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AOL to star in feature film

The online giant's role in You've Got Mail starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan is a major coup--for the company and the Net.

Call it You've Got AOL.

On December 18, America Online will be the centerpiece of a new Warner Bros. romantic comedy called You've Got Mail, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan and directed by Nora Ephron, who worked with both in the 1993 blockbuster Sleepless in Seattle.

The movie, especially with its title named after AOL's trademark slogan, would be an enormous coup for any company, but its value to an Internet play is unfathomable in today's hypercompetitive online marketplace. And the fact that the film is produced by a major studio with blockbuster stars bears significance far beyond AOL, reflecting the Net's penetration into America's mainstream consciousness.

In fact, according to one report, AOL didn't even initiate the deal: It was Ephron who approached the online giant with the film's theme, Newsweek reported, not the other way around.

"Whether it's by accident or by careful planning, this is another mainstream marketing tool for AOL," said Kate Delhagen, an analyst at Forrester Research. "This will only help accelerate their growth."

You've Got Mail, based on the 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner, stars Hanks and Ryan as rival booksellers living in New York City who unknowingly cross paths daily (they buy coffee at the same Starbucks). They fall in love after meeting for the first time in an AOL chat room and deepen their virtual relationship in the AOL ether.

The film isn't the first to make the Internet integral to a story. Mainstream movies such as 1995's The Net and last year's The Saint and Conspiracy Theory used the medium as all or part of their focus. But You've Got Mail represents "the first time in a movie when the Internet is not a 'thing.' It's a normal part of people's lives," AOL spokeswoman Wendy Goldberg noted.

For example, You've Got Mail is one of the rare instances where a movie portrays the Net, and computers in general, as something for regular people and not the exclusive domain of spies, hackers, or terrorists. And technology's role in the film is simply one of communication--the planet isn't being brought to an end, as in 1983's WarGames, and chips aren't being planted in people's brains to deliver data within an overly networked world, as in 1995's Johnny Mnemonic.

"We worked with [the movie's creators] to make the AOL experience that you'll see in the movie something that our members will see as realistic as possible," Goldberg said.

Regardless of the terms of the deal, which a Warner Bros. spokesman declined to discuss, the movie will provide a publicity windfall for AOL. Because the film targets upper-middle-class 30- to 40-somethings, AOL is riding a powerful demographic marketing wave.

AOL has gone to great lengths to advertise its service in traditional media forums such as television, radio, and newspapers. The online giant's executives emphasize repeatedly that the company's marketing efforts are aimed squarely at mainstream Americans who seek guidance getting onto the Internet, and that they want the ISP to be seen more as an appliance than as a technology solution.

But using films for product placement is not without its strategic risks.

"If the product placement is too overt, it turns people off," said David Simons, managing director of Digital Video Investments. "If it comes across as a big commercial, then you have problems no matter who the star is."

Delhagen added that booming brand success could backfire if AOL is not prepared for the onslaught of new customers the film could deliver, or for existing customers to be inspired by the film to stay connected to the service longer. AOL could face the same type of system jam-ups that plagued it when it first introduced unlimited pricing.

"It could be a marketing black-eye if they haven't planned for it," Delhagen said.

In the end, the success of the product placement effort will depend largely on how successful the movie ultimately is.

"In the end," Simons said, "it's up to Siskel and Ebert."