Websites become movie co-stars

When Denzel Washington hunches over his computer for a late night of Internet detective work in the supernatural thriller “Fallen,” something unnatural — at least in movieland — comes on his screen: The web search engine WebCrawler. Until recently, real websites like WebCrawler rarely made it to celluloid. (Think of such supposedly tech-savvy movies as “Disclosure” and “The Net,” which used cartoony graphics unlike anything surfers would actually find in cyberspace.)

But with WebCrawler’s cameo in “Fallen,” and America Online’s numerous appearances in such recent movies and TV shows as “Wag the Dog,” “Suddenly Susan” and “ER,” Hollywood seems to be catching up to a cyber-savvy public. It’s easy to see why: Twenty-two million households are now online, according to Patrick Keane, an analyst at the online market research firm Jupiter Communications. And Keane projects that 57 million homes will be hooked up to the Net by the year 2002. That’s a lot of ticket and popcorn buyers.

Still, the producers of “Fallen” say they had artistic reasons to use real Internet sites. “We have so many fantastic things going on in the film, we tried to ground everything else in realism,” says Patricia Graf, associate producer of the movie about an executed killer whose evil spirit lives on in various people. Graf chose WebCrawler over more popular search sites like Yahoo! because it had the word “Web” in it, a visual aid to technophobes in the audience.

AOL’s appearance in “Fallen” — like the Internet service provider’s scenes in such movies as “Austin Powers” and the upcoming Warren Beatty political satire, “Bulworth” — was part of a product placement deal. Although neither side will disclose the terms of the agreement, it’s clear why AOL is fast becoming Hollywood’s favorite web star: The company has 10 million subscribers, advertises frequently on TV and pushes a user-friendly image. “The mass market’s coming online now,” says AOL spokesperson Wendy Goldberg. “Hollywood and everyone else is realizing it’s not just a geek tool anymore.”

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