The new kids on the blog

Special to The Times

Consternation spread quickly across the Internet movie fan universe. In April, Peter Jackson, director of the big-budget remake of "King Kong," broadcast his plans to expand the ape epic (due in theaters this December) into a trilogy of films. But his "exclusive announcement" wasn't delivered through the usual channels -- the obligatory press release or television interview. News came via his video production diary on the fan website kongisking.net.

Using his weekly weblog, Jackson presented digital mock-ups and demonstrated motion capture technology to be used in the sequel, intercut with an interview with its star, Naomi Watts. Most alarming to "Kong" purists, however, were details about the second installment, "Son of Kong": Kong's spawn, a gigantic albino gorilla with machine guns mounted on his back, would battle genetically mutated Nazis during World War II.

"We go to Germany with the son of Kong," costar Jack Black explains in the segment, "and he helps us defeat Hitler."

Within hours, news of the sequel's far-fetched plot dominated movie chat room discussions and had been repeated throughout cyberspace. "Son of Kong Finally Confirmed!" screamed a headline on Ain't It Cool News. "Peter Jackson Spills All!!!"

What all but the most astute netizens failed to consider was the video diary's date: April Fool's Day.

While it is hardly surprising that cyberspace can be fertile soil for misinformation, Jackson's ruse underscores a newer phenomenon: the rapid evolution of weblogs -- or blogs -- as movie marketing tools.

Costing almost nothing to maintain, the vast majority of blogs are mental clearinghouses for their authors, lo-fi Web confessionals or bully pulpits that vary from current events to niche pastimes to sex. Directors' blogs, by contrast, are slickly engineered to virally market their movies -- to stoke fan ardor.

Some observers say this approach allows studios to put a spin on moviemaking -- and, by playing to fan interest, head off potential controversies. Movie marketers say the sites allow blogger-directors to reach out to fans in an up-close-and-personal way.

"People are looking for 'real content,' " said Adrian Sexton, vice president of digital marketing for Lions Gate Films, which hosts several directors' blogs. "With a blog, people can look for themselves at the way you handle your choices creatively, where you got the money for the film, how you landed the talent. They can see something outside the usual way moviemaking is presented."

"X-Men" director Brian Singer, in production in Australia on a "Superman" remake for Warner Bros., posts a weekly video diary on bluetights.net -- a site that is unaffiliated with the studio but for which Warner Bros. has bought additional bandwidth to support the increased Internet traffic. He describes the blog as "a mini TV show about the making of 'Superman,' " which is slated to arrive in theaters next June.

"The studio websites [for movies] are a bit stagnant," Singer said. "They're just so traditional." Viewed with that in mind, bluetights.net footage of the director discussing film color corrections and managing extras doesn't exactly shatter the traditional movie marketing paradigm. But in one of the site's most widely discussed postings, Jackson invites Singer to the New Zealand set of "Kong." There, an apparently exhausted Jackson pretends to snooze in a La-Z-Boy recliner while a bewildered Singer directs a scene in Jackson's movie.

"There's a kind of theater that occurs during the making of a movie that's unique to each production," Singer said. "If you're willing to expose yourself a bit, it can be a wonderful method of getting the word out and sharing that experience with the people who are most interested -- the fans."

According to Stephanie Allen, vice president of marketing for Fox Searchlight Pictures, which created blogs for its films "Garden State" and "Club Dread," such websites will backfire unless they establish an intimate -- and honest -- dialogue with their savvy audience. "They can tell when they're being marketed to," she said. "And they can tell when there's an authenticity to the conversation."

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" creator Joss Whedon blogs semiregularly about his upcoming first feature, "Serenity," on the website serenitymovie.com. Like many nonmovie blogs, his postings are full of personal musings and wry asides such as, "People who are prettier than me are not supposed to be funnier than me." And then there's his running joke about "mussels in a cilantro broth."

But while Whedon refers to himself as a "geek among geeks," he stops short of calling himself a true blogger. "I'm less the diary guy than I am someone who wants to make a comment or say 'Hi,' " the director said. "It's having a public persona."

Asked if he viewed blogging as a promotional responsibility, he replied: "It is in the sense that if we're having a screening of the movie for fans, I think it's more fun to get on and tell them myself instead of having some official announcement."

Directors' blogs have subdivided into two distinct camps -- slickly produced video-driven production journals and technologically minimal Web diaries. But to hear it from Michael Regina, editor in chief of The One Ring Inc., a company that specializes in constructing movie fan sites -- including kongisking.net and theonelion.net, for the upcoming "Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" -- fans are simply interested in the minutiae of movie magic, in whatever format they're conveyed.

"The production diaries the fans love most are about the littlest aspects of moviemaking -- the nitty-gritty stuff," he said.

For instance? "Peter Jackson had one production diary that focused entirely on the team making animal poop -- the different qualities and styles and the different types of animal poop, from elephants to rats. The fans were really rabid for that," said Regina, who explained that the props were for a scene involving various animals on a boat.

"I think it says to the fan base, 'We care enough about you to bring you on the inside,' " said Dawn Taubin, Warner Bros. president of domestic marketing. "It makes those fans think, 'Hey, they're giving us content that's exclusive to us before it goes to the masses.' "

The numbers are starting to bear out such marketing wisdom. Regina says kongisking.net's blog for Jackson has logged as many as 100,000 downloads per week. And according to Warner Bros. records, bluetights.net's blog is viewed 50,000 to 60,000 times a day.

"It's interesting to post something and then you go get a cup of coffee and when you come back, it's on five other websites and you notice 20,000 people are already trying to download it," Regina said.

A blog's "comments" section, however, may be the truest reflection of fan zeal. Director Zach Braff's "Garden State" blogsite continues to be flooded with up to 1,000 comments per posting, even though his indie movie left theaters months ago.

Still, not every director with a weblog presence sets out with high aspirations. "Lions Gate asked me if I would do it. I was like, 'What the [heck] is a blog?" said rocker turned auteur Rob Zombie, who posts entries about his film "The Devil's Rejects" at lionsgatedirectors.com/zombie/index_flash.html. "I don't read them!"

For The Record Los Angeles Times Friday June 17, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction Directors' blogs -- An article in Sunday's Calendar section about directors' blogs misspelled the first name of Bryan Singer, the director of "Superman Returns," as Brian. For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday June 26, 2005 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction Directors' blogs -- An article June 12 about directors' blogs misspelled the first name of the director of "Superman Returns" as Brian Singer. It's spelled Bryan.
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