Mary P Erickson. The Business of Entertainment. Editor: Robert C Sickels. Volume 1. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.
The Web phenomenon of The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999) during the movie’s theatrical run in 1999 was heralded as revolutionizing the entire structure of movie marketing. The fan-driven Web campaign generated buzz around this low-budget film, propelling it to garner over $140 million at the domestic box office. Movie studios hurriedly created Web sites for their films, hoping to cash in on what Christopher Grove called the “Holy Grail” of Web marketing. One industry insider predicted, “Currently, Hollywood studios only spend a few percent of a movie’s total budget on Internet promotions. Blair Witch’s surprise performance will increase that commitment tenfold.”
Since Blair Witch, major studios have, for the most part, included Web sites as a medium in their marketing campaigns, although the degree to which they rely on Web sites for promotion varies from film to film. Despite steady growth over the past several years, Web sites and other online promotions account for only 3.7 percent of major studios’ advertising costs. Independent filmmakers, meanwhile, tend to hinge their entire film marketing campaigns on the use of Web sites for promotion. As we examine who uses Web sites for movie promotion, we must also examine to what end they are used. How do these Web sites, for example, reflect the promotional objectives of a filmmaker or studio? How is the Web site visitor expected to interact with the site?
An examination of various components of a given Web site begins to reveal these objectives and expectations, particularly when we compare Web sites across the spectrum, from those Web sites for major Hollywood blockbusters to ones for independently produced microbudget films. Varieties of Web marketing activity, as applied to online movie marketing by Adam Finn and others, demonstrate a range of purposes, including communication, sales, content, and networking, that vary depending on the objectives of the producer. One can locate some combination of these characteristics within most movie Web sites, but the degree to which emphasis is placed on each one indicates which aspects and functions of the Web site are considered most useful. In particular, there are accentuated differences between corporate and independent movie promotional goals; while major studios and independent filmmakers both seek to promote films via movie Web sites, they do so in significantly different ways. This chapter presents an examination of various Web sites in order to highlight how major studios approach the Internet at a fundamentally different level than do independent filmmakers.
The Internet is an appropriate site for an exploration of the differences and similarities of corporate and independent film promotion because it is one of the few promotional vehicles through which independents and majors can be assessed with similar criteria. The nature of the Internet is such that anyone with a computer and Internet access (and we can say that most filmmakers in the United States have these) can create a Web site. Indeed, this leveled playing field was the catalyst for the success of The Blair Witch Project, prompting major studios to join the online competition for audiences. The major studios had to adapt their traditional marketing practices to encompass new technologies; oftentimes, they have found the Internet particularly conducive to locating target audiences, giving those audiences multiple ways in which they can interact with an entire film brand. Independent filmmakers, for whom traditional marketing practices might be out of reach, have also been able to locate their target audiences. For them, the Internet is a useful and cheap marketing tool and is considered, according to The Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide, as “the most important promotional tool for the independent filmmaker.”
Major Studio and Independent Films
Major studio films (also termed “corporate” or “Hollywood”) are those produced within or distributed by major Hollywood studios; these studios include Paramount Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Brothers, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures, and Sony Pictures. Janet Wasko describes the Hollywood film industry as “an industry that produces and distributes commodities, and thus is similar to other industries that manufacture and produce products for profit.” Thus, major studios are concerned primarily with generating revenues and maximizing profits, which is not surprising given the fact that these companies are part of multinational entertainment conglomerates.
One must note that there are other production and distribution studios that exist outside the majors, but they are not classified as independents. Such studios are Lucasfilm and Lionsgate Films, which, although they maintain some level of autonomy from six major studios, also seek to maximize profits in order to compete with their major studio competitors. It is estimated that Lucasfilm generated over $1 billion in annual revenues in 2005. Lionsgate’s acquisition of a British film distribution company in 2005, for instance, according to Lionsgate’s CEO Jon Feltheimer, “is consistent with our commitment to make accretive, strategic transactions to accelerate our growth and enhance margins in our core businesses.” This frank admission of corporate objectives prompts me to categorize Lionsgate as a corporate studio.
Applying a solid definition to “independent” is a less precise task. The term has been defined in myriad ways: “a film’s source of financing; the industrial affiliations of the film’s distributor; the sites in which the film is exhibited; the status of the talent in relation to Hollywood; and the ‘spirit’ of the film (usually interpreted to mean its aesthetic or generic ties to commercial or alternative media traditions).” Tzioumakis proposes that independence used in the context of describing film has developed into a discourse to reinforce power dynamics, particularly those that manifest in industrial or economic relations. We can witness appropriation of the term independent by major studios to create meaning that suits corporate objectives of profit-seeking. This manifests most obviously in the so-called indie or specialty divisions of major studios, which specialize in art-house or foreign fare. While these labels (such as 20th Century Fox’s Fox Searchlight, Disney’s Miramax, or Warner Brothers’ Warner Independent Pictures) produce and/or distribute quite different films from their mainstream studio counterparts, they still face the same profit imperatives as their sibling and parent divisions. Therefore, even though these divisions very often acquire independently produced films, the investment of money and labor into these films’ marketing campaigns drastically changes the tone and nature of promotional Web sites as these are vehicles through which the company can draw revenue.
Independent films, on the other hand, generally have small budgets (as low as a few hundred dollars) with unknown cast and crew and rely on alternative and more readily accessible modes of promotion (the Internet or the film festival circuit, for example) to secure interest and, possibly, eventual distribution. An independent filmmaker’s access to resources will determine the function and style of the Web site in ways that are very different from major studio counterparts.
Movie Web Sites—A Range of Promotional Approaches
As mentioned previously, Adam Finn and others examined movie Web sites according to four characteristics, modifying four levels of general Web marketing activity to apply to movie promotion. These characteristics are:
- Communication: Web sites communicate promotional messages about the film using movie reviews, links to film listings in newspapers, or ticket purchase sites such as Fandango.com or Movietickets.com.
- Sales: Web sites sell traditional products, such as DVDs, soundtracks, or film-related merchandise.
- Content: Web sites provide content as a supplemental service for narrower market segments, which might include behind-the-scenes footage or interviews with cast and crew.
- Networking: Web sites provide an arena for networking among audiences through online chat rooms or discussion boards.
The characteristic of sales, coupled with many of the parameters that define the communication category, reflect overall promotional goals of generating revenue through the sale of theatrical tickets, home videos, and film-related merchandise. Therefore, I have collapsed them into one category: sales. The second two, content and networking, reflect goals of maximizing audience interaction to develop demand for the films themselves. I have expanded the content characteristic to incorporate those portions of the communication category that do not explicitly address sales, which include the use of movie reviews. Therefore, my adapted framework does away with the communication category altogether.
While Finn and other’s framework encompasses a general range of possible movie Web site activities, it was not originally used to identify differences in the motivations of Web sites’ producers. Finn et al. compare how Canadian and American producers/distributors use the Internet as a promotional vehicle, concluding that Canadian films might perform better at the box office if they took advantage of the potential of Web marketing. Fred Zufryden also concludes that a well-designed movie Web site is an important component of a film’s promotional strategy. However, both of these studies assume that all movie Web sites set out to achieve the same goals; I contend, however, that major film studios and independent filmmakers differ greatly in their motivations for Web site function. This reverberates to the intended role of the Web site visitor as well, in that producers have certain audience expectations and assess the value of the audience in very different ways.
An analysis of 50 Web sites for American narrative feature films provides the basis for my evaluation of motivations and intended audience interaction. By paying particular attention to the characteristics of sales, content, and networking, we can examine Web sites in terms of written content, links, and graphics. What is the tone of the content? Can we tell who wrote it? How sophisticated is the Web site’s design? The user’s initial contact with the Web site is a key element because it provides clues as to the Web site creator’s expectations of the Web site user. The links on the main page, for example, indicate how the user is supposed to interact with the site.
We can observe three streams of Web site-based promotional efforts, two of which serve primarily corporate goals of maximizing revenue through saturated merchandising and fan devotion through monetary gestures, while the third relies on organic viral marketing. The elements featured on corporate Web sites (or those residing within the first two streams) indicate an overarching goal: to maximize revenue generation. Therefore, Web sites for major studio films contain a multiplicity of purchase opportunities. Every content- and networking-based feature works toward reinforcing sales. Even when fan interaction is a Web site’s chief feature, with content and networking features serving that interaction, profit maximization is still the Web site’s primary function. Conversely, independently produced Web sites (in the third stream) favor content and networking and tend to offer very few purchase opportunities. These sites focus on building relationships with fans in order to build audiences for their films. While I do not intend to say that all Web sites fit into one of these three categories, these three types, as outlined in the following table and later, do provide a useful way of thinking about how a given Web site operates and what its design and content might say about its producers.
Extension of Traditional Media—Saturated Merchandising
The Internet as an extension of traditional media is the most prominent way in which major studios use the Internet to promote movies. Within Finn et al.’s framework, major studios primarily sell products on their film Web sites. They do use such interactive features as supplemental content and networking in order to entice and retain audiences. I contend, though, that these Web sites include such content only to support the central objective of generating sales. Appealing to a broad audience is a subordinate effort. The underlying assumption is that if more people visit a film’s Web site and make repeat visits, more tickets and related merchandise will be sold, thereby serving the central objective of maximizing sales.
Major studios incorporate Web sites into their promotional strategies as a method of reaching targeted audiences. Studios’ movie Web sites typically feature the same content as they would offer in other promotional mediums: trailers, cross-promotions and tie-ins, and reminders to buy movie-related merchandise. These are all used to feed studios’ main objectives, which are, according to Janet Wasko and other film industry scholars, to generate as much revenue as possible for a given movie. The Internet simply allows major studios to provide this content in a more synergistic package; instead of offering purchase opportunities in piecemeal newspaper or television ads, the Internet provides a one-stop shop for studios to entice consumers with a complete arsenal of purchase opportunities. Regardless of whether the film is currently being released in theaters or on home video, the Web site is consistently used to promote merchandise; the focus merely shifts from buying tickets to preordering or ordering the DVD.
Universal Pictures’ 2005 film King Kong is an example of how a major studio created an all-inclusive Web site to encourage audience interactivity with a film’s Web site with the goal of buying tickets and film-related merchandise. From one’s very first interaction with the King Kong Web site on its home page, a visitor to the site notices that opportunities to purchase movie-related items are continually reinforced. The site features no less than four reminders that the DVD of King Kong is available for purchase; one of these reminders links to the Universal Studios Home Video and DVD Web site. Should the visitor be reticent to purchase the DVD, the film’s trailer plays automatically as the page loads as temptation to see the film. The home page is also rife with cross-promotions, from Papa Johns pizza to The Sci-Fi Boys (another of director Peter Jackson’s feature films) to a King Kong game to a King Kong MasterCard offer. Clicking on “Enter the Site,” the visitor is led to another page that includes more reminders that the DVD is available for purchase. Links line the bottom of this page: “Mobile” links to Gameloft.com where cell phone ringtones, games, and wallpapers are available for purchase; “Trailer” features the theatrical trailer, enticing visitors to want to see the full film; “Game” links to Peter Jackson’s King Kong—The Official Game of the Movie, available for purchase for all major game platforms; “Soundtrack” links to the music composer’s Web site, where visitors can purchase the movie soundtrack from Amazon.com or iClassics.com, a division of Universal Music Classics Group; “Kongisking.net,” a production-related forum; “Partners,” which brings up links to various companies involved in cross-promotions and tie-ins (Nestle Crunch, Papa Johns Pizza, and Kodak EasyShare Gallery, among others); and “Own the DVD now!,” which yet again gives the site visitor the opportunity to own one or all of six versions of the film.
The “Kongisking.net” forum presents itself as a Web site for fans to interact with the film. However, one cannot help but be overwhelmed with purchase opportunities: the King Kong DVD Countdown lists the number of days, hours, minutes, and seconds until the Deluxe Extended Edition DVD and Deluxe Extended Limited Edition DVD are released. If fans can’t wait for the release of these versions, they are encouraged to purchase other DVDs, such as The World of Kong: A Natural History of Skull Island, the film’s Production Diaries, the 1933 King Kong 2-Disc Special Edition, and The King Kong Collection, all conveniently linked to Amazon.com for easy purchase. One can also apply for the King Kong MasterCard here.
While King Kong can be cited as one of the most blatant examples of saturated merchandising, we can examine the Web sites of various other major releases to see similar trends. The Web site for Sony Pictures’ Fun With Dick and Jane, for example, continually reminds the visitor that the movie is available for purchase on DVD and PSP (PlayStation Portable).15 A graphic of the actual DVD case is prominently displayed as reinforcement of this message, and visitors are able to click a link, “About the DVD,” in order to find out more information about the product they will be buying. Production notes, photographs, and other content-related items are featured on this Web site; a prominently displayed graphic reminding the visitor to purchase the DVD or PSP version of the film never leaves the top right quadrant of the Web page.
Similarly, the Web site for The Guardian (distributed by Disney-owned Buena Vista Pictures) features a permanent heading, during the film’s theatrical release, that encouraged the visitor to be “First in Line, Online!” by buying tickets from an online ticketing service.16 Once the DVD was released, The Guardians Web site began to prominently display advertisements to purchase the DVD, including notifications that an alternate ending for the movie is but one of many special features on the DVD. Also, the “Mobile” page sells various ringtones and wallpaper for cell phones. Granted, this Web site does feature quite an extensive collection of content that reminds us that the film is about Coast Guard rescuers. No matter which area of content the site visitor chooses to view, however, there is never any question as to when the movie will be released in theaters or, later, on DVD. Each of these content pages has an announcement: “The Guardian. Risk Everything 9/29.” Soon, this statement is replaced with a similar announcement: “The Guardian. On DVD January 23.”
We can observe similar trends on the Web sites for films released through the specialty divisions of major distributors, such as The Thing About My Folks, released by Picturehouse (a company formed by New Line Cinema and HBO, both owned by Time Warner). These films are marketed to specialized and often discerning audiences interested in the quality of the film in terms of acting and writing. Web sites for these types of films still reflect the overall goal of maximizing revenue. The Web site features the film’s actors, Peter Falk and Paul Reiser, bantering about the Web site’s usefulness in “finding out where to see the movie.” A DVD case of the movie sits in the very center of the screen, reminding the viewer that the film is now available for purchase; a link to a New Line Cinema store facilitates that purchase.
These sites reveal the overall objectives of major studios to turn films into havens of merchandise possibilities. With regards to Finn et al.’s rubric, these Web sites encourage viewing of the films in all of their various formats; indeed, they actively sell tickets and home videos. More prominently and, arguably, fundamentally important to the film’s distributor, these sites offer limitless opportunities to purchase movie-related merchandise. King Kong, as a highly marketed blockbuster movie, represents an intense display of purchase opportunities that outweighs the merchandising on many other studio film Web sites. It is, however, not unreasonable to say that if the market for merchandise affiliated with other films such as The Guardian or Fun With Dick and Jane existed in as many forms as it does for King Kong, these Web sites would feature more merchandise.
Controlled Interactivity—Selling Devotion
Some films are more conducive to maximizing site visitor interaction in that they encourage fan participation. Web sites for these films continue to encourage sales of tickets and merchandise, but they are more firmly couched within interactive features. These film Web sites enable studios to secure a loyal fan base in such a way that fans feel less manipulated and therefore more like integral participants in the film’s success.
Often, these films are blockbuster franchises (high-budget films with sequels) with a pre-existing dedicated fan base that has carried over from the text’s previous incarnation as another media form, such as a book, graphic novel, comic, or video game. Web site visitors are reminded again and again that the text exists in a variety of formats, whether it is a film or book or game, and they are encouraged to choose their preferred format through which to interact with the text. They are also encouraged to express their own interpretations of the text through films and blogs.
The Star Wars franchise is the quintessential example of a franchise that is promoted online to cultivate fan loyalty and interaction in order to sell tickets and merchandise. Lucasfilm established the official Star Wars Web site in 1996 as the studio recognized the promotional potential of the Internet well ahead of its contemporaries and even before the success of The Blair Witch Project.18 It built a large and sophisticated community of Star Wars-affiliated Web sites and generated a giant web of fan sites dedicated to some aspect of Star Wars, of which the latest installment of the series, Episode III—Revenge of the Sith (George Lucas, 2005), is part. The main features of this Web site emphasize membership and community first and foremost. Visitors are encouraged to sign in to the site as recognized members of the community; if they are not yet members, they are encouraged to become members. A selection of fan blogs is featured on the home page, as are profiles of artists who have worked in some capacity with the Star Wars universe and fan-created films. A “Community” button provides links to news and events, fan clubs, message boards, and blogs, among others.
Fan involvement is free of cost if one is content to participate on a basic and minimal level. Fans are, however, given plentiful opportunities to interact with the film franchise by purchasing services and merchandise that provide what can be perceived as a much more fulfilling experience. At $39.95 for an annual membership, the Official Star Wars Fan Club, Hyperspace, has been “created to unify and spotlight worldwide fan activity, give exclusive inside access to the cast and crew of the movies, provide a way to buy really cool exclusive stuff, and most of all … to celebrate Star Wars.” This membership also permits fans to create an officially sanctioned Star Wars blog, which is linked on the Star Wars Web site. Fan involvement of this nature was, in 2001, offered gratis; with an estimated minimum of 12,000 blogs at the time of this writing, this type of fan involvement has turned into a guaranteed moneymaker for Lucasfilm.
Film franchise Web sites are deft at reminding its audiences that they are indeed franchises and that there are multiple other ways to interact with a text. Because many of these films derive from other media (novels or games, for example), there are many different ways in which a potential audience member might learn of the franchise. Lucasfilm is adept at exploiting these multiple points of entry, both to garner new audiences and to expand a fan’s engagement with the text to include various formats, be they books or films or collectibles. A quiz on the Web site asks, “What do you know of Shadows of Empire?” (Shadows of Empire is a novel that builds on the Star Wars film saga.) Visitors are prompted with answers such as: “I read the novel,” “I read the comics,” “I played the game,” and “I collected the toys.” The fan is alerted that this story exists not only in the form of a novel but also as a comic, a game, and various toys. Therefore, a fan’s interaction with a text is defined by their interaction with commodified products.
And regardless of one’s point of entry, the Star Wars Web site assumes that fans will want to display their devotion monetarily. This is why, months before the release of The Phantom Menace, Lucasfilm “produced a poster-sized, color-coded chart circulated among the hundreds of Star Wars licensees that details, month by month, every merchandising and marketing event related to Star Wars from early last year  until the millennium.” This admission of the use of formalized marketing strategies indicates expected results and has even been called “the most ambitious attempt to date to exploit a film franchise.”
Other film franchises have arguably modeled their Web sites on Star Wars’ foray into online fan involvement. Disney’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is another such example. Based on a series of children’s books, this franchise released its first film in 2005, with a second film in the series to be released in 2008. Disney, the Web site’s producer, assumes an already dedicated audience base that has grown up with the Narnia book series; the Web site also seeks to cultivate a new generation of fans by introducing them to the series through the film adaptation. As is the case with Star Wars, there are multiple points of entry to access the text, and the Web site enables the site visitor to interact in any number of ways. A window in the center of the screen cycles through various options that the Web site offers (buy the DVD, play the game, read the books, etc.); these options are also all available along the toolbar at the top of the screen and alongside this center window. No one item is emphasized more than the others—not even those options that encourage the visitor to purchase merchandise.
The Narnia Web site seeks to engage fans through an “Ultimate Fan Contest,” the winner of which will visit the production set of the second Narnia film and have their experience documented and posted on the Narnia Web site. While certainly not as interactive as Star Wars fan participation, Narnia fans can submit photographs or videos of themselves that illustrate their dedication to the series. Nick, from Astoria, New York, submitted a picture of himself dressed as a character from Narnia and writes: “I made my outfit for a Halloween party, and I’ve taken it to a rain forest in Puerto Rico to take additional photos.” This level of fan dedication is rewarded; Nick became a finalist in the Ultimate Fan Contest.
While not as complex as Star Wars or even Narnia in terms of participation, the Web site for Saw II, one film in a four-part franchise, also incorporates many of the elements of this Web site model.25 The terminology used on the Web site connotes an interaction on the part of the fans; visitors are invited to “engage,” “experience,” and “participate.” An example of participation is the “Post Your Fear” section, which is a discussion board on which visitors can post entries about things that scare them, upload accompanying pictures, and leave their email addresses, which serves to, presumably, verify the authenticity of the postings. There is also a link to the Saw III message board, on which fans can interact with each other.
It is assumed, however, that fans will express their interest in the franchise by purchasing merchandise, and there are endless opportunities to do so. Half of the home page screen is taken up with a graphic of the Saw IIDVD case (“Own it on DVD!”). When the Web site invites fans to “engage” with the movie, it means that fans will buy the DVD, mobile phone ringtones, the soundtrack, and iPod downloads. Truly dedicated fans will even seek collectible items; thus, an “auction” is offered in which props, autographs, and other items are open for bidding.
Film franchises, with their origination often in other media forms, tend to have built-in audiences, and it is the exploitation of these audiences that provides studios with the means to achieve their promotional ends: to maximize sales. Finn et al. deem the use of the Internet for networking and to relay content as significant in movie marketing campaigns. It is obvious that film franchises like Star Wars use the Internet for these purposes. One must remember, though, that Lucasfilm and others do so in subservience to the overarching objective of maximizing revenue. Their strategy is somewhat different than that employed for nonfranchise films because they must cultivate audience loyalty and sustained interest in the franchise as more films in the series are released. Therefore, these Web sites tend to emphasize the availability of multiple points of entry in order to maximize the reach of potential audiences. Essentially, they are saying that the fans do not need to interact with the film, per se; any interaction with the franchise as a whole is sufficient, so long as a purchase is made.
Organic Viral Marketing—A Personal Journey
With comparatively fewer resources at their disposal than their corporate counterparts, independent filmmakers and small distributors must find ways to connect with film audiences so that those audiences serve as film promoters themselves. One can say that this is the independent filmmaker and small distributor’s primary promotional goal. Thus, these filmmakers are drawn to the sort of campaign modeled by The Blair Witch Project; this campaign, initiated by fans, was allowed to develop organically and virally and turned out to be an inexpensive and extremely efficient mode of promoting the film. Networking and content are key characteristics in the design and structure of these Web sites because their intended audiences seem to be drawn to the do-it-yourself nature of independent filmmaking.
While a precise definition of the term viral marketing has been contested, several agree that viral marketing is a “process of encouraging honest communication among consumer networks.”26 The word organic is attached to viral marketing to denote a natural development of the communicative and networking process. The independent filmmaker relies primarily on Web site visitors to promote the film; as such, he or she places a great deal of trust in the role and activity of the audience. In contrast, while major film studios often incorporate viral marketing into their promotional campaigns, they do not rely solely on this tactic to promote their films. As mentioned earlier, television and newspaper advertising still represent the majority of a film’s marketing budget.
Independent filmmakers often wear many different hats: They design the film’s Web site, conduct promotions, and interact personally with fans. All this happens, often, while they continue working to finish the film for which the Web site exists. Independent filmmakers emphasize their personal journeys on their Web sites; with relatively limited resources, there is little else to include. This entrée into the filmmaker’s world, via the Web site, is often met with active fan support of the film. Fans will then often spread word about the film in various online and offline venues. Thus, one promotional strategy of the independent film Web site is to make the film and the filmmakers accessible to audiences.
The Web site for the film LOL is such an example. Made for $3,000, LOL enjoyed its theatrical debut at the 2006 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival in Austin, Texas. Joe Swanberg, the film’s director (and writer/producer/cast member), has maintained a production journal blog since the film’s inception. The blog’s entries carry an informal tone, giving the impression that the reader is participating in a comfortable conversation with Swanberg as he relates the ups and downs of independent filmmaking. “I am really excited about the fact that LOL has no real ‘cringe’ areas for me. I’m sure I will notice plenty of cringe-worthy things as I spend more time with the finished cut, but it’s nice and fresh right now, and I’m able to watch it and almost enjoy it.” Similarly, the Web site for Deadroom encourages its audience to visit the directors’ personal blogs, which offer a glimpse into their lives. These blogs serve to not only promote this film; they also document the filmmakers’ musings about other film projects. And the blog for The Cassidy Kids monitors every stage in the film’s production, from its submission to the Sundance Film Festival (Sundance turned down the film) to color-correcting the film print to recapping a radio interview with the director prior to the SXSW Festival in 2006.
On the LOL Web site, Swanberg gives site visitors other opportunities to get to know him. They can communicate directly with him by posting responses to his blog, and Swanberg also posts a link to the film’s MySpace online community Web site. In addition to delivering film-related information, this site also features links to the film’s actors’ personal MySpace profiles (as well as Swanberg’s profile) and allows others to connect their MySpace profiles back to the LOL MySpace site. The producers of The Last Romantic also utilize MySpace to provide a more comprehensive Web site about the film; in fact, the movie’s official Web site is fairly minimalist, while the directors’ personal blogs are updated through MySpace.
A significant element differentiating the organic and viral marketing Web site from that of a major studio film is the distinct lack of focus on sales. Unlike studio sites, which are saturated with merchandise purchase opportunities, LOL does not feature any links to merchandise. The filmmakers would rather their film is seen rather than make money: “[We are] all trying to figure out ways to get the movie into as many hands as possible. We all agree that giving out free DVDs is a good start, so keep checking in to find out how to get your free copy of the movie in April.” There are products that the LOL Web site could sell but that are instead available for free; 12 songs from the film’s soundtrack, for example, are downloadable without cost, and the site offers a free subscription to an iTunes video podcast. Even intentions to sell merchandise fall short and with seemingly little concern; the Deadroom Web site notes, “This film should be available for purchase in early 2006,” but the home video was still not available months later.34 While these freebies do often serve as calling cards of sorts for independent filmmakers hoping to break into the mainstream industry, they also signal a common belief that films should be accessible to their communities of audiences. Independent films especially are community efforts that continue to rely on their communities even after production has wrapped.
Only when an independently produced film is picked up for distribution does its Web site begin to change tone. The extent to which it changes, however, is reflected in the kind of company that distributes the film. For example, The Oh in Ohio is distributed theatrically by Cyan Pictures, a small New York-based distribution company. Its Web site retains the feel of other independently produced Web sites, with links to festival appearances and critical accolades. The option of buying tickets to the movie is the only purchase opportunity on this Web site; one must click to another Web site in order to do so. The Web site for Boynton Beach Club features the independent aesthetic even more prominently. After this film secured distribution from the partnered independent distributors Samuel Goldwyn Films and Roadside Attractions, this Web site’s home page was redesigned to reflect a more stylish approach to promotion, with flash animation and a trailer that automatically plays when the page is loaded. When one clicks on “Enter Website,” however, we are led to what one can assume is the original Web site used prior to the film’s distribution deal. With amateurish design, a mish-mash of fonts, and text-heavy pages, the Web site relies on content to fill its pages. There are no purchase opportunities; there are no networking opportunities either. It is a purely functional Web site, linking to production notes and cast and crew biographies, as a supplement to the film.
Lacking the financial wherewithal of their corporate counterparts, independent filmmakers rely on the cultivation of relationships with audiences to generate support for their films. They also use the Internet to offer information to potential distributors and film critics. The Internet has been the most effective tool with which to do so, particularly because of its accessible, affordable, and interactive characteristics. In accordance with Finn et al.’s model, Web sites are used for networking and to offer content, so that filmmakers like Swanberg can develop a rapport with fans. Purchase opportunities are almost nonexistent on these Web sites—while the filmmakers may have little to sell, they may also prefer to give unlimited access to a project of love. The independent filmmaker’s long-range marketing plan tends not to include color-coded charts à la Star Wars; in fact, a film’s promotional timeline often does not extend beyond film festival submission.
As movie attendance in theaters takes a hit (the Motion Picture Association of America reports that ticket sales have declined 11.5% from 2002 to 2006), major studios continually seek ways to reach audiences in order to draw them into theater seats. And as theater attendance declines, the reliance on ancillary markets continues to rise, and major studios pour even more resources toward sales of home videos and film-related merchandise to generate revenue. The potential for some film properties is huge; New Line Cinema has reportedly generated upwards of $2.5 billion from worldwide sales of The Lord of the Rings merchandise that includes home videos, action figures, videogames, and apparel, among other goods. Certainly, few films promise this phenomenal level of profits, but with DVD sales dipping (2007 saw the first decline of DVD sales by 4.5% since the format was introduced 10 years prior), studios look to expand all opportunities for revenue; this objective centrally underlies most major studio films’ Web sites.
The major studios witnessed the success of The Blair Witch Project and thought they had found the secret ingredient to harnessing audiences and ensuring a successful theatrical and home video run. They have tried to emulate the most successful elements of the online promotional campaign, failing to realize that some of the most successful parts are successful because of something that is difficult for major studio sites to replicate: The filmmaker relates his or her personal journey taken with the film. Hollywood has undoubtedly tried to utilize this element, as studio film Web sites often feature production notes and director’s commentary. One can’t help but wonder, however, who is behind the production of these features and if they are created primarily to be included on special edition DVDs.
Major studio-backed directors such as Peter Jackson, who directed the 2005 version of King Kong, face a different set of problems with filmmaking than their independent counterparts, which makes them less accessible to the average audience member. While one can say that Peter Jackson is traveling a personal journey with his film (which he does do on the King Kong Web site), he does not face the same trials as Joe Swanberg, for whom filmmaking is more financially risky. In an online video production diary, Jackson counts down the time before King Kong is released in theaters around the world. When he then attends the film’s world premiere in Wellington, New Zealand, Jackson thanks the “thousands and thousands of people” who helped with his film, as fans hug giant inflatable bananas. Joe Swanberg, on the other hand, counts down the days until a given film festival submission deadline, to which his film may or may not be accepted. The film is finally accepted and so Swanberg relates the experience of his film’s world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival in 2006: “We had the World Premiere. It was great. We’re all sick and tired and doing our best not to fall asleep at the parties. This is really the first bit of time I have had to sit down and write anything. It’s been non-stop since we arrived in Austin.”
The categories of Web sites set forth here serve to begin the process of understanding how film studios and individual filmmakers use the Internet for promotional purposes. They highlight how disparately the Internet is approached depending on the entity that creates the Web site, for differences in resources and expectations of the audience alter the purpose of Web site promotion. The categories are not intended to be the definitive voice on Internet movie marketing; they can only describe the state of movie Web sites as they appear today. With rapidly evolving technological features and equipment, tomorrow may yield an entirely new approach to using the Internet in a film promotion campaign. As illustrated by the Web site for LOL and other independently produced films, we can observe that the social networking Web site MySpace is a significant component of the promotional campaign. The major studio film Web sites examined here did not utilize this feature; only very recently has MySpace been incorporated as a vital component for major studios. We are now starting to witness the integration of YouTube, a video-sharing Web site, as a marketing tool, primarily for independent filmmakers. Susan Buice and Arin Crumley’s film Four Eyed Monsters (2005) became the first feature film to be premiered in full on YouTube.
It has been the trend for independent filmmakers to first explore alternative modes of online film promotion. Only once these alternative modes have proven successful do major studios copy those tactics, translating strategies into those that fit more firmly within major studios’ promotional goals. Whether or not those strategies translate to encompass corporate objectives, such as maximizing sales to benefit the bottom line, is often subject to interpretation.
Because there is relatively little research on online film marketing, there is much room for the development of ways to analyze promotional campaigns. This study denotes ways in which both independents and majors have adapted their practices to encompass new technologies. We can extend the distinctions made here to analyze Web sites of other kinds of movies not explored here; how do we understand activist-oriented Web sites for some documentaries? Where do foreign-produced film Web sites fit, given a range of resource availability and more practical, offline modes of promotion in other regions of the world? This structure can also perhaps be used to analyze other media through which film is promoted. Where and how do we observe the promotional objectives of sales, networking, and content in other media? Just as important, though, is the distinction between corporate and independent promotion. The Internet provides a chance for majors and independents to compete with each other on the relatively level playing field; their success is determined by how they are both able to hone their strategies. How, then, might we analyze other circumstances of corporate versus independent promotion in other media?
This study is intended to initiate a more structured conversation into how the parameters of film promotion are defined. With technology constantly changing the online promotion landscape, these parameters are constantly shifting, but here, they are frozen for a moment in time so that we may examine them a little more closely.