Don't Call Them Revolutionary

Movie Websites and "Enhanced CDs" Are Just Mutant Ads

June 7, 1995

By Scott Rosenberg

Only a year ago, Hollywood execs might have heard the word "Internet" and thought it was something their makeup artists used to hold hair in place. Now they're building vast lots on the World Wide Web to flog their films.

In the music biz, "multimedia" was always something fringe artists fussed with in their lofts. Now record companies are competing to stuff computer data onto audio CDs.

Today's entertainment industry is trying to hitch a ride to hipness on the back of new digital technologies. The press releases shout, We're part of the revolution! Look closely, though, and you sense a different dynamic. These companies aren't boldly exploring new art forms and methods of communication; they're desperately trying to shove the same old promotional material down new pipes.

Every major movie release is now accompanied by the unveiling of a new spot on the World Wide Web, the Internet's multimedia zone. The movie Web sites have already become standardized: Each one has a video trailer, clips, bios, production notes and an on-line "environment," game or contest loosely tied to the movie. (For "Casper," there's a haunted house to explore; for "Congo," there's a "Remote Jungle Cam Contest." ) There's usually a place to buy logo-laden merchandise, too.

Occasionally something a little more original turns up; Sony, for example, created a "Net Hunt" game for "Johnny Mnemonic." But most of these sites feel like TV commercials dragging press kits behind them, leading you 'round back to the company store.

I suppose it's better to have movie ads on the Web, where you don't have to see them unless you choose to, than on the sides of buses. But don't claim that it's revolutionary.

The real purpose of these Web sites is to help the movie studios control the public discourse about their products. On this informational channel, they're in charge. When the Web site for "Waterworld" opens, don't expect to find an open discussion of the film's financial woes there.

Sony spent a fortune promoting "Johnny Mnemonic" on-line, but didn't think highly enough of the movie itself to provide critics in techno-savvy San Francisco with the customary advance screening. The joke is that the Internet is not only a convenient marketing channel, but also a great amplifier of word-of-mouth reactions. Once "Johnny Mnemonic" opened, you could listen in anywhere the film was being discussed on-line and hear critiques more withering than those most newspapers printed.

In the music business, the latest technique in high-tech hucksterism goes by a variety of names, including "enhanced CD" and "CD-Plus." They're all variations on a simple scheme: Make the typical audio CD do double duty by filling it out with multimedia data. Put it in your stereo and it's a music CD; pop it in your computer and it's a CD-ROM.

Last week's Music and Multimedia Conference, at Masonic Auditorium on Nob Hill, saw a spate of announcements and premieres of forthcoming enhanced CDs, from new stars like the Cranberries to fading hitmakers like Greg Kihn. The CD-ROM portions of these products all provide similar material: video footage, background information, lyrics and maybe a music track unavailable in other formats.

Collectors and fans of individual artists and groups will be pleased. If, for instance, you really wanted to know about the Queensryche guys' golf games, you're in luck. But mostly, what's being added to CDs today is stuff the music companies took away when they moved from vinyl to CD: We used to call it liner notes.

Certainly some enhanced CDs -- like "Head Candy," with kaleidoscopic visuals set to a Brian Eno soundtrack, or the Residents' "Gingerbread Man" -- are genuine multimedia artworks that go substantially beyond footnoted music. But mostly the new format is simply a gambit for music labels to try to distinguish their products in an overcrowded marketplace. In some cases, it's also a ruse to raise CD prices even further beyond their current inflated level.

Ron Gompertz of Heyday Records -- the independent San Francisco label that got into enhanced CD last year with Chris von Sneidern's "Big White Lies" -- was one of the few Music and Multimedia speakers to admit this: "I think of it as like a picture disc from the '70s, or a Crackerjacks prize." Whether they turn out to be a novelty or a new norm, one thing enhanced CDs certainly can't claim to be is revolutionary.

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