Ty Burr
December 08, 1995 AT 05:00 AM EST

Publicity has been an American art form ever since P.T. Barnum sewed a monkey onto a fish and called it the Feejee Mermaid — and no medium has retained Barnum’s huckster genius quite like the movies. Trailers, posters, gravy-boat giveaways — Hollywood’s enlisted them all to paint its wares in gaudy carny colors. For the past year, the World Wide Web has offered virgin territory for studio publicists’ steamrollers: cyberspace ripe for cast bios and press releases, sound and movie clips, contests and merchandise.

The irony is that as the Internet’s capabilities mature at a whiplash pace, Hollywood’s PR outposts have come to represent state-of-the-art Webbery. The studios have the bucks and clout to hire the hippest design firms and most talented code monkeys. As a tour of websites devoted to holiday releases indicates, the results can resemble the Feejee Mermaids: half high-cal flackery, half genuine innovation. In some cases, the sites are more engaging, more entertaining, than the films themselves—and they’re free.

The site for The American President (http://www.americanpresident.com), for instance, offers content that’s meatier and more thoughtfully structured than Rob Reiner’s genial, ham-handed romantic comedy. Set up as an online tour of the White House, the site combines photos and sound snippets with interactive toys: a D.C.-centric crossword puzzle, a doozy of a quiz on the U.S. Constitution, and a ”press briefing” in which the object is to raise your presidential approval rating. You can also access film clips in the Situation Room, but you must first find the secret code hidden somewhere on the website. Finally, publicists have found a way to make you read press releases.

The site for the Johnny Depp real-time thriller Nick of Time (http://www.paramount.com/nickoftime) similarly offers a contest that forces you to trawl through PR puffery: Answer several trivia questions correctly and you may win the Seiko watch used in the movie. But Web geeks know that it’s not the goodies but the getting there that counts, and Nick of Time’s gambit reeks too much of an old-fashioned door prize.

More impressive is the setup over at the Money Train site (http://moneytrain.com/home/mtrain), established to hawk the latest Woody-and-Wesley action flick. Here there’s a dastardly game that has you piloting a hijacked subway car through various obstacles to Wall Street (paralleling the movie’s plot). The weekly prize is a measly Money Train cotton jacket, but the game’s snide twists and turns are more than worthwhile. Other aspects of the Money Train site, however, illustrate the perils of pushing the tech envelope too far. There’s a 3-D representation of Manhattan that uses newfangled VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) specs—but you can’t get a VRML browser if you use a Macintosh (no matter what the site’s fine print says), and the PC version is pretty buggy too.

Disney’s elegant site for Toy Story (http://www.toystory.com) — one of the first films to have its web address in the end credits — on the other hand, offers treats both accessible and apropos. You can download film and sound clips, computer wallpaper, icons (my hard-drive icon now resembles Mr. Potato Head), even printable coloring-book pages. Half the site’s areas are under construction, so you may want to check back in a week or two. The only drawback to the Toy Story site is that the graphics-heavy pages take their sweet time loading.

The Goldeneye site (http://www.mgmua.com/bond) has a similar problem: Despite gorgeous visuals, film clips that reach back to Sean Connery, and savvy links to other Bond sites, you’ll be drumming your fingers waiting for the images.

Of course, when all the Net flash is done and loaded, the site that has honest-to-goodness content can show up the PR flacks any day. Cry, The Beloved Country (http://www.obs-us.com/obs/english/films/ mx/cry/top.htm), a site that uses material from Miramax and Open Book Systems, weaves passages from Alan Paton’s 1948 apartheid novel with script sections from the upcoming movie starring James Earl Jones and Richard Harris and links to relevant Net nodes such as a South African Chamber of Mines site and a glossary of Afrikaans. There’s also a link back to a Miramax home-page graphic so ugly as to practically guarantee pinkeye, but the Cry site has emotional and intellectual heft. It quietly earns the respect the other sites grab at and miss. The American President: B Nick of Time: C- Money Train: B Toy Story: B+ Goldeneye: C+ Cry, the Beloved Country: A-

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