Anghus Houvouras believes that Twitter has killed the online film star…
There was a time when the online film sites were the go-to destination for behind-the-scenes images and exclusive information behind cinematic happenings. Cool places where die-hard film geeks were gathering a stream of information from secret sources revealing spoiler laced snippets and pictures about still in production movies, a perpetual thorn in the side of every studio who maintained a tenuous cold-war style mentality with them where they were just as likely to send the editors of these sites gifts (or ‘pwesents’ as they soon came to be known) as they were cease and desist letters.
For a time, it felt almost punk rock. There was an anti-establishment vibe to these websites. This wasn’t some studio shill pumping out a handful of set photos a couple of months prior to the release of the next blockbuster. These sites were running the stuff they didn’t want you to see: iconic character reveals or complete reviews of pre-production screenplays were flooding the net. For a time, it felt like a new paradigm: film news and exclusives managed by the fans.
But that era is long gone. Killed 140 characters at a time.
If you’d have asked me in 1999 (when I started writing about film online) what would have led to the ruination of the online film site, I would have said ‘greed’ or ‘ego’. Those film fan run websites were a greedy bunch. When they weren’t irritating publicists and executives, they were angling to become something more than rabid fans blogging about movies. They were trying to leverage their success and shoe-horn their way into the industry with dreams of producing and writing their own feature films. It became rather obvious a few years in that these guys weren’t just running these movie sites for the pleasure of the fans but saw it as an opportunity to get paid and break into the movie business.
There were a lot of scandals in the early days that seemed to plant the seeds of this bitter harvest. There were the lies, the accusations of piracy, the fake stories trying to promote scripts from writers on the site. There were the editors who made strange, off putting threats to studios. Critics reviewing movies from bootlegged screeners (and getting caught). Site editors engaging in boorish behavior and positively promoting any movie so long as attention was paid.
And the studios loathed every minute of it. Less than thrilled that their carefully crafted publicity and marketing was being disrupted by an army of geeks who were more interested in being first than getting things right. Marketing departments and publicists were forced to try and placate this growing number of sites. Studios became convinced that not working with them was detrimental to the potential success of big budget tent-pole films.
The truth was the studios didn’t understand the internet. Nobody did. Online film sites thrived in ignorant age without metrics. What impact did these sites have? Were they popular enough to launch or sink a film? Rather than risk it, the studios started playing nice. Though they did so with great reluctance. From there, the websites gladly shed their maverick status to get their names on the VIP list. Now their critics were getting invited to press screenings. Their bloggers were participating in junkets. If the studios couldn’t control these sites, they would merely absorb them into their system and make them into just another outlet.
While that made the online film sites significantly less interesting, it didn’t necessarily destroy them. Their ultimate demise came about with the ascension of social networking. Video killed the radio star. Twitter killed the online film site.
Transparency is the enemy of websites trying to broker in exclusivity. And with directors like Bryan Singer and Marc Webb taking to Twitter with great frequency, film fans now have direct links to their favorite talent. Why get your news secondhand when you can simply follow the creators, actors, and entertainers whose work you respect? Almost immediately, the media and the middlemen become removed from the equation.
In a matter of keystrokes, the social network site had taken away all the power these sites once held. Websites now scramble to re-post what many fans have already seen. The sites are no longer leading the way, they are in a desperate race to play catch up. Ad revenues are circling the drain. The sites that have been able to survive resort to rampant speculation or outright lies to generate pageviews. Some have even tread into embarrassing territory begging fans to support them with Kickstarter campaigns in the hopes of having their fandom once again financed.
The online film site is once again in a transitory place. As old voices fell silent, new ones have emerged. Most of the original online film sites are barely recognizable with the talented writers transitioning into mainstream jobs at more reputable outfits. The programming has become diversified with hundreds, if not thousands, of successors lining up to each take a small fraction of the traffic. Happy to exist in an era where most film news is little more than speculation that is quickly silenced by actual information being streamed by studios and the creative types they employ. The hope of something exclusive now comes from people who get a little too descriptive with their tweets or lower tier members of the team who didn’t spend enough time looking over their non-disclosure agreements.
There are many factors that led to the demise of the online film sites. Lack of exclusivity certainly played it’s part. It was Twitter that drove the knife into their backs and is slowly and painfully twisting the handle. Where studios once dealt with these websites fearfully and with trepidation, they now control them like any other outlet. Sites are desperate for the crumbs the studios throw to them and are far more willing to play ball. They’ll still try to spin something as an exclusive: a link to a trailer provided to them by the studio, or a behind the scenes photo with the claim of it being an on set spy. But let’s be real honest: those days are long gone.
Most of the websites from that era are long gone (anyone remember Coming Attractions?) and the ones that are still around are sad reminders of better times (CHUD, Ain’t it Cool, Dark Horizons). Those days of Comic-Con panels, Rock star treatment, and studio kowtowing seems to have gone the way of other stalwart internet mainstays like MySpace and America Online:
I for one will fondly remember the days of hopping from site to site hoping to peer behind the curtain about the latest production. Now, it’s all delivered to me one Tweet at a time. Like most advances, it may be more efficient, but it’s certainly not as interesting.
Anghus Houvouras is a North Carolina based writer and filmmaker. His latest work, the novel My Career Suicide Note, is available from Amazon.