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Are Internet spies running Hollywood?

The filmmakers behind some of the summer’s hottest flicks reveal how website buzz is stirring up the studios

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Patricia Arquette, Stigmata
Richard Foreman

Forget Roger Ebert. More and more movie fans are logging onto websites like Ain’t It Cool News and Corona’s Coming Attractions for sneak previews, and the buzz is making a difference at the box office. Online hype surrounding ”The Blair Witch Project,” for instance, helped catapult the indie creepfest past the $80 million mark.

But how much pull do these fan-generated reviews have in Hollywood? A lot. ”When someone puts up a review on the Internet, it starts a buzz,” says ”Dick” and ”Terminator 2” producer Gale Anne Hurd. ”If that buzz is negative, the studio can begin lowering their expectations for the movie. And that’s when they start cutting the amount of money they’re willing to spend on it, including money for postproduction and marketing.”

And this isn’t the only effect Net critics can have on the final cut. Barry Sonnenfeld (”Wild Wild West”) tells EW Online that he needs audience testing to find out which jokes work and which don’t, and he also needs it to adjust timing. But when a rough cuts get reviewed on the Internet and negative word spreads, some filmmakers may feel the risk of testing is greater than the rewards it can provide.

So what’s a studio to do? Some have tried to keep spies out of the audience — without success. Says ”Detroit Rock City” director Adam Rifkin: ”For the two test screenings that we did, we had three different spies from Ain’t It Cool News [sneak in]. But all three gave great reviews, thank God.”

And therein lies the rub. Since not all Web-based buzz is bad, sometimes cyber word of mouth can help make a movie. ”The reviews we got were great,” gushes director Les Mayfield about the online reception for ”Blue Streak” (starring Martin Lawrence, opening Sep. 17). ”I wanted to take out an ad in ‘Variety’ based on the reviews we got on the Internet.” Sighs Martin Grove, CNN “ShowBiz Today” movie analyst, ”Hollywood is happy when the Internet works in its favor, and very, very unhappy when it doesn’t.”

Increasingly, the answer for marketing execs is to give in to the inevitable. ”Even if studios find ways to make the testing process more secure, it can’t be 100 percent controlled,” Grove explains. ”So what they can do is try to influence Internet buzzers the way they influence traditional media.” So not only are producers and directors contacting sites directly to plug their movies, but some studios have begun quoting Ain’t It Cool News’ positive reviews in advertising campaigns, most recently for ”Detroit Rock City.” ”Sometimes people decide they like to be quoted, and they realize they only get quoted when they write positive things. By legitimizing these people, it makes them behave more legitimately.” Say it ain’t so, Harry!

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