When historians look back on 2006, they will almost certainly agree: It's been an exciting time for Hollywood's relationship with the series of tubes we call the Internet. Whether it's Snakes on a Plane fans banding together to get New Line to alter the movie, NBC's comprehensive online rollout of new shows like Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, or even the first four minutes of Borat showing up on YouTube just prior to its release in theaters, fans have been treated to an unprecedented level of early entertainment access as studios and networks try to use the Web's viral powers to drive up ratings and ticket sales. There's only been one problem. Snakes tanked. As you read this, Studio 60's uncertain future is being decided. And last week, Fox decided that Borat would open Nov. 3 on 800 screens 1,200 fewer than originally planned. In other words, this crazy Internet marketing plan may not be working after all.
Of course, good luck getting anyone to admit that. ''Borat really is a brand-new genre,'' protests Fox's exec VP of marketing, Jeffrey Godsick, who claims the limited opening is part of a larger strategy and the film will eventually expand to 2,200 screens. (Provided it does well, we assume.) ''The best way to sell this is to show people pieces of the movie. When people see it, word of mouth will grow.'' But despite a MySpace page offering clips and sneak previews, hundreds of blog posts, and incessant articles discussing how the film is offending the actual Kazakh (Kazakhstani? Kazakhstanian?) government, the movie is reportedly tracking well behind its opening-weekend competition, The Santa Clause 3. And while Fox claims not to be worried, it's also got plenty of eggs in a traditional basket, scoring Borat appearances on Saturday Night Live, Today, and Letterman.
Meanwhile, networks kicked off the fall season by offering more free streams, downloads, and previews of new programming than ever before...but audiences aren't necessarily biting. Sci Fi's Battlestar Galactica a show that seems to fit the Web-geek demographic perfectly provided free webisodes over the summer to gin up viewers, but its season premiere debuted to ratings 20 percent lower than last year. For Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60, NBC distributed the pilot early via Netflix, then sold it on iTunes, put clips on its own site, and even set up a fake industry-insider blog to discuss the fake industry insiders on the show. All that effort so far has translated into ratings that hover somewhere between mediocre and disappointing, and there is speculation that, after being pulled on Oct. 30 for Friday Night Lights, Sorkin's show will not be on the air much longer. Still, the news isn't all bad in TV land: In part due to its vocal Internet following, NBC's Heroes, for example, has exceeded expectations and it's not alone. ''If the theme of your show is appropriate, bloggers can be your best friends,'' says CBS spokesman Chris Ender, who notes that Jericho has scored more than a 50 percent ratings jump for its time slot from last season, an increase partially attributable to CBS' online outreach initiatives. And thus networks plug away: This week, Fox is streaming The O.C.'s premiere, presumably to rally that show's ever-diminishing fan base.
So despite the fits and starts, there's no question that the future of entertainment marketing will be on the Web. (Google's recent $1.65 billion purchase of YouTube certainly proves that someone thinks you can use streaming video to sell stuff.) But it's important to remember that a different promotional medium requires a different approach. "Today, I'm singularly unimpressed with Internet marketing campaigns," says Amir Malin, the man who was president of Artisan Films when The Blair Witch Project came out in 1999. "They [just] repeat the same thing you see on television or radio." And as much as the giant corporations hate to hear it, the first step toward creating a unique campaign may be a willingness to relinquish control. "It's the difference between making a few 30-second clips and hoping they go viral versus allowing audiences to comment on, distribute, mash up your assets," says Google Video's Hunter Walk. "[The latter] makes fans feel like they're part of the process as opposed to consumers being marketed to."
And maybe, as with online dating, the secret really is low expectations. "You never know whether people are interested in just seeing clips and trailers and that's enough," says Kevin Donahue, YouTube's VP of content, who then reminds us all of the fly in the viral ointment: "If studios knew who would go to the movies that they're making, it would be an entirely different business."