The studio behind the multibillion-dollar "Spider-Man" franchise is doing some Web slinging of its own.
To snare outsize audiences for "Spider-Man 3," which cost about $400 million to make and release, Sony Pictures cast its widest online promotional net ever, using the Web in ways that were unimaginable when the superhero first scaled the big screen five years ago.
The digital campaign -- ads on MySpace, studio-sponsored blogs, free online Spidey games, downloadable trailers -- heralds the Internet's arrival as a bona-fide promotional tool for Hollywood and represents a shift in the allocation of dollars.
The reason is a no-brainer. "The Web," said Jeff Blake, Sony's head of worldwide marketing and distribution, "is a pretty economical way to reach moviegoers."
The studio's bet is that Spider-Man's amplified powers on the Web will pay off -- and they had better. Director Sam Raimi's dark tale about Peter Parker's battle with inner demons cost $260 million to produce and about $140 million to release in 10,000 theaters worldwide.
To cover studio costs and give theater owners their take, "Spider-Man 3" has to gross about $800 million in worldwide ticket sales. The first two installments in the franchise proved phenomenally lucrative, collectively amassing more than $1.6 billion globally. And No. 3 set opening day records Tuesday in 10 of the 16 territories in which it debuted, including France, Italy and South Korea.
But in Hollywood there's no such thing as a sure bet, so the studio has pulled out the digital stops.
Blake said a "substantial part" of the advertising budget had migrated away from newspapers to the Web. "The Internet as a marketing vehicle has grown in leaps and bounds," he said.
These days, consumers increasingly go online to research movie times, read reviews and watch trailers. "Like a lot of advertisers, Sony is following the audience, which has preceded them onto the Web," said Colby Atwood, president of Borrell Associates Inc., a media consulting firm. "They're overcoming their natural inertia to change."
While a newspaper ad or billboard can run nearly $100,000 and a 30-second spot on a hit TV show can set a studio back $1 million or more, the kind of Internet campaign that Sony is running (ads on heavily trafficked sites aside) can be relatively cheap.
What's more, the Web gives Sony both the global reach of a mass medium and the ability, like old-fashioned direct mail, to zero in on particular interests, creating the opportunity to make intimate connections with a spectrum of consumers that includes geeky fanboys, action-film aficionados and admirers of star Tobey Maguire.
"It's all about one-to-one engagement," said John Lisko, head of media communications for Saatchi & Saatchi LA. "There's no other medium that can give that level of information that quickly."
For hard-core "Spider-Man" addicts, it can't be too quick. They're insatiable, and Sony is doing its best to feed them.
Some members of the Spider-Man Movie Network (established by Sony) spend hours every day debating (on a web- site maintained by Sony) whether the "Spider-Man 3" villain Venom spends enough time on screen and the limitations of the web slinger's "spider-sense."
The studio is constantly taking in what's said about the movie on blogs and message boards so it can hone its publicity to satisfy even the most militant Marvel Comics fanatic.
In July, when a "Spider-Man 3" teaser trailer was released, the reaction to another villain, character Harry Osborn's New Goblin, was negative. A lot of people thought he was fatally dull. So as part of a March 5 promotion during NBC's hit show "Heroes," Sony showed a 7 1/2-minute clip of the New Goblin in a new light, as a fearsome foe to the building-scaling hero.
"The feedback we got was tremendous, incredibly positive about Harry's character because they got to see him in full action," said Dwight Caines, Sony's executive vice president of worldwide digital marketing strategy.
Hollywood started to exploit the Internet after the success of the 1999 mockumentary "The Blair Witch Project" illustrated the medium's knack for creating virulent prerelease buzz. The film's distributor, Artisan Entertainment, stealthily posted video and sound clips and fake TV news reports to perpetuate the notion that the filmmakers had disappeared, and had possibly died horrible deaths, during the shoot. The result: Huge crowds flocked to a crudely shot, low-budget film.
All the studios have been directing some of their marketing dollars away from traditional media outlets, primarily newspapers and to a lesser extent network television. Spending on Internet advertising rose from negligible amounts in 2002 to around 4% of promotional budgets last year, according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America.