Film secrets blown: Studios vs. the Web
November 18, 1999
From Dennis Michael
HOLLYWOOD (CNN) -- Filmgoers can wait until Friday to see the mainstream-media reviews of Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow" -- or they can see unauthorized previews on the World Wide Web right now.
Webmasters with inside access to film-industry material are spilling the beans online, funding a growing number of Web sites that cover film and television without constraints. They publish advance copies of screenplays, casting information and even reviews of private and test screenings.
None of this activity is sanctioned by the studios.
"The Internet has really livened up the movie-marketing game," says Paula Parisi, a contributing editor with Wired magazine. "The studios are all about control. They have devised an incredible system for doling out information in the exact way they want it received by the public, and the Internet has thrown this into a complete tailspin."
Studios fret as surf rises
In some cases, Web sites help sell their subjects: Savvy Web publicity helped make hits of this year's "The Blair Witch Project" and "American Pie." But Web sites can also hurt -- studios say bad advance publicity on the Web contributed to disappointing box-office takes on "Batman and Robin" (1997), "Godzilla" (1998), this year's "Eyes Wide Shut" and other films.
Some of that blame is undeserved, says Harry Knowles, webmaster of Ain't It Cool News.com, which published reviews panning "Batman and Robin" weeks before its release.
Knowles says, "A lot of people would bring up that, you know, (saying) 'You broke "Batman and Robin."' No, I did not break 'Batman and Robin.' The people who made 'Batman and Robin' broke 'Batman and Robin,' I just told a lot of people that it was a bad movie."
True or not, studio officials say they're worried about publicity outside their control.
"You don't know if they've even seen (your movie)," says Mark Gill, president of Miramax Films in Los Angeles. "You don't know who they are. You have no reason to understand whether they saw a stolen tape or what they saw. And sometimes that stuff has a funny way of snowballing, and it really creates a nasty effect."
Some films get a higher-than-average share of Internet buzz because they have a Web-savvy fan base. For example, rumors about "Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace" spawned at least four major unauthorized sites in the months leading up to the film's release this summer, despite strict control by Lucasfilm Ltd. on official information about the project.
Now, projects including the anticipated 2000 releases "X-Men" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" face similar issues. Both are featured on fan-run Web sites.
Michael Regina, who runs his Theonering.net site from Toronto, says he's a fan of the original J.R.R. Tolkien material. (The first book, "The Hobbit; Or There and Back Again" was published in 1937.) But Regina says he doesn't serve New Line Cinema, WingNut Films and the Saul Zaentz Company, the producing partners turning the Tolkien stories into a series of films. "The Return of the King" and "The Two Towers" are expected to be 2001 releases.
"I'm not going to be a commercial," Regina says. "I'm not going to be used by them (the studios), either. They don't give me stuff and say, 'Hey, why don't you post this?' And I don't post too much stuff that's too spoiler-ish -- you know, I don't want to ruin it for them."
To some extent, studios are learning to use the Web to their advantage. Studio-controlled sites might entice potential audience members to play Web-based video games -- as did the recent "House on Haunted Hill" -- or watch Webcasts of world premieres, as are available on the new James Bond "The World Is Not Enough" site.
For now, in trying to keep Web-spies at bay, studios are resorting to secret screenings under cover of darkness -- and scanning the Web to see if they've been scooped.
New Line Cinema, a studio producing partner in "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," is a sister company to CNN Interactive, a Time Warner property.
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