Across town at Paramount Pictures, executives have partnered with Yahoo for an online program that fed movie fans' questions to the set of "War of the Worlds," where star Tom Cruise and filmmaker Steven Spielberg answered them in video clips available on Yahoo's movie site. The clips went live earlier this year, months ahead of the movie's much-anticipated summer release.
These efforts are typical of the increasingly interactive direction of movie marketing, and could be a worrying sign for network TV, which has long been the major beneficiary of studios' ad dollars and was already mindful of the fact that studios are cutting back the number of releases every year.
Studio marketers, well aware of the $100 million average price tag for producing and promoting a major film, are looking for cost-efficient eye-catching ways to attract audiences, and more often, that means they're turning to emerging technologies. "It's traditional marketing remade," said Don Buckley, Warner Bros. Pictures' senior VP-interactive marketing. "It's like forming a traditional media plan-promotion, publicity, great creative, identifying the audience and where they are-with the addition of interactivity."With so much attention channeled into alternative marketing, including grassroots and viral tactics, traditional media like TV could feel the pinch of lost ad dollars. Network TV still commands the lion's share of movie spending, and hauled in over $1.2 billion from the top 20 studios in 2004, according to TNS Media Intelligence. But studios decreased that figure last year by 0.7% and spot TV spending was down 2.4%, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.
At the same time, nearly every major studio increased its Internet spending. According to TNS, Internet spending by the top 20 studios increased from around $59 million in 2003 to $84 million in 2004. As studios look for media that give them a better return on their mammoth investments, they're also releasing fewer films, another potential hit for TV revenues. The major studios have steadily cut down on their releases over the past 10 years. Back in 1996, they released a combined 162 films. This year, they will put out 129, according to an estimate by Exhibitor Relations Co., a Los Angeles box-office-tracking firm.
Studios from Disney to Fox Searchlight have announced they will pare their releases, MGM will fold into Sony, and the once-prolific Miramax will release between six and 10 films a year instead of the three dozen it put out in its heyday.
TV executives, on the eve of the annual upfront buying season, said they are monitoring the situation and working to keep studios deeply in the fold. "It's on everybody's radar as we look at the category and what's going on there," said Jo Ann Ross, CBS's president-network sales. "Studios are more targeted now in how they use networks, and they want their buys to carry through to the Internet."
CBS has steadily increased its studio business over the past several years, Ms. Ross said, with its powerhouse Thursday night being particularly popular.
As is true with marketers in general, film studios have myriad choices in how to spend their media money and have taken a hard look at network TV, which draws fewer eyeballs than in past years and charges more for them. Studios are increasingly exploring new technology because they can use it to release exclusive material, behind-the-scenes bits and other promotional gems.
Internet advertising is a $10 billion business, and that number is expected to double over the next five years. It's expected to overtake network TV spending by major marketers by decade's end, according to Bernstein Research. Network TV, on the other hand, has shown low single-digit growth over the past few seasons.
"We always look at a media mix," said Suzanne Cole, senior VP-media, Universal Pictures, "and we ask the question, `How does that mix come together to get people to give up 10 bucks and two hours of their lives?"' Universal's spending on the Internet has increased dramatically over the last five years, Ms. Cole said, and the campaign might include a more eclectic blend of outdoor, newspaper, grassroots and stunts, she said.
Warner Bros., which started using the Web a decade ago for extended sneak peeks of upcoming films, is also planning a podcast from the set of the long-awaited "Superman Returns," while the movie is in production. For this summer's "Batman Beyond," studio marketers started gathering sketches, photographs and clips from the earliest days on the set to feed to niche Web sites. They also invited the Web-heads behind those sites to the set near London, knowing they would spread the information to the comic-book and enthusiast community.
"There's very little waste in this approach," Mr. Buckley said. "And it's a quality of audience as opposed to quantity."
Studios are increasingly making deals with major Web portals like America Online, MSN and Yahoo, aiming for high-traffic exposure. Yahoo, by collecting information on its users and studying their behavior on the site, can target movie promotions accordingly. The site is working with Paramount Pictures to promote "War of the Worlds" through themed instant-message environments.
The Web isn't the only medium that's drawing studio interest. Time Warner's New Line Cinema, which specializes more in niche films but has had broad success with such blockbuster franchises as "The Lord of the Rings" and "Austin Powers," relies more heavily these days on spot TV and cable buys than on the networks.
"We buy toward the target," said Russell Schwartz, New Line's president-marketing. "We go to network when we have a movie that demands it."
Grassroots marketing-once considered old school, or only for those who didn't have the money to do mainstream programs-is new again. "You can cover several different programs for the cost of one TV spot," Mr. Schwartz said. "And they can make a more profound impact in terms of bounce for the dollar."
Still, studio executives said they will never turn away from TV because it's visual and hits large numbers of potential moviegoers. "We're trying to generate very broad reach very quickly," Ms. Cole said. "Ultimately, we're going to be in the TV business."