Once a curiosity, Oscar news sites earn clout, build buzz

Kris Tapley has interviewed Nicole Kidman. He’s also interviewed director Mike Leigh. Who is Kris Tapley? He’s a full-time waiter — but he’s also a sometime columnist for popular site Oscarwatch.com, one of the new players with clout in Hollywood during Oscar-courting season.

This bizarre mid-winter ritual has phases and windows and “for your consideration” advertisements that boggle the mind — unless you play the game. In phase one, the studios (and their publicists) try to convince the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) to nominate their films. If the studio gets the nomination, this is worth a lot at the box office. In phase two — right now — the studios (and their publicists) try to convince AMPAS members to vote for their nominees. If they get the statuette, this is worth a TON in prestige for the studio, actor and director.

On the receiving end are trade publications such as Variety and Hollywood Reporter, which are awash with special ads during the two open windows of voting for Academy members. Then add in the large print publications such as the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times and their Web sites. And pile on the movie sites, from Rotten Tomatoes to Movie City News. As Tapley has found out, it’s not just ads that are being pushed onto the Web: it’s access to stars.

Awards expert Tom O’Neil, who runs his own non-profit site GoldDerby.com, wasn’t above knocking the online competition in his column for the New York Times. Under the subhead, “Stooping to Conquer,” O’Neil wrote that Oscarwatch, “which is run by amateur fans,” was even doing celebrity interviews and mentioned how Tapley was a little too chummy with Kidman.

Sasha Stone, who has run Oscarwatch for seven years, bristles at the suggestion that she is an amateur, telling me that she writes film reviews for the Santa Monica Mirror, as well as other freelance writing and script reading. Oscarwatch is more of a seasonal job for Stone, she says, bringing in supplemental income.

“The traffic is huge – in the busy season, 4 million hits a day — it is a seasonal gig, only really taking up my time from September through February,” Stone said via e-mail. “Not enough to live on totally but enough to keep it going with minimal output on my part.”

Online traffic might be nice to build buzz about a new movie release, but how can anyone know if the Academy members are online reading? Most people assume these folks are a little older, a little less hip and mostly offline. But that’s not always the case, especially for some of the younger craftspeople on films.

“Just recently, following a piece I wrote on the media reaction to Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Aviator,’ my inbox was flooded with responses, all from insiders and some from Academy members,” Tapley told me. “Now that’s not to say they take this [online] arena with anything more than a pinch of salt but that they are indeed watching. That’s enough in and of itself to know that what we are doing goes at least a step beyond a mere ‘hobby.'”

As the Oscars have gone mainstream, the Oscar-focused sites have become the intelligence outlets for fans who bet in office pools or sign up for pick-’em contests online. Just as fantasy sports have spawned a hunger for online information, the Oscars have birthed a plethora of insider sites.

GoldDerby actually covers many other awards such as the Grammys and Emmys, and it utilizes panels of arts critics from major media to make predictions and help set faux betting lines. But the site doesn’t take advertising — except for promoting the books of its proprietor, O’Neil. Also a full-time editor at In Touch Weekly, O’Neil finances the $10,000-per-year cost of the site himself for now but tells me he will eventually raise money for it.

Movie City News mixes saucy opinions from seasoned journalists with link roundups from other major outlets for movie news year-round. Its special Awards Watch section tallies which movies have won the earlier awards from guilds and the like. Right now, you can’t help but notice the “for your consideration” ads all over MCN.

Building community with screenings

But the most visible symbol of the growing clout of the independent sites online is the fact that they’re hosting movie screenings for the studios. Ain’t It Cool News has held screenings for niche films, in Austin and Los Angeles, though not related to the Oscars. And then GoldDerby did Academy Award screenings in New York, while Movie City News had weekly Oscar screenings in Los Angeles.

Studios aren’t allowed to directly invite AMPAS members to screenings, outside of the official Academy screenings, but they use creative means to invite them through other guilds and groups that just happen to have AMPAS members in them.

Janice Roland is a publicist with Falco Ink who has helped promote “Maria Full of Grace,” “Hotel Rwanda,” “The Sea Inside” and “Vera Drake,” all of which have received Oscar nominations. Roland singles out O’Neil as being an important contact because of his Times pieces and GoldDerby site.

“This is the first time GoldDerby has hosted screenings,” Roland told me via e-mail. “I went to GoldDerby because Tom O’Neil is an expert on awards and I feel the site has weight. We do a Q&A at the end of the screening. Since some industry people are Academy voters — I think it creates a buzz for the film and the talent which leads the industry people to think about these films.”

Movie City News had an interesting way of capturing the attention of AMPAS members. The site’s editor and columnist David Poland was the host of weekly screenings at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood. Poland said the screenings were open to anyone with a voting membership in any of the film guilds.

“Every week we had thousands of guild and Academy voters coming to the site specifically to sign up for films,” Poland said via e-mail. “The idea was to create a community of industry viewers who were voters and who would also spread buzz. None of the screenings were post-release…one of my rules. The idea was to be an early look and a place to build buzz and votes.”

Reaching those who reach the Academy

There’s a real black art to finding those 6,000-plus Academy voters and then winning them over with marketing. Do they watch TV? Do they read the paper? Would they read a handicapping site online, or catch the online buzz from a colleague or one of their kids?

One line of thinking for Internet promotion — placing interviews, advertising and maybe even anonymous forum postings — is that you’re reaching the “influencers.” These are people who tell other people who tell other people. So it’s possible that a tidbit of news might get play on the Oscar sites, then tumble into the trade publications and then onto the TV gossip shows and newspapers.

Alyson Racer, director of sales at NYTimes.com, told me that the number of studios that are advertising online this Oscar season has doubled from three to six. “They’re seeing us as a viable place to reach the [industry people] and the influencers — not necessarily the voters,” she said.

Most online journalists I spoke with singled out New Line (and its Fine Line subsidiary) and Fox Searchlight as really understanding the Net and how to promote films in the medium. Racer noted that Fox Searchlight had been sponsoring NYTimes.com’s site utilities (e-mail a friend, print an article) for the past six months because the studio’s more brainy films such as “Sideways” and “Kinsey” fit with the Times’ audience.

“Studios are being more adventurous about where they’re advertising online,” said Alex Romanelli, editor at Variety.com. “Oscar campaigning online is no longer restricted to the trades. They’re definitely targeting the broadsheets and the small, fan-based movie sites as well. The ads on those sites aren’t necessarily targeting ‘for your consideration,’ but they’re designed to increase awareness of key films being considered by key people out there.”

As for reaching AMPAS members, Romanelli not surprisingly thinks that Variety and its Web site still offer the most bang for the studios’ buck. Variety.com gets 1.2 million unique visitors per month, according to Romanelli, and has 30,000 paid subscribers — half of them online-only subscribers.

Of course, not everyone will cede the whole game to Variety and the trades.

“These Internet opportunities are still quite cheap compared to print,” Poland said. “So for the price of a Variety cover, Fox Searchlight can push ‘Sideways’ for a month on a dozen sites, many of which will give up prime exclusive slotting.”

More likely, it’s the integrated approach, using multiple sites and media platforms, that helps build buzz for a film. And if the independent film and Oscar sites continue to gain the trust of studios — without selling out their objectivity to readers — they will reap the rewards of Oscar campaign season just as the TV business has grown fat during political campaigns.