Film sites spin elaborate webs

Along the lines of the now legendary Blair Witch Web marketing campaign, DreamWorks SKG and Warner Bros. may have mixed the right Internet ingredients for Steven Spielberg's upcoming movie, A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

The Blair Witch Project may not have been a masterpiece of cinematography, but its Web site's success at generating a tidal wave of excitement for the 1999 movie has become a Hollywood legend.

Movie studios have had a hard time emulating Blair Witch's special sauce for online promotion, which featured "evidence" relating to the mysterious disappearance of three student filmmakers.

Now, however, DreamWorks SKG and Warner Bros. may have mixed the right Internet ingredients for Steven Spielberg's upcoming movie, A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

Not much has been revealed about the flick, except that it centers around a robot boy who wants to become human. Spielberg reportedly took the project over from Stanley Kubrick after Kubrick died in 1999. The official site--www.aimovie.com--offers a two-minute trailer, information about artificial intelligence and an alleged robot that visitors can communicate with via instant messaging.

But those pages aren't responsible for the excitement spreading through movie sites. The growing buzz about A.I. can be attributed to a chain of about 30 Web sites that offer details of life in the year 2142--and hints about a mysterious death.

Neither DreamWorks nor Warner has fessed up to creating the pages, but fans were tipped off to the sites by a title that appeared in the trailer's credits: a "sentient machine therapist" by the name of Jeanine Salla.

The adventure begins after users type "Jeanine Salla" into Google and click on the first search result, a link to "Bangalore World University"--founded in A.D. 2028. The site includes e-mail addresses that send back automated responses and phone numbers that reach recorded messages offering other clues.

"It's almost like creating ambassadors for the movie before it exists," says Keith Boswell, who sits on the board of directors at Marketleap.com, an Internet marketing firm. "Maybe none of the characters on the Web sites have anything to do with the movie, but it creates a mystique and it's a much more creative way of storytelling that people haven't had available to them."

Of course, such elaborate marketing tactics don't fit every movie. "For plenty of movies," Boswell says, "the Web should just be a vehicle to promote them."

But movie promotion on the Web has evolved from the static "online press kit" it used to be. Columbia Pictures, for example, has launched the official site for Spider-Man, even though the movie won't debut until May 2002.

The site, www.spiderman.sonypictures.com, offers behind-the-scenes footage and updates about the movie's production. Visitors can even see part of the set from 360-degree angles, a feature that uses Internet Pictures' iPIX technology.

"Our objective is to have a relationship with visitors to the site such that we can count on them as consumers on opening weekend," says Dwight Caines, vice president of Net marketing strategy at Columbia.