Increasingly, Hollywood directors with clout are exerting influence over the online marketing of their pictures. They have already realized what the rest of the town is slowly coming to terms with -- the increasingly disproportionate power an online campaign can have over the buzz and box office of a film. Directors as diverse as Judd Apatow, Wes Craven and J.J. Abrams have all recently elected to get directly involved with their films' web efforts.
For example, as Columbia Pictures' audience research recently revealed -- to its surprise -- the influence of online marketing for Mr. Apatow's comedy "Superbad" exceeded that of traditional TV commercials, trailers or print advertising.
That jibes with research from Google and Nielsen Media conducted last June. The two companies polled more than 2,000 U.S. moviegoers to assess how online marketing squared with box-office results. According to the joint study, TV and online now exert nearly equal weight, with 68% of respondents reporting that TV was influential in their decision to see a given movie, while 66% said the same about online.
It didn't used to be that way.
"We in online used to be the bastard child," joked Rex Cook, executive creative director and founder of AvatarLabs in Tarzana, Calif.
Getting more involved
Mr. Cook is handling the online campaigns for the upcoming Disney film "National Treasure 2," Robert Zemeckis' "Beowulf" and the Warner Bros. epic "I Am Legend," starring Will Smith. Mr. Cook said that, lately, "directors have been more involved in advertising in general. I'm hearing more frustrated marketing clients [say], 'Oh God, the director's involved. He's one of those.'"
The reason, Mr. Cook said, is simply enlightened self-interest on the part of filmmakers.
"There's only so much bandwidth that the marketing execs have, when they've got one movie after the next," Mr. Cook noted. "While a filmmaker, that's his movie -- for the year."
The result is a burgeoning movement of directors who have "their" online agency.
"On paper, the studio is the client," said Russell Scott, the CEO of Jetset Studios, the online agency that has overseen Mr. Apatow's last five pictures. "The studio has final say, but the studio is very happy if there's a successful collaboration that makes their job easier. For example, after doing '40 Year Old Virgin' that's when we established our relationship with Apatow. But then, going to other studios, either we'd be requested by Apatow, or that other studio would request us, because we knew what to do."
Director Wes Craven is now also a long-term Jetset client, which handled online campaigns for his thrillers "Redeye," "The Hills Have Eyes" and its sequel, as well creating his personal website, WesCraven.com. The more intimate nature of online shops means that business relationships can blossom in ways that studio suits just can't muster.
("Such a nice guy," Mr. Scott enthuses of Craven, "I don't know if you get a vision in your head because he's such the horror guy, but he sent us Sprinkles Cupcakes for Christmas, when you expect, like, a severed head or something.")
'Chance to brand something'
In the past, the directors and studios' agencies were kept far apart, with the men in berets being shown materials at the end of the process. But as online has transformed the industry, Mr. Scott said directors "view it as an ongoing dialogue and a chance to brand something."
And, as more consumers look to the web to make their decisions, online is fast becoming a film director's preliminary creative medium.
Recently, J.J. Abrams circumnavigated Paramount Pictures' marketing department to cut his own trailer for "Cloverfield," an "Armageddon"-style monster movie that's creating monstrous "Blair Witch"-like online buzz as a result.
"There's so much that can be done storytelling wise," said Mr. Cook of the digital marketing space. "You can do all sorts of preambles or other things that can build excitement, or help tell more of the story that wouldn't otherwise make it into the 90-minute cut."