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On commercial online services, leather can be a four-letter word.

Jim Griffin, director of information technology at Geffen Records, found that out when he approached America Online about establishing a chat room dubbed "Black Leather Jackets."

"Leather," muses Mr. Griffin. "I can't think of a more harmless word."

But AOL said no to leather, perhaps fearing a darker connotation, so Geffen went to the Internet and built its own World Wide Web site (http://geffen.com/).

Geffen's entertainment brethren are following in increasing numbers, seeking not only to further their experiments in interactivity but to take greater control over content and presentation.

What's ironic, said Ira Mayer, publisher of the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Entertainment Marketing Letter, is that "a year ago, the viability of online entertainment marketing was unclear. Now it's among the arsenal of marketing techniques. It's very narrow right now, but it's effective."

Among those joining Geffen on the Web are MCA/Universal's Cyberwalk (http://www.mca.com/) and Capitol Records' site tied to metal band Megadeth (http://bazaar.com/). Sony Corp. of America last month opened its own home page, with extensive information on its recording artists (http://www.sony.com).

And while nearly every Hollywood studio has executed a promotion through Hollywood Online, they too are now spinning their own branded Web sites.

Walt Disney Co.'s Miramax Films promoted "Pulp Fiction" on AOL, as did Paramount Pictures for "Forrest Gump."

In addition, Paramount now offers a home page devoted to "Star Trek: Generations" (http://www.generations.viacom.com). MGM/United Artists has The Lion's Den (http://digiplanet.com/mgm), Universal Studios has Universal V/IP (http://www.mca.com/universal_pictures) and Walt Disney Co. operates Buena Vista Multiplex (http://www.disney.com), promoting its Walt Disney Pictures, Touchstone Pictures and Hollywood Pictures divisions.

Sony will launch areas tied to its TriStar Pictures and Columbia Pictures units this spring.

"It's in its infancy and won't be the be-all and end-all of movie marketing, but even now it's a cost-efficient form of narrowcasting that has helped us sell movie tickets," said Alan Sutton, VP-national publicity at Universal Pictures.

The music industry, being techno-savvy and techno-dependent, has been leading the online charge in Hollywood. Online demographics (average age: 39) favor music over movies, as does bandwidth (at least for now).

MCA/Universal Cyberwalk has been up since November, offering Amp, an online magazine about MCA Records. Visitors can also access Noise, which supplies album release dates and concert tour schedules, and Loot, which offers monthly promotions and CD giveaways. Geffen's site boasts similar features, and so will Capitol when its site opens in May (http://www.caprec.com).

The record companies are also the first to suffer from the limitations and the prudence of the commercial services. Industry executives prefer the Web because they can design their own interfaces and own their servers, which store valuable data about their consumers.

Web sites also offer more flexibility for creative content. Geffen will soon launch a promotion called "Slash's Snakepit," in support of the same-name solo album from Guns n' Roses guitarist Slash. Geffen will rig snakepits in the artist's home with video cameras, allowing Web visitors to peek in on Slash's pets.

"I couldn't do that on AOL," said Mr. Griffin.

And with all the major online services set to provide Web access to their subscribers (Prodigy already does), Mr. Griffin believes Hollywood's inclination will be to head straight for the Internet: "I think the smart thing to do will be to consolidate on the Web if they're going to offer access to the Web anyway. It means more control and less manpower for us."

As for purchasing CDs online, Geffen's Web site directs users to CD Now!, an online record retailer. Capitol's online service will reportedly offer a record club. But the day that singles and albums can be bought and downloaded is still far off, delayed by by copyright and credit card security concerns.

Universal, an online vanguard in the film industry, is also enjoying the control over content that a Web site provides.

"It's easier, cheaper and more intuitive than a commercial service," said Mr. Sutton.

"You have to deliver content that's truly exciting," he cautioned. "A press kit and a modem doesn't make you interactive."

Another benefit of having a Web site is that it helps Hollywood entertainment companies position themselves as brands-a major marketing trend in Hollywood right now.

"Sony, in most people's minds, is a consumer electronics company, but we also make music, movies, books and games," said Matt Rothman, VP-business development for Sony's New Media Technology Group. "For those consumers, this Web site may be the first time they can really get to know Sony."

Still, record companies and movie studios aren't ruling out future collaborations with commercial services.

Hollywood Online is poised for a promising year, with plans to introduce separate theater locator and ticketing services by the end of 1995 and expand from its current base on AOL, CompuServe, Delphi and eWorld. Stuart Halperin, Hollywood Online's exec VP-marketing, said a market research study is in the works to gauge how the service affects ticket purchasing.

And, not to be left in the dust, Hollywood Online is planning to open its own Web site soon.

"We need to to stay a couple steps ahead," said Mr. Halperin. "We want to be the online source of Hollywood info."

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