Flick freaks find a home at Flixster

Diana Noble, a 32-year-old insurance underwriter and self-described movie freak from Cleveland, joined Flixster.com to make friends with other movie buffs.

That's where Nick Montalbano, a 37-year-old Ford salesman and fellow horror film fan from Toledo, Ohio, fell for her while reading her reviews of such classics as "House of 1,000 Corpses." Less than a year later, he proposed on bended knee during a preview for "You Don't Mess With the Zohan."

Such is the special effect Flixster Inc. has on its users, who have collectively created 2 billion movie ratings, 100 million reviews and 1 million trivia quizzes on the social networking website.

The San Francisco start-up sent Noble and Montalbano fleece zip-up sweatshirts with corporate logos as an engagement gift.

Their movie-themed wedding in May will feature an old-fashioned popcorn maker, tables named after such favorites as "Shaun of the Dead" and a cake topped with a clapboard. Noble and Montalbano hope to splatter another cake, for the groomsmen, with enough fake blood to celebrate their love of gore -- but not enough to offend her pastor.

"We are definitely a match made in movie heaven," Noble said.

It's unclear whether Flixster will get its own Hollywood ending.

As long as online advertising was booming and marketers were drooling over young, spendy consumers, social networking sites were all the rage. But with the economic trough deepening and competition growing, these sites are scrambling to turn their large audiences into megabucks.

This year is shaping up as a make-or-break one for many. It's that classic Silicon Valley cliffhanger -- some sought-after start-ups are bought or go public; others end up in the dot-com dustbin.

Several large companies, including Barry Diller's IAC/InterActiveCorp, flirted with buying Flixster a year ago but weren't willing to pay the asking price. So it's looking to break out as an indie hit. The company has raised nearly $8 million from angel investors and venture capitalists and plans to be profitable by the second quarter.

"Flixster certainly seems well-positioned as long as they can continue to innovate," said Doug Neil, senior vice president of digital marketing for Universal Pictures, which has promoted movies on the site.

The premise is simple. People often trust recommendations from their friends, family or colleagues over those of critics. So why not create a network for movie fans to share their ratings and reviews?

"I can't even remember the last movie I went to without checking with a friend first to see if it was good," said Saran Chari, Flixster's co-founder and chief technology officer.

Flixster members can create profiles, invite friends, rate and review movies and actors, create their own quizzes and meet new people with similar tastes. They can also check out showtimes, movie news and video clips.

Since its launch in late 2005, Flixster has become one of the largest online communities of movie fans, with 1.6 million U.S. visitors in December, according to research firm ComScore Inc. (Flixster says its internal traffic figures are far higher -- about 6.4 million visitors in December.)

Flixster also offers programs known as widgets that let members use the service directly on websites such as Facebook, MySpace and iGoogle. It's on mobile phones too. The company's iPhone application, which offers movie times, reviews, trailers and theater maps, has been downloaded more than 2 million times.

Chari and co-founder Joe Greenstein aren't film buffs. After leaving an educational software company, they persuaded their landlord to let them camp out in a tiny, windowless conference room free of charge to dream up their next venture. They spent months staring at a whiteboard, throwing out ideas like darts.

Flixster was born from a Greenstein frustration: He and his then-girlfriend could never agree on a movie. His and Chari's first effort was a basic operation called whosawwhat.com, but they weren't sure it had the makings of a viable business until Michael Birch, founder of the social network Bebo, and Kevin Hartz, a venture capitalist and entrepreneur, persuaded them to run with it.

"The primary challenge for Flixster will be one of execution," said Jeremy Liew, a managing director with Lightspeed Ventures, which invested in Flixster. "They need to get in front of the studios and make sure that they are . . . winning a piece of each movie's ad budget."

The company's fortunes are tied to the film industry, which is slumping along with the rest of the economy. That could chip away at the ad budgets Flixster is relying on. Then again, it could end up working in the start-up's favor as Hollywood searches for innovative ways to connect with young viewers and generate buzz for theatrical releases and DVDs.

Amy Powell, senior vice president of interactive marketing with Paramount Pictures, says Flixster members become "direct marketers" for movies when they take sponsored quizzes and share the results with their friends.

Flixster executives say advertiser spending on the site has remained relatively steady as cash-strapped consumers shift to lower-cost entertainment such as renting DVDs or going to the movies.

The company is building a sales force to deepen its relationships with Hollywood studios.

It hopes early returns will help sell its product. Flixster helped market the theatrical release of "The Incredible Hulk," netting Universal Pictures 2.5 million interactions with users who shared ratings, reviews and quizzes with friends.

"This is a no-lose proposition for the industry in terms of getting attention from the younger crowd," said Blair Westlake, a former studio executive who is now corporate vice president of the media and entertainment group at Microsoft Corp.


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