Lights, Camera, Web Site

Mutants are everywhere in X-Men: The Movie, one of the summer's hottest films. But even more lurk in the computers of Twentieth Century Fox, the studio that released the flick in July. Months before, Fox wrote articles for a faux news Web site,, featuring a campaign by one of the movie's villains, Senator Kelly, to stamp out mutants. Visitors were asked to find mutants and get them to register on the site. More than 65,000 folks "reported" friends who exhibited mutant behavior, such as "an affinity for Spandex." Silly? Sure, but it provided Fox with a gold mine of data, from e-mail addresses to demographics, that the studio can use to hawk videos or create buzz for a new film.

One-two punch. It's all part of the most elaborate Internet marketing blitz ever to hit Hollywood. In post-Blair Witch Internet marketing, Fox has few peers in mastering the interactive power of the Web to boost interest in its films. Besides egging on mutant snitchers, Fox used online games, chat-room talks with the stars, and even a series of fake news articles of mysterious events to whip up online chatter.

The results are promising. The Web campaign capped a $50 million marketing program that helped X-Men gross more than $150 million. Fox exit polls showed that 28% of those who saw the film had visited the X-Men Web site--nearly five times the number of moviegoers who usually surf movie sites, say Hollywood marketing experts. "This was a movie that was just meant for the Internet," with its young, male-oriented audience, says Jeffrey Gozsick, Fox's executive vice-president for publicity and promotion. "And we tried to exploit it early and often."

What makes Fox marketers far more crafty than their studio brethren is simple: They understand the emotional one-two punch of the Internet's instant, two-way communication combined with the old-fashioned lure of a good story. "Most studios simply put up promotional sites for their movies and figure fans will go there and want to see the movie," says Phillip Nakov, co-founder of, a movie fan site. "Fox gets it. They involve people emotionally. They make their promotional sites as much about entertainment as the movie itself."

Indeed, the goal isn't just bigger box-office receipts. Fox is out to use the Web to drive hordes of customers online--and straight into its marketing databases. The potential reward, say industry marketing experts: a whole new customer base to target during later promotions--and larger-than-ever focus groups on which to test future films and plotlines. Up to six months before the movie's opening, for instance, was full of phony news accounts of freak hurricanes started by mutants and Badger Scouts in Michigan patrolling the streets in search of mutants. That's what drew those 65,000 mutant spotters--and their valuable data.

It was all just a warmup for the July 14 opening. The flick's promotional site, interactive, film-related story site--also pulled in waves of surfers. Many of the site's more than 4.7 million unique visitors logged on during the six months preceding the movie's opening. They were told to sign on to enter Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, the mythical place where the X-Men heroes grew up and were trained to fight evil. The marketing catch: Site visitors had to bring in four other players with their e-mail addresses to work their way through to more dangerous rooms in the virtual school.

To be sure, this "viral marketing," the online equivalent of word-of-mouth advertising, can't work miracles. The apocalyptic animated film Titan A.E., for example, died at the box office despite a hefty Web ad campaign that included offline events, such as a well-publicized skateboard contest on the Fox Sports Channel designed to drive folks to the Titan site.

But it's that kind of wasted spending that spurred Fox to develop a $1 million Web-powered data analysis program, code-named Eight Ball, that allows execs to track sales for most Fox films even before the box office closes for the night. Using its own data--plus some from box-office tracker ACNielsen EDI Inc.--Fox can decide where to boost advertising and where to yank it before financial disaster strikes. If a movie bombs in Boise, for instance, Fox can pull it--or run more ads in areas where sales are starting to build.

Fox is mum about the details of how Eight Ball has shifted marketing on particular films. But sources say it let Fox know early that Titan A.E. was flopping in the 'burbs--prompting it to cut ads in many of those locales the following week. Savings: nearly $1 million.

That's not all. Eight Ball helps mine a database of more than 43 million box-office records going back years. Now Fox can pinpoint theaters where audiences prefer, say, Wesley Snipes over Nicolas Cage. Such marketing smarts may not get much applause from the Screen Actors Guild, but the Web may turn out to be another blockbuster for Fox.