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The digital red carpet

”The Thirteenth Floor” and ”Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” premiere both in the real world and online

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A stretch limo pulls up to a red carpet dwarfed by a marble entranceway and surrounded by screaming fans. A famous actress steps out of the limo, walks toward you, and waves. You follow her as she charms the press, up the red carpet and into the movie theater.

And you’ve never even left your computer screen.

Forget Pamela Anderson Lee. The Internet is giving way to a new breed of silicon-enhanced actors, thanks to film studios that are taking their premieres online. In the latest round of cyberpromotions, New Line held a live four-hour webcast of its May 15 Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me party at the Cannes film festival (www.austinpowers.com), while Columbia Pictures logged on May 24 with the world’s first virtual premiere for its sci-fi thriller The Thirteenth Floor (www.thethirteenthfloor.com).

“We want to pull back the curtain, peek inside, and give a firsthand view,” says Gordon Paddison, Director of Interactive Marketing at New Line. The Austin Powers Cannes party featured movie outtakes, interviews with stars Mike Myers and Heather Graham, and guests dancing in a darkened disco. (The studio is also gearing up for a live webcast of Austin‘s June 8 Hollywood premiere.)

If such PR cybershenanigans are becoming de rigueur, The Thirteenth Floor found a truly novel use of the Net by setting its online premiere in a 3-D cyberworld tied to the film’s plot (about a gateway to a virtual ’30s Hollywood housed in a 13th-floor research lab). Stars Gretchen Mol, Craig Bierko, and Vincent D’Onofrio–actually, digitized counterparts called avatars–appeared along with fellow cybercelebs Melanie Griffith, Antonio Banderas, Martin Lawrence, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Jennifer Love Hewitt, some of whom answered questions from reporters and fans who were themselves present in avatar versions.

The idea to go seriously virtual sprang from Dean Devlin, founding partner of Centropolis Entertainment, the company that produced The Thirteenth Floor–as well as box office hype monsters Independence Day and Godzilla. While the latter film served to strengthen Centropolis’ ambitious Web presence last year, Devlin decided this time to team with Activeworlds.com (www.activeworlds.com), a Newburyport, Mass., firm that runs approximately 400 virtual 3-D worlds in incarnations from Old English villages to Martian landscapes, each with its own rules, police force, politicians, real estate, and citizenship requirements.

“It’s hard to do a premiere anymore that has any juice to it,” says Devlin, who claims to have pioneered the first movie website with 1994’s StarGate. “People are intrigued with virtual reality. Of course, there are the technical hurdles to overcome. I’m sure there will be glitches along the way, but someone’s got to do it first.”

In fact, such promotions are at the mercy of the average user’s tech smarts and require advance planning to download the necessary software. While the Austin Powers webcasts use the more accessible RealPlayer plug-in, the PC-only Activeworlds software needed for The Thirteenth Floor premiere requires a Pentium 90 chip or higher. Still, a little novelty goes a long way. Unlike the Austin Powers Cannes webcast, which was marred by fuzzy sound and choppy pictures, the wow factor of the 75-minute-long Thirteenth Floor premiere overrode such annoyances as a male avatar representing a female producer and a server slowed by at least 350 simultaneous participants. The 3-D chat that followed the premiere was punctuated by comments like “This was magical” and “I don’t want to leave.”

“Your connection speed is paramount,” says Sam Bartels, a technical expert who runs Matrix Technologies in Culver City, Calif. “The Thirteenth Floor is very well put together, but 350 simultaneous users would definitely cause the server to think twice.” As for the Austin Powers effort, Bartels says: “If they’re interviewing famous people on a webcast, I might watch for 30 seconds. But who wants to watch people dance?”

Meanwhile, Hollywood is beginning to catch on to this next cyber-evolution. Activeworlds is now working on a virtual world for Patch Adams writer Steve Oedekerk’s company (www.oentertainment.com), as well as an ambitious joint venture with Centropolis (www.centropolis.com) to create a 3-D portal to a virtual science-fiction universe.

“It won’t replace real life, but as cyberspace becomes a more accepted form of traveling and communication, you will see more of these kinds of events,” says Activeworlds co-owner J.P. McCormick. “It was amazing to see how these citizens reacted to The Thirteenth Floor premiere. Jennifer Love Hewitt showed up online and people were trying to break the velvet ropes down. They felt like they were there.”