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BEST OF 2006 / WEB SCOUT | RICHARD RUSHFIELD

It's outta the bottle

December 17, 2006|Richard Rushfield | Times Staff Writer

TWENTY-THREE years after the birth of what became AOL, a decade after Yahoo's IPO, eight years after the dawn of Google, five years after the Time-Warner/AOL merger, a year after the founding of YouTube, all but the most calcified corners of the media world (what's black and white and read all over ... ) awoke to the fact that the Internet was not just at the doorstep, it had unpacked its bag, raided the liquor cabinet and taken the family for a joyride down to Baja. This was the year wishful thinking -- that this Internet phenomenon might just go away -- evaporated, and those media companies still standing began to seek anything that might see them through the deluge. And what a deluge it was.

Those ... snakes. In the beginning (that is, about 18 months ago), when Hollywood discovered that this darn Internet might be here to stay, its first reaction was, "What a great place to promote our movies!" Banner ads, promotional sites and the practice of flying bloggers to far-flung sets for up-close-and-personal kayak rides with A-list stars quickly became standard elements of the film marketer's tool kit. But in 2006, something unexpected happened: The monster became too big and hungry to be sated by mere marketing scraps and demanded a hand in production.

No, "Snakes on a Plane" did not go on to challenge "Titanic's" box office record, but it did become the first studio release entirely championed, developed and, for a time it seemed, directed by film fans on the Internet. The moment when the movie's cast and crew went back to the cameras for Internet-ordered, gore-boosting re-shoots will go down in history as the first time the Web grabbed the production reins away from movie producers.

A marketing bridge too far. It was just a minor, passing fracas at New Line Cinema, makers of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy (and the aforementioned "Snakes on a Plane"). On the promotional site for its film "Running Scared," the studio created a game that allowed visitors to take on the role of hero Joey Gazelle, played in the film by Paul Walker. Players could dive into the game to shoot it out with bad guys, drive fast cars ... and perform oral sex on Gazelle's wife, with an interactive guide showing to how to do so more effectively. After a few raised eyebrows in the mainstream media, New Line removed the game.

Just a little hiccup for New Line, but one that is emblematic of a debate that is still going on among Webby types: As traditional media interact with new media and vice versa, whose values will infect whom? Will old media arrive like the cavalry on the scene, Good Book in hand, to lift up the Web rabble with the promise of Bedrock Standards and High Production Values? Or when the drawbridge is lowered just a little bit, will the masses simply storm the castle and repaint it electric blue and pink?

Lonely planet. The most riveting entertainment story of the year was neither the Mel Gibson nor Tom Cruise flameouts, or the Tom Freston firing, but the mystery of a (supposedly) teenage girl sitting in her bedroom, telling tales into her webcam of her precocious (if uneventful) home-schooled life. Was lonelygirl15 in danger -- and was she even for real? The off-camera mystery of who and where she was inspired an army of investigators.

As it turned out, the mystery girl was walking among us right here in L.A., and the series was a fictional invention of two aspiring filmmakers. But the revelation made its way to the pages and screens of every major news organization, making it a phenom more discussed than your average $200-million production.

The "macaca" heard 'round the world. At the beginning of 2006, Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) was a shoo-in for reelection, and on the way to a glorious presidential campaign. Well, one video posted on YouTube later (in which the senator refers to S.R. Sidarth, a volunteer for his opponent, as "macaca, or whatever his name is") and soon-to-be-ex-Sen. Allen is packing his office and weighing offers from K Street lobbying firms.

One hundred million virtual customers can't be wrong. In August,

MySpace, the Fox-owned virtual social networking site, posted its one hundred millionth profile. Rather than making waves in the real world, MySpace appears to be swallowing the real world. In the last year, it was estimated that 5% of all U.S. Web traffic took place on the site. An entire bar association seems to be forming to adjudicate the legal issues raised there (the court hearings will not, however, actually occur on the site). Criminals committing every manner of real-world crime -- including obvious ones, such as identity theft, but also plenty of less likely ones, even murder -- have followed a path somewhere through the site. The career of comedian Dane Cook, arguably the biggest star to America's college-aged audiences, rose from a following completely constructed on the site.

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