By Ellen Neuborne When cartoon canine Scooby-Doo hits the silver screen on June 14, he'll have evolved from basic animation to computer-generated image, but that won't be the film's only example of technical prowess. Scooby-Doo will also boast the latest in interactive marketing theory -- one that casts the Web site in a supporting role.
The Internet has been a sore spot for the movie biz. Although studios are eager to embrace the online audience, efforts to woo consumers via their computer screens have been spotty at best. Franchises such as Star Wars and ET have been able to make it work, but the landscape is littered with films like Planet of the Apes and Jurassic Park III -- which sank six figures into splashy Web sites but got little box office boost in return.
Now, some experts are saying the Web sites are the problem. Studios have focused so heavily on creating and drawing traffic to their beefed-up URLs, they've neglected the more powerful aspects of Net marketing such as e-mail, message boards, live chat, and online games. Forrester Research studied the interactive marketing tools of a variety of entertainment properties and came to this conclusion: A reallocation of funds away from Web sites and into such other tactics could generate more buzz at lower cost, and boost box office sales by as much as $15 million.
THE BIGGER PICTURE. That is, of course, if the studios are willing to venture forth from their Web site safety zones. "Life outside the Web site can be scary and unpredictable," says Charlene Li, a Forrester senior analyst in Cambridge, Mass. "It's emotional. It's passionate. It's viral. It's a place where a studio executive no longer has total control."
It's also Scooby-Doo's virtual playground. Along with techno-Scooby, the Warner Bros. Pictures film features a live-action cast starring Matthew Lillard as Shaggy, Sarah Michelle Gellar as Daphne, Freddie Prinze Jr. as Fred, and Linda Cardellini as Velma. To reach the actors' young fans as well as the somewhat older consumers who remember the cartoon from their own childhoods, the marketing team turned not just to the Web, but to the bigger universe of interactive technology.
"The object is to broaden our reach," says Don Buckley, senior vice-president for interactive marketing at Warner Bros. Pictures. The obligatory Flash-enabled home page (www.scoobydoo.com) was launched in March, but the marketing isn't just about site traffic. "I'm happy to lose a unique visitor if they end up making the same decision and buying a ticket," says Buckley.
NOT SITE-SPECIFIC. To that end, much of the virtual blitz takes place apart from Scoobydoo.com. The film's advergame -- an online promotional game featuring characters and plot elements from the movie -- goes live first on movie news sites like Moviephone.com, not on the film's home page. The trailer made its debut on America Online (AOL Time Warner is the film company's parent). Specialized content, including Scooby trivia games and nostalgia stories about the original cartoon, will also be posted on AOL -- both in the entertainment and the auto sections (for fans of the groovy Scooby van).
For those who like instant-message chatting (and teens really do), a virtual bot programmed to carry on IM conversations can be downloaded and added to a personal buddy list. Buckley's team carefully monitored popular movie-news sites and provided tidbits and art to their Webmasters. And the next time a cell phone goes off in a business meeting somewhere, don't be surprised if the ring tone is the Scooby-Doo theme song. That's part of the film's wireless push -- it will also include games, trivia, and discount offers delivered to cell-phone and PDA screens.
Certainly, the Web site -- offering cast data, photos, posters, and a place to sign up for promotional e-mail from Scooby -- plays a role in the marketing program. But it's far from the only role. "The fan base is in a lot of different places," says Buckley.
Will this work? Some of it already has. Some 5.5 million fans downloaded the trailer when it went live in March. By the time the film opens, Warner officials estimate another 5 million will have viewed the preview online. And Scooby-Doo's handlers have successfully used movie fan sites to generate buzz.
TALE OF THE TAKE. Last year, when criticism -- and some unflattering pictures of the cast -- made their way to a popular movie news site, Warner did damage control by flying a half-dozen hand-picked Webmasters to Australia for a visit to the set. The junket paid off: The group returned and wrote up glowing reports of the film-in-progress. In the tradition of the Internet, these were reposted, linked to, and otherwise distributed for months afterward.
Heading now into opening weekend, that glow remains. "It looks like the word has turned around on Scooby-Doo," says Harry Knowles, founder of popular movie news site Ain'tItCool.com and author of last year's online criticism. "My spies say they kind of like it."
But only opening weekend will tell whether Scooby-Doo, which the industry estimates was budgeted at $80 million, will get a true boost from the Net. And Hollywood will be watching closely. "A lot of studios have been burned, pumping $1 million into a Web site and then not being able to measure a return," says Phillip Nakov, co-founder of movie fan and news site Countingdown.com. "In a lot of ways, it's still a mystery."
One that Warner Bros. hopes Scooby-Doo, the great dog detective, can solve. Neuborne is a freelance writer in New York