When is a movie fan site not a fan site? When it has secretly been built by the studio releasing the movie or by the filmmakers themselves? That’s the accusation recently leveled in an article (by occasional EW contributor Patrizia DiLucchio) in the webzine Salon (www.salon.com) against sites associated with two of the summer’s hottest films, Universal’s American Pie and Artisan’s The Blair Witch Project. The controversy illustrates just how integral a role Internet buzz has assumed in the Hollywood hype machine — and the lengths to which some studio execs and filmmakers will go to spin it.
Salon isn’t alone in suggesting the American Pie fan site (www.firstpiece.com) that posts allegedly stolen cutting-room-floor footage is bogus. ”Firstpiece.com is obviously an inside job,” says a marketing exec at a major studio, who points to purchase orders clearly visible on the ”pirated” material that would make it easy for the studio to track down and fire the offender. ”I know those people at Universal, and they’re the absolute worst when it comes to using the Internet to spread fake buzz.” Calls and e-mails to firstpiece.com’s registered creator went unanswered, but Scott Levine, exec director of East Coast marketing for Universal, categorically denied any connection: ”They’re not allowed to use our copyrighted material, and we’re seeking to have it taken down.”
As for The Blair Witch Project Fanatic’s Guide (tbwp. freeservers.com), skeptics point to the strange fact that the site’s creators show up in the Sci Fi Channel special Curse of the Blair Witch (also made by Project’s directors) as the two people who find the ill-fated film students’ lost footage. Such accusations have Eric Alan Ivins, 26, and Abigail Marceluk, 24, angrier than Heather, Josh, and Mike after a sleepless night in the Maryland woods. According to Marceluk, their appearance in the special was the result of talking with the movie’s producers at a film festival and getting recruited at the last moment to play the discoverers. ”Aside from the thrill of being written into Blair Witch Project mythology,” she maintains, ”we’ve gotten nothing in the way of compensation from this.”
Beyond such supposed site fakery, however, lies a gray area in which studios are coming to rely upon — and, perhaps, take advantage of — such high-profile movie-gossip sites as Ain’t It Cool News (www.aint-it-cool-news.com), Dark Horizons (www.darkhorizons.com), and Coming Attractions (corona.bc.ca/films/). According to insiders, anonymous reviews and rumors praising one’s own project or slamming a rival’s have become a common tactic for would-be guerrilla marketers. ”I’ve never [posted fake raves],” claims the marketing exec, ”but I’ve busted a few of our own people for doing it. They think they’re being so clever, and I’ll come up and say, ‘Hey, nice review on Ain’t It Cool News last night.”’ The scuttlebutt du jour, echoed in Salon, is that Warner Bros. has been seeding Ain’t It Cool with positive reviews of its upcoming animated release The Iron Giant. Responds Warner senior VP of theatrical marketing and new media Don Buckley: ”The buzz on Iron Giant isn’t fake. If anything, we’ve been the ones responding to the tremendous outpouring of enthusiasm out there, which started on the animation-fan websites, then spread to Ain’t It Cool News.”
In any event, as the studios become savvier in online opinion manipulation, so, too, do the fan sites at sniffing it out. For his part, Ain’t It Cool creator Harry Knowles knows he’s a target — and he’s ready with the ultimate defense. ”If Warner Bros. is trying so hard to influence my site,” he says, ”then where were all the good reviews of Wild Wild West?”