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World of film reviews changed by Internet

Posted by iTech - 2006-02-05

Once upon a time, you checked your local newspaper's film critic for advice about what to see on any given weekend. Or maybe you read the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly or the New Yorker, or checked out TV critics with national clout such as Roger Ebert or Gene Shalit.
Not anymore. With the advent of the Internet, geography is history. Today, more than 90% of the target moviegoer demographic ages 13-34 go online to get their movie information, says Gordon Paddison, New Line Cinema's executive vp integrated marketing.

Two movie sites changing the relationship between moviegoers and critics are http://www.RottenTomatoes.com and http://www.Metacritic.com, where a click brings you the best-reviewed movies in release. Recent Oscar nominees "Capote" and "Good Night, and Good Luck" have a "fresh" ranking of 92% and 94%, respectively, at RottenTomatoes. They get Metascores of 88 and 80, respectively, at the more streamlined Metacritic.

"Far more people are reading reviews on the Internet than they are in print," Paddison says. "This has a huge impact on cinephiles and any review-based demographic."

The original idea for RottenTomatoes sprang from the film buff brain of Senh Duong, 31, a University of California at Berkeley graduate who studied art, computer animation, film and design. He was working with his entrepreneurial pals Patrick Lee and Stephen Wang at their first Internet startup, Bay Area Web design firm Design Reactor, which created official sites for such studios as Warner Bros. Pictures and the Disney Channel. A rabid Jackie Chan fan, Duong found himself trawling the Internet for reviews each time the Hong Kong star opened a movie. "I thought, this could be pretty useful for other people," Duong says.

So he started his own Web site with 30 reviews of the 1998 releases "Blade" and "Your Friends and Neighbors," measuring the content of each review and creating a ratio of positive to negative. Anything that ranked 60% or higher is rated "fresh" with a bright red tomato icon. Anything 59% or below is "rotten," with a squished green tomato. Duong's goal: "If we could be the EW (Entertainment Weekly) of the Internet, that would be great."

Swiftly, RottenTomatoes was promoted by Yahoo!, USA Today and Netscape. Duong was killing himself working two jobs at the time. "Every Thursday and Friday I basically pulled overnighters," he says.

So he went to his Design Reactor partners. At the height of the Internet boom, based on their established track record, they were able to raise $1.2 million for RottenTomatoes. The partners took a 40% stake in Design Reactor and sold it to another company. They staffed up RottenTomatoes to 25 employees. One month later, the Internet's boom crashed.

RottenTomatoes survived by staying "lean and mean," Duong says. It cut back to 10 employees and spent as little money as possible as it built up to 400 reputable regular print and online Tomatometer critics within a database of 1,000 critics. Today, two-thirds of its critics enter their own reviews on the site. "We cover every movie, big or small," Duong says.

With 3.6 million unique visitors a month (per Nielsen//NetRatings) RottenTomatoes now actually "has a sales guy," Duong says. On its busily cluttered homepage, there is a plethora of movie content, including a "spotlight" on "Imagine Me & You," lists of the box office top 10 and new openings, a link to the site's first-ever Sundance Film Festival coverage ("We couldn't afford to go before," Duong says), links to recent news and features, show times by ZIP code and recently rated fresh and rotten movies.

If you want to click on a movie to buy a DVD, you go to http://www.Pricegrabber.com, which compares prices on the Web; RottenTomatoes gets a slice of every sale. The site now hosts 50,000 blogs, all sharing their favorite movies.

The site turned the corner to profitability in 2004, says Duong, who finally sold RottenTomatoes for a reported $10 million to the No. 1 video game site on the Web, IGN Entertainment. The site's page views continue to spike.

"Every year it's like a straight line," Duong says. "Last year our traffic increased 60%. Now we're supported by ads. The consumer wants information, especially about genre films, even anime. We're very democratic. Even though genre films get the most hits, even if a movie opens in only one theater, we still cover it."

Revenue is up because ad sales are skyrocketing on the site. While nowhere near as big as http://www.IMDb.com (17.5 million unique visitors per month as of December) or http://www.YahooMovies.com (10.7 million), according to Nielsen//NetRatings, RottenTomatoes (3.6 million) is bigger than http://www.iFilm.com (2.76 million), http://www.EOnline.com (2.73 million) and Harry Knowles' fanboy site, http://www.aint-it-cool-news.com (623,000).

"RottenTomatoes is a great place to advertise if you've got a movie like 'A History of Violence' that is well-reviewed," New Line's Paddison says. "People who go there are a little more savvy than your regular Joe."

On the opening weekend of "Thumbsucker," Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard "roadblocked" RottenTomatoes, he says: "We bought all the ads on the site for three days. RottenTomatoes' younger audience was perfect for reaching our teen target."

Fox Searchlight Internet marketing executive Mark Geller buys ads on RottenTomatoes partly because they don't cost as much as YahooMovies for a front-page ad. "RottenTomatoes casts a pretty wide net," he says. "Their readers like everything from 'Spider-Man' to indie fare. If you're confident you've got a strong, well-reviewed movie, then you leverage RottenTomatoes." (News Corp., parent to 20th Century Fox, now owns both Internet powerhouses IGN Entertainment and http://www.MySpace.com.)

RottenTomatoes' only competition comes from Metacritic (206,000 visitors a month per Media Metrix), founded in January 2000 by three lawyers using private equity: Marc Doyle, Jason Dietz and Julie Doyle Roberts. Another aggregate review site, Metacritic not only measures film reviews but also music, games, books and TV, on a strictly number scale, from 1-100, with color codes of green (positive), yellow (mixed) and red (negative). Among recent theatrical releases, "Annapolis" rates a 37; "Big Momma's House 2," 34; "Nanny McPhee," 59; and "Fateless" an 89.

Co-founder Doyle says the site limits itself to about 40 reputable critics, including those from Slate, Salon and Reelview. "We want users to know who the critics are. We stick to a set number that we follow every week rather than anyone who is not reliably professional. With the aggregation process you get a span of opinion; it's more democratic. Without the Internet, it would not be possible."

With its basic staff of four plus freelance contractors, the austerely elegant Metacritic sticks to its bread and butter: aggregating reviews. "We're not as much a multimedia site as RottenTomatoes," says Doyle, who stresses that Metacritic doesn't post as many ads, allow pop-ups or offer as many page views because it is catering to the consumer experience. "We were the first to include the indie film market," he says. "Now we both do it."

Metacritic's revenue comes from licensing data, advertising and links to affiliates like Amazon.com, which gives it a percentage of every sale. Metacritic also was sold last year -- to CNET for a reported low-seven figures. Change is in the air, Doyle says: The site will now add more trailers, images and a community of blogs.

As RottenTomatoes morphs into a movie content site where the reviews are taking a back seat, Metacritic is sticking to its original purpose: collecting critics.

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