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2007 Best & Worst: Online movie gimmicks

Simpsons
By Deborah Netburn and Patrick Day, Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

As the year rushes rapidly to a close, it’s time to sift through the mountains and kilobytes of pop culture detritus that have built up on our computers and in our brains over the past 12 months and try to figure out what worked, what didn’t and what’s best forgotten by New Year’s Day.

In the first installment of our series, we check out the various online marketing gimmicks used to promote Hollywood’s best and biggest flicks this year.

And so like the adventurers of the age of discovery, we find those brave souls in the online marketing departments of film studios taking bold risks in what are essentially uncharted territories.

Some of these ventures are successful -- who didn’t want to make their own Simpsons avatar? -- but many more of them are not. ()
Simpsons
The film: “The Simpsons Movie” (July)

The online gimmick: One of the best online marketing stunts of the year — the creators of “The Simpsons Movie” website gave fans the opportunity to cast themselves as animated characters from the show. Here at latimes.com, the avatar-making link passed from workstation to workstation with lightning speed.

Successful? As an enjoyable way to spend 20 minutes, absolutely. The variety of ears, eyes noses and hairdos to pick from made for surprisingly recognizable portraits. Did it make anyone want to see the movie more than they already did? Not really. We were all going to see it anyway. ()
I’m Not There
The film: “I’m Not There” (November)

The online gimmick: It has been possible since the late summer to send a friend, co-worker or loved one a message as told on sheets of poster board held up by Bob Dylan. The marketing team behind this stunt (technically for a best-of Dylan album, but linked to on the “I’m Not There” site), took footage from the beginning of the 1967 Dylan documentary “Don’t Look Back” in which the singer holds up pieces of paper with his lyrics written on them. Users were asked to submit their own text, which magically appears in place of the lyrics.

Successful? The movie made less than a million at the box office its opening weekend, but we still think this marketing campaign was a success. The release date of the film was able to get passed around to those who may not have known the movie was coming out. Plus, it was just really cool. ()
Superbad
The film: “Superbad” (August)

The online gimmick: Taking a page from the “bride has a hair crisis” viral video from 2006. Two fake videos were put up on YouTube: the first was of Michael Cera getting in a huge fight with Judd Apatow on the set of “Knocked Up.” (You’re right, Cera wasn’t in that film). The second was of Jonah Hill storming out of an interview.

Successful? Eh. Moderately. We got sent both videos. We watched them. The Cera one, which made it onto the extras section of the “Knocked Up” DVD, was funnier than the Hill one. We wondered for a second if either of these might be real. Then we felt respect for how hard the stars of this film were working to promote it. ()
Golden Compass
The film: “The Golden Compass” (December)

The online gimmick: Meet your “daemon” — which in the world of this film is a magical animal that follows you around and represents your soul. The daemon generator on the site is essentially an abbreviated Myers-Briggs personality test that not only gives you your animal daemon and his or her name, but a breakdown of your personality characteristics.

Successful? Well, we’re not sure how many people know about it, but when we discovered the site today we happily took the test, and then passed it around to friends and co-workers and within five minutes they had all taken it too. Those personality tests are addictive. ()
Lions for Lambs
The film: “Lions for Lambs” (November)

The online gimmick: A YouTube video contest sponsored by United Artists that asked contestants to submit a 90-second video about the issue that matters to them the most. The winning video, announced the day the film opened, was featured on the YouTube.com homepage.

Successful? The video requesting submissions got more than 700,000 views, and the winning video — a boring PSA with little kids talking about tolerance — got over 100,000 views. But did this encourage anyone to see the film? Not according to the low, low box office numbers. ()
National Treasure: Book of Secrets
The film: “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” (December)

The online gimmick: The online strategy is twofold. A fancy website with logic and action games has been created http://NationalTreasure.com, as well as a YouTube channel www.youtube.com/bookofsecrets, which as of this writing asks a visitor to answer five questions correctly in order to unlock a secret video.

Successful? The games were too tough for us to figure out in the short time we had to play them, which we think is a good sign. Sticky! But that secret YouTube video? What a disappointment! ()
Alvin and the Chipmunks
The film: “Alvin and the Chipmunks” (December)

The online gimmick: The “Chipmunks” movie website is all tricked out with games, wallpapers, icons, photo galleries, and an “about the chipmunks” section. But most intriguing is the “Get Munked” section where you can design (only sort of) your own chipmunk, and have it say something.

Successful? No way. We couldn’t make the chipmunk look anything like us, and putting it in a Rasta-beanie and a plaid flannel wasn’t that cool. To get the chipmunk to say what you want, you can call a 1-800 number and record a message (which we assume is speeded up to sound more “Munk”) but that didn’t work for us. It’s sort of a neat idea, but the execution is a bummer. ()
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
The film: “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” (May)

The online gimmick: Though the official website has plenty in the way of behind-the-scenes footage, downloads and mini-games, the real draw is the “Pirates of the Caribbean Online” experience, which turns the world of Jack Sparrow into a massive multiplayer game along the lines of “World of Warcraft.”

Successful? Technical delays may have kept the online game from being launched in time to promote the movies while they were in theaters, but Disney clearly has an eye on keeping this thing going long after the movies have found their way to network TV. Though the films may have seemed like too much – too much story, too many characters, too long – the online promotion feels stuffed in all the right ways. ()
Evan Almighty
The film: “Evan Almighty” (July)

The online gimmick: “Evan Almighty’s” website is bright and bouncy, filled with kid-friendly mini-games such as an animal-themed Sudoku puzzle, with an emphasis on being educational through mini-Bible stories, animal trivia and a guide to building an ark. There’s also plenty of video footage of Steve Carell doing a silly dance.

Successful? Though the shoddy state of public education in this country is often lamented, it’s hard to imagine any parent comfortable with letting their child study religion and zoology with the creators of Hollywood’s costliest comedy. Learning the Noah story from “Evan Almighty” is the moral equivalent of getting your vitamins from a box of fruit roll-ups. ()
Cloverfield
The film: “Cloverfield” (July)

The online gimmick: Mystery, mystery, mystery. Right after the film’s first trailer debuted this summer, word got out that the mysterious film from J.J. Abrams had secret websites scattered around the Internet that would provide clues to the plot. Fans quickly fixated on a mysterious and Lovecraftian puzzle site about a man named Ethan Haas.

Successful? Yes and no. Although it turned out that the Ethan Haas site was actually designed to promote the video game “Alpha Omega,” its sinister and cryptic qualities seemed totally in line with the aura of fear and secrecy created by the first “Cloverfield” trailer. As for the actual “Cloverfield” sites, they weren’t nearly as effective in promoting the movie as a website that had nothing to do with it. ()
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