Word of Mouth: ‘Middle Men’s’ advertising takes an adult approach

If you just happen to have watched adult film clips on the Internet lately — “Teens Love to Experiment,” “2 Glamorous Women and One Lucky Guy,” perhaps? — you might have stumbled across a very unusual advertisement: a trailer for the new movie “Middle Men.”

Hollywood has cooked up all sorts of unusual marketing buys in recent years — giant billboards that envelop skyscrapers, newspaper ads that look like real stories, logos on taxicab hubcaps and baseball bases. No matter how aggressive or creative the campaigns, though, the major movie studios haven’t been spending money on adult-oriented websites. “Middle Men” could change that.

“I can’t tell you how many friends of mine have said, ‘I saw your 30-second spot online,’ ” says William Sherak, one of the producers of the independently financed drama about the launch of the Internet pornography business. “And I know there’s only one place they saw it!”

Opening Friday, “Middle Men” is the loosely autobiographical story of Christopher Mallick, who personally financed the $20-million production and also is underwriting the film’s release. Mallick in the 1990s pioneered the online billing system that connected adult websites with Internet users, as pornography helped usher in the e-commerce boom.

In the film, Jack Harris (as the fictionalized Mallick, played by Luke Wilson, is known) is a straight-arrow businessman whose new enterprise brings him no shortage of money, mobsters, porn starlets and federal investigators. As online pornography takes off, Harris grows estranged from his principles and his family.

“It’s about porn on the Internet as much as ‘Wall Street’ was about trading stocks. It’s the backdrop,” Mallick says. “It’s about 80% true. You have to figure out which 20% isn’t true.”

“Middle Men,” which was directed by George Gallo (“Double Take”) and written by Gallo and Andy Weiss (television’s “Punk’d”), also stars Giovanni Ribisi, James Caan and Gabriel Macht and includes cameos from real-life porn superstars such as Jesse Jane. The film is rated R for “strong sexual content, nudity, language, drug use and violence.”

Unlike most limited releases, “Middle Men” is not opening on just two or three screens in each city. Instead, the movie will open in a number of theaters in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle and Dallas-Fort Worth. The hope is that positive word of mouth from those concentrated locations can undergird a wider release on Aug. 20.

Audience tracking surveys indicate that although “Middle Men” is not nearly as well-known as the weekend’s other new national premieres, Will Ferrell’s “The Other Guys” and the dance sequel “Step-Up 3D,” younger and older men and older women are interested in seeing it.

“Middle Men” has been promoted on television, in print ads and with a provocative poster, but the most compelling materials can be found online. Parroting a strategy used by other makers of risqué works, “Middle Men” has assembled an R-rated (or red-banded, as such works are called by the Motion Picture Assn. of America) preview filled with nudity and raunchy language.

Released without the filmmakers’ permission, an extended clip of Jack Harris wandering through a home that’s hosting an orgy made its way to the Internet (rather than being a deleted scene, Sherak and Mallick said it’s just a longer version of a scene that’s still in the film).

But it is “Middle Men’s” embedded trailer on hard-core porn sites that stands apart. The half-minute preview (which has neither nudity nor coarse language) has been playing on sites including Pornhub and Youporn, where programming categories include “Big Butt,” “Fetish” and “European.” Viewers who select “Stunning Kayden Kross Knows What You Want” can’t fast-forward through the “Middle Men” ad but can click on the spot, which redirects them to the film’s official website.

Kevin Blatt, who handles mainstream advertising sales for Pornhub and Youporn parent Manwin, says that the company’s sites generate more than 3 billion monthly page views and attract a largely male audience, a potentially great match not only for some movies but also sports and liquor advertisers.

“We have more traffic than God,” says Blatt, who is best known for brokering Paris Hilton’s sex tape. “The only people to get more traffic than us are Google and Yahoo. And here, we pretty much have a captive audience.”

About 12% of total websites are pornographic, and about 40 million Americans are regular porn site visitors. In the United States, annual adult-oriented Internet revenues are approaching $3 billion. “But nobody admits they watch it,” Sherak says. “None of this is taboo to me anymore.”

“The studios say, ‘Oh God, we can’t market there,’” Mallick says. “Do they think [the users] are all sitting in a basement and are all pedophiles? They are average Americans. Adult entertainment is becoming much more mainstream.”

In just a few weeks, Mallick says, the “Middle Men” trailer has been seen about 30 million times on online porn sites, and some 6 million people have clicked from the adult sites to the “Middle Men” website, where 4 million have watched the full trailer.

“It’s much more effective than television commercials,” Mallick says.

“They went to [the adult sites] to do something else and chose to click off” to our site, Sherak says. “That’s commitment.”