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Studios spar with cybersquatters over movie domain names

Or: Don’t look for Anthony Hopkins at Hannibal.com

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Thomas Harris
Illustration by Jon Ueland

If, like legions of movie fans, you wanted to catch a sneak peek at the closed set of ”Hannibal” before its Feb. 9 opening, you might have gone to MGM’s official website — if you knew where to find it. Like other studios, MGM has been forced to become creative in naming sites that promote its movies. In the case of ”Hannibal” — the ”Silence of the Lambs” sequel — the obvious Hannibal.com domain was registered to a resident of Hannibal, N.Y. Hannibal.net is the home of the Hannibal Courier-Post in Hannibal, Mo. And Hannibal.org, Hannibal2001.com, and Hannibalthemovie.com, among others, were registered to various folks and organizations. What was MGM to do? Rather than pay big bucks to the owners of those names, it simply (though none too imaginatively) added a subdirectory to its main Web address: mgm.com/hannibal.

That’s a tactic other studios are also employing to thwart speculators and cybersquatters. ”We’re not in the business of dealing with terrorists,” says Robert Nuell, senior creative director of new media at Miramax, which refuses to buy domain names from greenmailers. Nonetheless, using the studio’s domain as the core address is less than ideal. Nuell says Miramax has used the technique for films it wants to brand as quintessential Miramax movies, like ”Shakespeare in Love,” but not for films where ”moviegoers might not know who produced them.”

Instead, Miramax and others have had to become savvier at registering titles as domains. ”We try to register the title as soon as a project gets the green light,” says Nuell. ”Otherwise, once it gets out into the trades, the domains are open game.” Still, even the most aggressive studios can’t always get what they want, as Gordon Paddison, senior VP of worldwide interactive marketing and business development at New Line Cinema, learned firsthand: He tried to register sugarandspice.com for the new film of that title about cheerleaders who turn to crime, only to find it being used by a porn site. To assure that Net users would not end up there, Paddison quickly registered Sugar & Spice with America Online’s Keywords program (AOL Time Warner is EW’s parent company), and secured Sugarandspicemovie.com.

Studios have increasingly turned to marketing departments for ideas for alternate domains: So many variations on ”the Grinch” had been registered that Universal Pictures went with www. meanone.com for the movie’s site. Warner Bros. picked up whatis thematrix.com for ”The Matrix.” Paddison and Nuell concede that when all else fails, they will contact a domain’s owner: ”I shoot straight with them and make it clear what I want,” says Paddison. ”Often, a signed T shirt or memorabilia…is all they’re looking for.”