Database Movies: What's it all a-bot? The A.I. mystery

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Evan chan is dead, and those who know and care are poised to make Steven Spielberg's "A.I: Artificial Intelligence," which premieres on June 29, a blockbuster. Through perhaps the most intricate interactive game/viral marketing campaign ever to hit the Web, legions of fans have entered a virtual futuristic underworld inhabited by bots like those in the film. And to heighten the campaign's viral appeal, AOL Time Warner's Warner Bros. isn't even admitting to having created it. Somewhere there's a marketing lesson in all this.

Players can enter the mystery, which revolves around solving Chan's murder, in several ways. Doing a Web search on the name Jeanine Salla-listed on the movie poster credits as a "sentient machine therapist"-links to Salla's page on the Web site for Bangalore World University, which boasts that it is "one of the finest institutions of higher learning in the solar system." Corresponding with Salla and her associates leads to phone, fax, pager and e-mail exchanges with various clues about the case.

Others have entered A.I.'s world after viewing one of the movie's official trailers. A starburst at the end leaves notches on each letter of the words "Summer 2001," which, only the savvy might surmise correspond to digits of a phone number. Callers of that number are greeted by a woman's voice explaining how bots in the past followed humans' mistakes and callers who "feel lost" can get help by e-mailing her at [email protected] The user then assumes the role of a child bot who must learn and appease its mother. Another trailer leads users to an interactive chat bot where they ask questions about the case, or anything else for that matter.

The game also includes a host of fake Web sites on Chan and other characters and has spawned fan sites that are as detailed as the official ones. Fans are enthralled. "You get a sense of accomplishment," said Gene Lewis, a partner at New York agency Digital Pulp, who started playing the game in April. He said it's important that the game does not directly push the movie, though those who have followed the hype are sure to rush to theaters to see if the film behind the virtual world is as enthralling.

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