar nominee said bluntly. "You're in a big perception war all the way up to opening. A perception that your movie is loved is buoying to a marketing department. And this is one thing that contributes to the perception."

With such high stakes, the movie industry has begun trying to manipulate that which it cannot tame. Everyone in Hollywood believes--and sources at more than one studio confirm--that popular fan sites like Knowles' and the Australia-based http://www.darkhorizons.com have at times unwittingly posted reports from "real" people who are studio employees.

"I read on 'Ain't It Cool News' for months that 'BASEketball' was a brilliant film," said Chris Gore, whose irreverent e-zine FilmThreat (http://www.filmthreat.com) is sent via the Internet to nearly 100,000 subscribers each week. "I think even Universal [Pictures, which released the film last year] would say, 'Yes, we know that movie is abysmal.' Clearly, that was someone infiltrating the site."

Many studio execs say movie fan sites are valuable in that they encourage people--particularly young people, who tend to go to the movies on opening weekend--to talk about and pay to see movies. According to Bob Friedman, co-chairman of worldwide marketing for New Line Cinema, "word of mouth is very important" for these so-called early attenders. "And the online world is the ultimate word of mouth."

But as the studios know, that can be a double-edged sword.

"With this new media, people know a movie is bad immediately, a day or two [after it opens]," Friedman said. "That doesn't mean a movie necessarily must be stellar to do well. But it means you have to create appropriate expectations."

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