Cyberflicks hit summer meltdown

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Hollywood offerings fail to generate much box office buzz

E-MAIL To: Hollywood Subject: "Johnny Mnemonic," "The Net" and "Virtuosity" Dear Tinsel Town magnates:

You guys probably thought you had a sure thing, didn't you? The Internet is the buzzword of the year. Youth culture is going cyberpunk, the world is going digital. You have uberagent Michael Ovitz plotting your segue into cyberspace and Zeitgeist barometers Entertainment Weekly, Newsweek and, of course, Advertising Age devoting serious amounts of old media space to the subject. You thought moviegoers around the globe were just clamoring for cyberflicks.

So how did you go so wrong? Sony Corp., responsible for "Mnemonic" (from its TriStar Pictures unit) and "The Net" (from Columbia Pictures), and Viacom unit Paramount Pictures, "Virtuosity's" studio, are not new-media amateurs. Yet "Mnemonic" got gored by critics and as of Aug. 7 grossed only $18.8 million after 73 days in release; "The Net" netted lukewarm notices and earned $23 million in 10 days and will fade fast; "Virtuosity" also received a weak welcome, bringing in a legless $8.3 million in its opening weekend earlier this month.

"This doesn't bode well for cyberspace films, does it?" offered Jonathan Wiedemann, managing director at Propaganda Code, Hollywood, Calif., which produced the "Johnny Mnemonic" CD-ROM game, released in June concurrently with the film.

Perhaps Hollywood misjudged the size of the market. Aside from the sizable following that Keanu ("Mnemonic") Reeves, Sandra ("The Net") Bullock and Denzel ("Virtuosity") Washington attract, the target audience for these films is 'net surfers and cyberpunk aficionados.

"The Internet is growing very quickly, but still there are only a very few people who have experienced it personally. Hence, these movies hold little interest for [the rest of the world]," said Mike Brownstein, general manager at Interconnected Associates, a Seattle-based Internet backbone provider.

Sony was smart in aggressively pursuing Internet users by crafting cutting-edge promotions on its corporate Web site. The "Mnemonic" effort, based on a short story by William Gibson, actually turned players into Gibson-ite console cowboys, surfing the 'net for data. And working with Sports and Entertainment Group of California, in Beverly Hills, Sony tied promotion partners AT&T and Krystal Hotels of Mexico into its "Net" game.

Yet while the sites were visited often, even a Sony executive noted, "the object is to build awareness, but it's hard to tell if these sites build box office. It's all so new."

But never mind market size and marketing techniques, or even if Internet users can enjoy passive entertainment about an interactive medium. What hurt these movies, Hollywood insiders say, is the movies themselves.

"The people who are on the 'net, whether for business or recreation, are intelligent, experienced users to begin with, so in order to capture their imagination, you have to give them something that's halfway plausible," said a marketing executive at a rival studio. "To them, these movies are so far afield, they're silly."

Paramount executives declined to be interviewed for this article; Sony executives didn't return calls.

"Virtuosity," a Republican's Internet nightmare, tells the tale of a digital serial killer who crosses over into real life. "The Net" is more rooted in reality, but that doesn't mean the movie didn't take a few liberties, like e-mail messages sent at impossible speeds and a Microsoft-like company led by a Bill Gates-like billionaire who attempts to crash and pillage a precariously interconnected world via a new software product (well, then again, we could buy that . . .).

How could movies about people who explore cyberspace be so . . . boring?

"They both overglamorize and underestimate new media," said Propaganda Code's Mr. Wiedemann. "They give you these incredible, computer-intensive graphics that don't exist and can't exist, and yet they don't deal with the profound implications of the technology."

Or, in the words of Lucy Mohl, film critic and president of Seattle-based Film.Com, an ad-supported Web site that posts movie reviews: "You put garbage in, garbage comes out. There are good films to be made about new media. These aren't them."

Sadly for some new-media neophytes, these movies could perpetuate myths and fallacies that turn people off technologies.

"In general, newcomers drawn to the Internet because of the media hype might be surprised and discouraged to find that e-mails take a while to send and files take a while to download," said Steve Elzer, director of corporate publicity for New Line Cinema. "True aficionados are like patient fishers; newcomers may wonder what all the hype is about."

Don't assume the hype is ending.

"The entertainment industry will capitalize," said Paul Grand, CEO of Culver City, Calif. Web developer Digital Planet, which created Web movie promotions for MCA/Universal Studios and MGM/United Artists.

Hollywood in fact still has a few cyberflicks in its guns, including "Hackers," from United Artists Pictures, due out this fall with a Web site created by Digital Planet.

The good news, according to Rob Friedman, president of worldwide advertising and publicity at Warner Bros., is that Hollywood will get better at this.

"The movies will get more sophisticated, and, like anything else, if the movies are good, people will pay to see them," said Mr. Friedman.

What did you think of the summer's cybermovies? Share your thoughts with AdAge.com on the Web. Point your browser to the Interactions bulletin board area (http://www.adage.com/InterActions/digital.html).

Copyright August 1995 Crain Communications Inc.

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