Bringing movie magic to Net marketing

Studios are adopting technology that turns online promotions into a DVD-like experience.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
5 min read
The camera focusing on the rock climbers pans into the sky at the rumble of a jet engine. A distant speck becomes a predatory-looking fighter jet unlike anything else in the skies.

"Hey Mike, did you see that?" comes a voice off-screen. "That was crazy, dude."

You can watch this video, a faux-homemade teaser for Sony Pictures' upcoming movie "Stealth," in an ordinary business-card size window at Sony's Web site, with sound that is thin at best. But the studio has a better alternative.


What's new:
Hollywood studios are adopting technology that turns online promotions into a DVD-like experience.

Bottom line:
Like other marketers, studios are desperately seeking ways to reach viewers who are turning away from prime-time television--and their effort has become more urgent as sales of box-office tickets and DVDs have dropped.

More stories on this topic

Sony is joining 20th Century Fox, which used the same technology to promote three films earlier this year, in a new broadband experiment aimed at promoting movies with full-screen, near-DVD-quality video viewed straight off a viewer's hard drive. Executives at Fox say the technique has helped drive interest in their films, including "Kingdom of Heaven" and "Mr. and Mrs. Smith."

"We're always looking at what is the best place to reach the various audiences who are not watching TV, and thinking whether we have the right message to reach them online," said Liz Jones, vice president for digital marketing at 20th Century Fox. "I've been extremely happy with the way this is going. I'm a big believer in showcasing video in the best quality possible."

Like other marketers, Hollywood studios are desperately seeking ways to reach viewers who are turning away from prime-time television. They're following these audiences to the Net, and in the process are finding ways to create online advertising that's as seductive as TV advertising.

The studios' appeal to online audiences is made more urgent by sobering trends in the movie business, including declining box-office ticket sales and a sharp slowdown in the growth of DVD sales.

Sony and Fox are early customers of a small company called Maven Networks, which takes much of the content that studios are already creating for their promotional Web sites and blends it with the old automatic-download "push" models of PointCast Networks and other early Net companies.

Maven is trying to make a business of persuading Net surfers to seek out promotional material, whether from the studios or from other companies such as PepsiCo or General Motors which have also licensed its video technology.

"We're always looking at what is the best place to reach the various audiences who are not watching TV, and thinking whether we have the right message to reach them online."
--Liz Jones, vice president, 20th Century Fox

The tools created by Maven, a 3-year-old Cambridge, Mass., company, turn the online experience into something akin to a constantly updated DVD. Once a viewer downloads a piece of software to a computer, high-quality video and other content trickles down in the background, allowing viewing of trailers, movie clips and other features within minutes.

The software runs continuously in the background unless shut down, taking up about as much memory as a Web browser when the movie player is not open, or double that much if the movie trailers are being watched.

As the date for a movie approaches, additional videos can be sent automatically, keeping a potential fan's interest alive. When the curtains finally go up on a film, links to Web sites that provide show times and tickets appear inside the application. Studios can also let viewers choose to receive automatic downloads of content for other films.

"You don't see this quality every day, so it grabs people's attention," said Maven Chief Executive Officer Hilmi Ozguc, a former Lotus Development executive who also founded Narrative Communications, an early streaming media ad company. "The studios can build interest in one movie, and then parlay that into interest in the next one."

Bringing video up to speed
Online marketing is nothing new, of course. A solid Web presence has been a critical part of a movie release at least since "The Blair Witch Project" jumped to prominence on the back of an underground Net buzz in 1999.

Indeed, movie trailers have long been one of the most popular multimedia features online, with 49 percent of all people who use online video watching some movie trailers, according to research firm RHK.

What's changing is the underlying technology. More than half of American households with Internet access now have broadband connections, which means that better quality video and audio can now be sent to computers.

To the studio executives, that quality matters. High-quality sound and pictures are better at seducing viewers into movie seats (or at least into the DVD store), and Hollywood marketing executives have long

complained about the grainy, stuttering video still often found online.

Maven isn't the only company aiming to boost this quality. Apple Computer, whose QuickTime video site has long served as one of the biggest online hubs for movie trailers, recently added a high-definition video section as a way to showcase its new software.

Although few consumers have both high-definition monitors and the patience to download 100 megabyte-plus files, studios are eagerly providing content, Apple said.

"When they look at the quality that's produced by high-definition, they want to be part of that experience," said Frank Casanova, Apple's director of QuickTime marketing.

Ozguc sees these Net promotions as a natural step to more ambitious plans. With his company's ability to trickle high-quality video to a hard drive, it's ultimately a logical move to begin selling the movies themselves, he said.

"The two major studios are using technology to promote films, but I think they're also testing the waters as to what it will take to build a major retail presence down the road," Ozguc said. "All the functionality for billing and content management is there. It gives (the studios) a way to flip the switch from promotion to sales overnight."

That may be a long shot, since studios are still struggling with a business calculus that favors physical DVD sales over Internet distribution. However, several movie studios are toying with the idea of selling digital versions of movies with limited portability on the Net by the end of this year.

Analysts say it is increasingly important to reach consumers on the Net, where people are spending more and more of their time. The high quality of Maven or Apple high-definition video may also help increase the effectiveness of the studios' marketing message, they say.

The downside is that the number of messages and applications competing for people's attention online is rising fast. That cacophony ultimately may make consumers ignore even the highest-quality video as easily as they do today's banner ads.

"Anything that gets to people at their computer, where they're spending a lot more of their time, is important," said Michael McGuire, research director at analyst firm GartnerG2. "But the risk is that consumers will run into icon fatigue."