Lights… Camera… CONVERGENCE

Ever since the Web helped make “The Blair Witch Project” a blockbuster in 1999, film studios have been working to come up with new ways to leverage the Internet.

There is no sure formula for success, but a few sound principles are worth considering for anyone concerned with convergence and entertainment.

  1. Viral marketing works. Any respectable celluloid release now has a companion Web site, with the URL plastered on print and TV collateral. But generally HTML does not drives people to the box office; email does. The “Blair Witch” hype was fueled by a flurry of emails. The Web site served as a platform for enhancing the film’s mystique and as a home base for a community of people interested in the story. Do everything you can to cultivate this core of support.

  2. Get the audience involved. AtomFilms has carved out a successful niche by providing a place on the Internet to watch short, mostly independent films. The company, which recently closed a deal to merge with Shockwave.com, gets additional exposure through nonexclusive distribution deals with other popular Web sites, including Volkswagen.com. Rely on other people’s content as much as possible.

  3. Translate the story to the Web. Streaming a final cut over the Web is OK, but be creative when it comes to altering the narrative for distribution over the computer, taking into consideration bandwidth and other limitations.

None of this is easy. Fortunes were lost when companies such as Digital Entertainment Network, Pseudo.com, and a host of others fell by the wayside trying to distribute entertainment content on the computer screen.

A lesson from the recent carnage? Jupiter Research offers a convincing analysis in a recent report: “Entertainment companies must stop viewing the Internet as a distribution medium equivalent to broadcast or film, and recognize it as a platform that offers a virtually limitless number of products.”

Even in today’s chastened environment, Hollywood remains intrigued with the “digital revolution,” and filmmakers continue to experiment with new business models.

Mirimax Films has begun distributing its first pay-per-view titles over the Internet in conjunction with SightSound Technologies. The film “Guinevere” is the first of 12 scheduled to be available in the U.S. The movie costs $3.49 for a one-day rental.

The independent film site ALWAYSi recently launched a subscription service that provides unlimited access to some 1,500 films, including 250 feature-length movies, for $4.99 per month.

Independent producers are investing more and more in Web-site production and devising increasingly sophisticated tactics for digital promotion. When the time comes to negotiate distribution, a hot Web site can provide a producer with considerable leverage — and serve to lure audiences into the cinema.

A case in point is film producer Michael Valverde of Green Valley Entertainment in Atlanta. Valverde hired a separate crew to produce the Web site for his new film, “Losing Grace,” and in the process invested about $250,000. That’s a significant percentage of the film’s $600,000 budget, but the producer says the investment already has paid off in terms of increased awareness and accumulated data about the target audience.

“It’s an additional asset to the film,” Valverde says of the Web site, which at its peak had over 7,000 unique visitors a week. “By extending the experience of the viewer, it will add value.”

A great deal of planning and effort went into the “Losing Grace” Web site, which required an entire crew to produce and maintain. The idea was to generate advance excitement for the movie by capturing the film production process on the Web site.

Valverde hopes to release the film in cinemas, which offers the highest prospective return. Online distribution is a secondary option. The Web site is geared to raise awareness and generate content that can be repurposed for a future DVD version of the film. “You want to be the water cooler topic at every office,” Valverde says.

The “Losing Grace” Web team posted daily updates on the film production action. It encouraged the audience to register for future emails and post questions for cast members on a message board. Whenever there’s a milestone in the film’s progress, it sends emails informing registered users.

Then there’s the expertise gained for the next movie, perhaps a family Christmas film or a thriller. Valverde says he has carefully documented the production process and believes there’s ample opportunity to leverage the knowledge he’s gained by working with other filmmakers and maybe offering his production platform through an application service provider (ASP) model.

His process involves a “matrix” for correlating film assets and Web production. As he explains it, “Utilizing the script, you break that down along with a series of questions in regard to marketing. Then you fill in blanks, and it makes calls to assets in a database and creates a dynamically generated page.”

It’s complex in practice, but the theory is simple. “We’re trying to use the Internet in a more linear story-telling fashion.”

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