Somewhere out there, in the unwieldy abyss called the World Wide Web, Satan is discussing his upcoming debut as a movie producer, a woman from Bulgaria wants to challenge you to a high-tech game of "Asteroids," and a shape-shifting slice of psychedelia aims to expose images within your subconscious.
The question remains, however, whether any of this will make you want to someday lay your eyes on an actual movie.
With DVRs reducing the impact of TV commercials and moviegoers growing increasingly intolerant of the endless parade of pre-show film trailers, the degree to which studios are relying on their Internet presence is growing exponentially.
"We've been doing this for five and a half years," reflected Michael Lebowitz, co-founder and CEO of Big Spaceship, one of Hollywood's top movie Web site designers. "We started out as your typical start-up story, myself and my business partner ... in an extra bedroom in his apartment. ... [Now] we turn down a lot of work."
"We have a great passion for our Web sites. We love them, we baby them like our kids," insisted Don Buckley, senior vice president of interactive marketing for Warner Bros. "Hopefully we can capture the spirit of the respective films and convey that in the Web site, causing them to take the next step — turn the computer off, leave the house, go buy some popcorn and watch the movie."
According to the studios, visitors to these sites are unique in that they want to be "advertised" to. A TV commercial can be a nuisance, a print ad can be overlooked — but it's hard to imagine a more captive audience than someone who has typed in a URL.
The worst movie sites are token efforts, the equivalent of a "bare-bones" DVD; the best can suck up hours of a visitor's time and leave them with drool on their chins.
"I've been a fan of Tenacious D ever since I saw them at the Rainbow Room back in '98," Lucifer reports in a short film called "The Hell O'Clock News." "I cold-called the boys and said, 'Hey, how do I get involved?' " The site (TenaciousDMovie.com) works because it keeps true to the deal-with-the-devil comedy of Jack Black's band while simultaneously referencing their upcoming film, "Tenacious D In: The Pick of Destiny." Spoilers are kept in check, promises are made for more fun ("Sign up for e-mail updates from Satan"), and you're left with the impression that if the film is half as funny as the site, you'd better set aside your 10 bucks.
It would seem easy to build a desirable Web page with the participation of an A-List comedian. What do you do, however, with a top-secret sci-fi film from the perverse director of "Requiem for a Dream?"
"We went to Darren Aronofsky and said, 'Look, we'd like to put up these images, without comment. No title, no nothing,' " Buckley said of FountainMovie.com, Warner Bros.' site for the upcoming "The Fountain." "There is this very gifted photographer named Peter Parks ... he specializes in micro-photography. He photographs chemical reactions in a petri dish, that sort of thing."
Visit the site and all you see is a living, breathing image that never looks the same way twice. Buckley said similar images will be employed by Aronofsky throughout the film, and such a bizarre reveal intrigues visitors while making them spread the word: "What you are seeing is the first of a series. ... They'll prompt a lot of discussion."
Similar Internet chatter is currently flowing freely over such upcoming-movie sites as "Zathura" (SonyPictures.com/movies/zathura), where you can learn plot details while challenging strangers to slick games that don't fall far from their beloved Atari predecessors; "King Kong" (KingKongMovie.com), where director Peter Jackson has compiled a mass of news (you can track Naomi Watts' "Ellen DeGeneres" appearances), downloads, video-production diaries (ever wondered what the second second AD does?) and even an opportunity to apply for a credit card ("Capture Kong-sized benefits!"). A similarly powerful time-consumer is "The Chronicles of Narnia" (ADisney.Go.com/DisneyPictures/Narnia), a child-safe literary site that gives you a thorough history of 50 years of the C.S Lewis books, and then presents you with a quiz.
It is high-demand companies like Big Spaceship that craft a site nearly every time a movie is green-lit. Typically they have one mandate: Keep people on the site for as long as possible. For every minute a visitor remains, numbers show they are increasingly more likely to buy a ticket.
"We've done an early teaser presence for 'The Da Vinci Code,' " Lebowitz said of the upcoming Tom Hanks film. "It's a year out from being released. ... It's a film that wasn't in production yet. It's only gone into production recently ... but because it's such a huge movie of the biggest-selling book of the last 20 years, Sony wanted a presence."
The site (TheDavinciCodeMovie.com), without showing so much as a single scene, creates a desire to see the movie by zooming in on classic works of art. When a viewer freeze-frames the shots and advances them slowly, secrets are revealed that will unlock original film content in the months to come. For those who have purchased the 36 million copies of the book in print, the promise of becoming a Web-based Robert Langdon is irresistible. The seed has been planted.
While "Fountain," "Da Vinci" and "Destiny" build early buzz, other sites indicate the full-frontal revelations they may eventually become. For "The 40 Year-Old Virgin," a "Billy Madison"-meets-"Office Space" comedy due later this month and already being touted as one of the year's funniest films, the filmmakers are trying to attract an audience despite their lack of an A-List name. With a release imminent and not much of a fanbase to work with, it has become a race against time to show people — simply enough — that the movie is good.
"It's like your eyes are giving me an array of sexually transmitted diseases!" screams Selena, a potential date for Steve Carell's unlucky-in-love Andy. "Herpie eyes!"
"I like letting people in on the process," said Judd Apatow, the writer/director of the largely improvised movie. "When we did a speed-dating scene, we hired all these hilarious women ... and let them go off on Steve. ... If something's funny, I hate for it to just sit in a basement."
And so, visitors looking to spend their "first time" with Andy (The40YearOldVirgin.com) are faced with an onslaught of scenes, many as funny as anything in the movie. The film's catchy soundtrack kicks right in, allowing you to sample each track, and a letter to the audience from Apatow refers to it as "the filthy/sweet movie which is the dirtiest date movie you've ever seen."
By the time a visitor has wasted butt-numbing hours perusing the virgin's action-figure-filled apartment, watching behind-the-scenes video diaries with intriguing titles like "Stinky People," and visiting such bookmark-worthy recommended links as Steve Carell's work on "The Daily Show," Apatow's "Freaks and Geeks" site and even a fansite devoted to Aquaman, it's hard to imagine that they wouldn't be making plans for the Friday of opening weekend.
"Every time we publish a Web site, we're creating a new entertainment destination," Buckley concluded of one of Hollywood's fastest-growing marketing tools. "That wasn't the case seven, eight years ago."
So go ahead and dig into those free appetizers, the studios are saying — just be sure to leave room for the main course.
Check out "Set Visit: 'Tenacious D In: The Pick of Destiny' " for a behind-the-scenes look at the film.
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