The ease with which blogs and podcasts have given just about everyone a voice that can be distributed around the world is a bit misleading and elusive. Starting a blog is incredibly easy and inexpensive; it's creating content and maintaining its place in the world that gets a tad tricky. That's why companies -- including movie studios -- that are considering blogging need to think long and hard about it before they do so. It's also why experts and advisers who simply use platitudes like "start a blog" and "post daily" aren't really helping to increase the understanding of what makes blogs such a powerful communications tool; this simplistic advice benefits no one, and can actually lead some companies down the wrong path.
At their heart, that's what blogs and podcasts are: tools. They give their creators -- from the biggest company to the smallest fan -- a voice in the conversation. Existing blog creators have started a conversation, so the first decisions a studio should make is if it wants to participate and what voice it's going to use. These are hard decisions to come to, since it automatically cedes some amount of control to the audience, which can comment, link back to and otherwise opine on the content put forth there. This can be a little scary to some companies, but the potential benefits -- increased exposure, the perception that the company has opened itself up -- are huge, and can't be dismissed easily.
How studios blog
Movie studios to date have used blogs in one, or more, of three different ways. The first and most general is a blog from the studio about goings-on there and the films that are coming out. The best -- indeed the only to my knowledge -- example of this is one from Fox Searchlight. The blog they created is funny, loose and has just the right tone for a niche studio that releases sometimes quirky and off-beat movies. Typical entries run from alerts of new trailers being produced to fun stuff that is loosely related to an upcoming or current film. The blog has been running since 2003 and is definitely a great way that Fox Searchlight has found to communicate directly with its audience.
Fox Searchlight is also one of the biggest producers of the second form of movie-oriented blog: The production blog. They've given directors such as Jason Reitman, Zach Braff and others the keys to their own blogs to promote films they were working (Thank you For Smoking and Garden State, respectively). Both were definite reflections of their authors and were frank, funny and honest about the responsibilities of creating, as well as promoting, their films. Sony Pictures was an early innovator in this area, setting up a blog to promote Spider-Man 2. A producer on the film wrote it, answered fan questions and updated the audience on production details and other news. The Spider-Man 2 site also featured a great community-building tool by providing Spidey-themed templates for use on some of the more popular blogging platforms. Blog producers could grab those templates and use them on their own sites, which was a great and low-cost way for Sony to engage the audience.
The third -- and least effectively used to date, in my opinion -- form of blog used in movie marketing is the character blog. This, in essence, is blogging by a fictional character from a movie, which means it is written by someone in a false and fictional voice, which in turn has meant the blog turns out looking and sounding fake. The idea, I suppose, is to extend the universe of the movie by depositing the character in the real world. The problem is that since it's a fictional character doing the talking, it's not truly an entry into the conversation that's already going on about the movie. There's no real way for other blog writers to link back to something that character said and say, "X said something I really agree with..." or offer any sort of constructive commentary on the content.
For example, Paramount created a sort-of character blog on the site for the Cameron Crowe flick "Elizabethtown" that was supposed to have been written by Claire, the character played by Kirsten Dunst. "Claire's America," as it was called, didn't provide any new insight into the character that we didn't already get from the movie, and just came off as stilted. A better effort might have included a lead-in to the movie of the character's journey, and then a follow-up after the events of the film. Claire was an interesting enough character, and this may just have built some additional interest in the film
Casting for engagement
One medium that's grown out of blogs is podcasting, which has been adopted by movie studios much more so than blogs at this point. Specifically, video podcasts have become an important tool for movie promotions. Only one studio that I know of has produced an audio podcast (Warner Bros. gave heiress and wannabe movie star Paris Hilton a microphone to produce a series of podcasts to promote the movie "House of Wax." Unfortunately, the podcast had almost nothing to do with the movie, and was just an extension of Hilton's cult of personality).
Video podcasts, however, have fared better. Studios such as Warner Bros. and Paramount have let get a glimps of the behind-the-scenes happenings on the sets of Superman Returns and Nacho Libre, respectively, for production as video podcasts. Those vidcasts (vodcasts? Videocasts?) have given fans the peek at productions that they yearn for, and keep people talking about movies well before their release dates. Bloggers and web producers analyze and dissect these "video journals" for clues, spoilers and other tidbits, which allows for a high level of engagement with the brand that is the movie. Each of these has a tone that's appropriate to the movie. The Superman Returns videos are more or less serious, while the Nacho Libre ones have Jack Black being, well, Jack Black. They're both designed to essentially be long-form ads for the movie that are more honest and substantive than a profile on an entertainment news TV show.
The biggest benefit blogs and podcasts can have is to simply open the lines of communication. For example, I've been publishing Movie Marketing Madness as a blog for over a year, but have made it onto very few email distribution lists from studios or their marketing agencies (and I'm not the only one, I'm sure, in that boat). I'd love to be hearing about new trailers, posters, website updates more directly from the source, but for whatever reason, this information is often hard to come by.
If more studios had blogs, though, this would become a moot point. Studios wouldn't have to worry about email lists, since interested publishers such as myself would be reading their blogs, which hopefully would contain all sorts of useful and interesting information that we could turn around and share with our readers, and so on...
The idea of communicating only with a select group of "journalists" is very much old-media thinking. Everyone is now a publisher, and while my traffic numbers might not compare to sites like ComingSoon.net or others, that doesn't mean I'm not influential among my readers.
I'm not saying this to pump up my own already over-inflated ego but to point out that it's not just the big-guns that can give studios the publicity they so fervently need and want. The trick is that you have to be speaking in order for people to hear you, and blogs are a fantastic tool to do just that in a way that's open to anyone who wants to hear.
Chris Thilk has been writing about movie marketing since May 2004. .