Here's where Hollywood is going: on-line

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Come March 27, about 1 billion viewers are expected to turn on their television sets to the live 67th Annual Academy Awards. But for the first time in Academy Award history, as the Oscar winners make their way backstage to greet journalists from around the world, viewers with access to the World Wide Web or ABC Online will be able to be right there in the pressroom.

How? Earlier this month, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences established its own site, or address, on the Web, where computer users can get detailed information about this year's Oscars race.

Not to be outdone, ABC, which is broadcasting the show, will offer the subscribers to America Online instant, downloadable photos of Oscar arrivals, winners and even instant question-and-answer sessions with the stars themselves.

All this mirrors the information revolution that is making its way to the highest levels in Hollywood. With color graphics, downloadable photographs and interactive chat sessions with film stars, cyberspace isn't just for computer nerds anymore.

John Singleton, the director, writer and producer, has liked computers since the eighth grade. So when the time came for Columbia Pictures to devise marketing strategies for his recent film "Higher Learning," he suggested, in addition to buying print and television ads, that the company go on-line.

"I called the studio's marketing department every day asking, 'When are we going to get these pictures digitized?' " Mr. Singleton said from his offices in Los Angeles.

Mr. Singleton subscribes to America Online. That's one of many home-computer services offering access to Hollywood Online, a computer site bulging with electronic press kits, entertainment news and brief segments from current movies.

Subscribers to Hollywood Online who want to bring Sharon Stone into their living room, for example, can, by downloading her photographs from "The Quick and the Dead" -- in 256 colors. (More than 5,800 people have downloaded just two photos in a three-week period, and there have been more than 6,300 downloads of Brad Pitt in "Legends of the Fall" in a time span of a month or so.)

Eventually, Columbia Pictures heard Mr. Singleton's plea and paid to have the "Higher Learning" press kit added to Hollywood Online, which is available to the now 2.5 million America Online subscribers and the 3.5 million who use CompuServe, Delphi, E-World and Prodigy.

In fact, since January, only Prodigy subscribers have been able to leap from their regular on-line service to the Web. America Online promises the same capacity this spring; other users will have to buy software separately to gain access to the Web.

Currently, such studios as Columbia Tri-Star, Miramax, 20th Century Fox, Gramercy and New Line/Fine Line Features offer movie-related information on Hollywood Online.

Mr. Gill, the former head of publicity for Columbia Pictures, helped shepherd one of the first computer-access press kits, for Columbia's "In the Line of Fire," onto Hollywood Online. Other studios also plan to market their films on their own sites on the Web. (Sites on the Web are notable for their addresses, which start with "http://" sometimes followed by recognizable words.)

"It's absolutely smart business to be in the sandbox playing with everybody else," says Don Buckley, vice president for advertising and publicity at Warner Bros.

The studio has not yet established its own exclusive Web site, but Mr. Buckley is able to put on-line information about Warner movies on the Web by way of Pathfinder, a site that links the Time Warner magazines and entertainment companies.

In the past, Warner Bros. has also set up film-information bulletin boards on Prodigy, CompuServe and America Online.

The sandbox is becoming more crowded each week. Arthur Cohen, Paramount Pictures' president for worldwide marketing, was pleased with the entry of "Star Trek" on the Web last year. "We blew out a Web site," he said happily, remembering the 300,000 computer users who visited the studio's site in the weeks before his film was released. "We had to start a second one."

Paramount's newspaper ads for "The Brady Bunch Movie" have begun carrying the company's Web address. Disney's site on the Web has a "Six Plex" movie marquee with art deco styling, palm trees and neon lights listing names of such feature films as "Miami Rhapsody" and "Judge Dredd," with Sylvester Stallone, due this summer. When a user clicks on a film title on the marquee, new options open up to explore "Quicktime Film Clips," press notes and so on.

"Some people seem to be very scared of this technology," said Brett Dicker, senior vice president for promotions of the Disney company's Buena Vista Pictures Marketing. "So it's incumbent upon people like us in the industry to make it easy to use and understand."

MGM's "Lions' Den" site on the Web is promoting "Tank Girl," a futuristic movie due in March. Universal's flashy "Cyber Walk" had its first "Interactive Movie Premiere" last fall with scenes from the opening of "Junior."

Columbia Tri-Star and Universal have sites on the Web, and Fox plans to have its own site when its film "Die Hard With a Vengeance" is released in May.

While it is not certain that marketing films by computer will draw more people to theaters, studios seem willing to join the rush.

Studio marketing executives say the demographics are good (high school and college students as well as affluent middle-aged computer buffs tend to be the heavy users), and it costs less than $50,000 to set up a site on the Web. Compare that with $350,000 to buy one ad on the television hit "Seinfeld," says David Davis, a motion-picture analyst in Beverly Hills.

Studios look at the Web and on-line services "as a way to narrowcast to their core constituency," Mr. Davis said. "But I don't see a studio pulling a 'Seinfeld' ad on a Thursday night. Not yet."

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