Fake Fans, Fake Buzz, Real Bucks

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After being blindsided by the Web hype on 'The Blair Witch Project,' movie studios are paying for phony sites, often striving for the clunky naivete of a genuine effort.

By DANA CALVO, Times Staff Writer

The 34-year-old computer whiz in Silver Lake got a phone call from the friend of a friend--the head of publicity for a movie studio. The offer was $10,000 a week for an Internet "project." Was he interested? Absolutely. Details quickly followed from the studio's department of new media. The computer whiz discovered he would soon be "purposely forgetting everything I knew about design." The job was to construct a phony fan Web site for a new movie. He selected ugly lettering, the better to mask his sophistication. He scanned in photos from magazines, just like fans do. He wrote blushing and gushing copy. In no time at all, those photos appeared on other Web sites, the objects of fevered fan adulation. The computer whiz, whose contracts prohibit him from disclosing project details, performed about 15 such jobs for studios, television networks and publicity companies in the last year. The work, which he considers "extracurricular," pulled in about $150,000. Such guerrilla marketing--covertly launched alongside traditional TV, radio and print campaigns--holds the promise of the most elusive element of a Hollywood project: good buzz. For entertainment companies marketing to a generation raised on the Internet--teenagers and twentysomethings who regularly comb the Web--good buzz reigns supreme. It's a simple process: Tap into any of the big search engines, such as Yahoo or Ask Jeeves, type in the name of a favorite star or movie, and a world of possibilities pops up that includes promotional sites, movie reviews, recent articles, chat rooms and fan sites. Because fans crave "real" or unfiltered dialogue with other fans, these unofficial sites are popular and powerful. It is a culture that is ripe for manipulation. The success of the 1999 horror movie "The Blair Witch Project" is testament to the Internet's hype potential. The film industry was blindsided by the appearance of block-long lines of ticket-holders who had gotten hooked on the film through its Web site. The movie was made for about $1 million and became one of the most successful independent films in history, grossing $128 million in its first five weeks. After that, marketing tools that masquerade as one fan's obsession became part of the studios' promotion machines. "The logical extension is for entertainment companies to try to create buzz on projects," said Jim Moloshok, former head of Warner Bros. Online. Moloshok is a founder and managing director of Windsor Digital, a new entertainment company founded by Terry Semel, former chairman and CEO of Warner Bros. Studios. "It's a viral marketing technique. . . . I'll put money on the fact that those message boards have what we call 'seeding'--like you seed a lawn. They 'seed' the message board with [propaganda]. "If you can lock onto someone and make them an evangelist for your project, it's worth it," Moloshok said. The hired enthusiasts don't reveal that they are on entertainment company payrolls. In fact, it's nearly impossible to verify which Web pages are by genuine fans and which aren't, even by tracing the registered owner of the site. There's nothing illegal about such covert campaigns. Esther Dyson, one of the world's leading computing analysts and the longtime chairwoman of Adventure Holdings, characterized the techniques as "just sleazy." "I don't think it should be illegal, but I think it's perfectly legitimate for any site to require its users to disclose their [financial] interest," she said. That is what the Securities and Exchange Commission requires of Web sites that tout stocks. But the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission--the two key Washington bodies that track advertising, communications and various types of broadcasting--say they're not monitoring the entertainment buzz campaigns. One FTC associate director said that in the face of what the agency must monitor on financial and health industry Web sites, the potential "deceit" on entertainment sites pales. George Schweitzer, CBS executive vice president of marketing, sees no conflict, nor ethical quandary, in the practices. For example, online chats with television actors help generate energy around programs, he said, satisfying a desire for television viewers who want to feel connected to the network's stars. Such chats can be promoted through posts on message boards or Web sites. "People don't care where it comes from," Schweitzer said. "Whether I go on there and say, 'There's an interesting chat with someone,' and I don't identify myself as someone from CBS, or whether we run an ad, it's spreading information anyway." CBS doesn't generally advertise its shows or promote its talent without identifying themselves as CBS marketers, but its employees enter chat rooms and read the copy to learn what fans want from the network. "Everyone's feeling their way communicating on new media," Schweitzer said.

Selling Scooby-Doo Strategies vary, and some Internet users say they can spot a shill by their forcefulness in chat rooms and retail-oriented Web sites. In one case, a group of junior high and high school students were looking for behind-the-scenes information on Warner Bros. new Scooby-Doo movie, which is based on the 1970s cartoon series. Most of the sites were pushing merchandise rather than scuttlebutt. "If you were to click that Web site, you would get hooked up to a bunch of other Web sites that sell stuff," said Mark Gordon, an eighth-grader at Beverly Vista, who was drawn to a Web site after doing an initial search for "Scooby Doo + movie." The Silver Lake computer whiz also thought the Web page was funded by a studio and not constructed by a real fan. It linked to online stores, he said, and there was no way to contact the registered owner or designer. The eighth-grader and the computer whiz have no way to tell who is behind these Web sites, and even if confronted, the studios are not under any obligation to own up to sites they have funded. Other sites are designed to simply cultivate buzz. Last year New Line Cinema funded a site to help promote Spike Lee's movie "Bamboozled," hiring Sean Jordan, president of ZENtertainment, an online newsletter. The movie's plot involved a minstrel television show. According to New Line's specifications, Jordan created a Web page for the television network where Bamboozled's minstrel show supposedly aired. Photographs of the "actors" and synopses of their programs made the site appear to be a home page for a real television network. There was no tip-off that the page was a fake. "It was kind of a phony, supplemental, fictional aside," said Jordan, 28. Sometimes networks or studios find it beneficial to be more direct--dropping their names on the Web sites and in e-mail. "I usually identify myself as Fox.com, but sometimes I don't," said one of Fox.com's producers, who in this case did not want to be identified. "I do it both ways. A lot of times it's more effective when you say you're associated with Fox.com, and they feel like it's official, and they feel special." But other strategists say fans want unscripted glimpses from a project. The Silver Lake computer whiz said one studio sent him photographs to conjure up this "natural" view, as though someone sneaked an unauthorized camera on the set. They "weren't the standard, glossy pictures. [They were] casual ones taken on the set. I had to post them on those Web sites but not say they're from the studio," he said. "That way people feel like they're authentic." But authenticity is elusive. Countingdown.com is a Web site partially owned by DreamWorks SKG, a movie studio founded by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. Its operators play down the DreamWorks connection, and say the site is merely a forum for tens of thousands of intense movie fans. "Once we find the [movies] we feel start to have real buzz and following, we use our expertise to get special access from the studios," said Charles Segars, 38, a member of the board of directors for Countingdown.com. Segars' other job is working on Internet projects for DreamWorks. "But we're totally studio agnostic. They [DreamWorks] don't get favored treatment." That may be the case, but visitors to Countingdown.com who express an interest in DreamWorks projects are rarely disappointed. A lively discussion on the site, for example, examines the possible plot points in "Raiders of the Lost Ark IV," although the latest installment of Spielberg's blockbuster movie franchise has yet to be written. If the fourth movie in the Raiders series becomes a reality, it will depend, as its predecessors did, upon the core moviegoing audience of 14- to 24-year-olds. "What ends up happening on our site, there's such a celebration of what the next installment will be, that if things were to begin happening--like casting [for Raiders IV]--we've already captured the audience," Segars said. In another case, a message was posted inquiring about Spielberg's next project. Not only did visitors soon learn Spielberg was filming the sci-fi thriller "A.I.," but the Web site launched a five-day promotional campaign based on footage from a Web cam installed on the set's lunch truck. "Spielberg said, 'Let's do it at the [food service] table,' and loved the name 'bagel cam,' " said Marvin Levy, marketing executive for DreamWorks SKG. "He endorsed the whole idea of having Countingdown.com be on the set to do this."

Co-Opting Online Personalities It's not just movie buzz that the Internet is feeding. Television networks have been experimenting on the Internet for several years. Executives at Metro Goldwyn Mayer decided to simply co-opt an established online personality instead of infiltrating fan sites. Last year they turned their attention to a teenager named Sean Fitzgibbons, whose Web site about the network's syndicated sci-fi show "Stargate SG-1" offered links to a community of related sites. MGM hired Fitzgibbons to work on their Web sites for the television series "Poltergeist" and "Outer Limits." "Survivor," the staged, unscripted show on CBS that drew record ratings also drew thousands of viewers who logged onto the show's Web site each day to discuss which person might be voted off the island. The current installment of "Survivor" has dozens of active sites, with only one identified as a CBS property. Last summer CBS' "Big Brother" series had a 24-hour Internet cam recording interactions within the Studio City household, a feature that became almost more popular than the show. But as television networks and movie studios become more fluent on the Internet, experts say their covert campaigns will gain momentum. "I'm small potatoes," said the Silver Lake computer whiz, adding that he just got a call from a movie studio who had hired him once before. This time, executives want him to raise the profile of an actor appearing in one of their films. "The publicity machine is in gear," he said.

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