When was the last time you saw a web address on a movie poster or trailer and felt compelled to type it into your browser, letter by stupid letter, to see what you'd find? An ad displaying a humble domain name already feels like an archaic marketing method, the equivalent of shouting your URL at someone out of the window of a moving car.
Once, a lack of online presence marked your company out as a backwater outfit that probably still advertised using Loot; these days, with social media controlling the flow of information around the net, web pages look like yesterday's news. Studios are finally getting wise to how hard social media can work for them, leaving the poor old promotional movie website – once an essential port of call for film fans – to die a slow death.
In the early days of the internet, it was easy to represent a movie online. You needed a logo, preferably a gif to keep the page-loading time low. You needed a gallery full of gigantic 640x480-pixel wallpapers. Maybe throw in some cast biographies, segregated in frames. If you were feeling adventurous, you embedded a trailer via Windows Media Player, which required a mysterious plug-in to run and was set to autoplay every time you reloaded the page. Congratulations. You've just nailed online marketing.
But now? If your movie doesn't have a well-liked Facebook page, a dedicated Twitter following and a Tumblr account with at least a dozen animated gifs of your characters twerking, you might as well be promoting, like, a book or something. Official movie websites don't have unique selling points any more. A synopsis? That's what IMDb's for. Trailers? A good 9,000 were uploaded in 1080p on YouTube in the last six seconds. Wallpapers? Google Images has that angle covered. All that leaves is seizure-inducing Flash graphics and links to buy cinema tickets that no one will ever click on (you'd get more accurate results trying to order tickets on a potato).
A hashtag slapped on a film's poster, however, can do all kinds of heavy lifting. "Social media is where conversations naturally take place, while official websites require users to be driven to them," says Katie Khan, head of digital at Paramount Pictures UK. "Official sites are a one-way conversation with film fans; social media is a dialogue."
So does anyone actually bother with these web fossils any more? "Analytics show people still visit standalone movie websites, but if they're hosted on a social platform such as Tumblr we'll most likely reach those visitors' friends too – if we've invested in making good content. It's the difference between us reaching one fan and 50," says Khan.
A short, snappy URL can still snare the attention – but there aren't many left. The Zac Efron movie That Awkward Moment had to opt for JustGetHorizontal.com (the film came out in January and the site is already offline). Cameron Diaz's forthcoming comedy Sex Tape couldn't have the obvious URL so the official site is at TheyForgotToDeleteIt.com (which redirects to the film's Facebook page). For some inexplicable reason, Muppets Most Wanted lived online at BadFrog.me. The official Elysium website – actually a pretty slick time-sink, complete with fun games and other unique extras – was hidden behind the instantly forgettable and grammatically maddening URL, ItsBetterUpThere.com.
Muppets Most Wanted
Bad frog, terrible web presence. Kermit in Muppets Most Wanted
Over on Twitter and Facebook, meanwhile, official film feeds run by interns rack up meaningful interactions numbering in the thousands, with 140 characters proving to be a more effective marketing tool than 1,400 lines of code. Social-media accounts are not always interesting or clever – every time a brand co-opts a meme the internet dies a little – but they're free to create and easy to run. It's little wonder studios rarely list official movie sites on marketing any more; in some cases, they don't even bother to create them at all.
There is an upside to this sad downward trend. Presuming that Hollywood doesn't stop paying hosting fees for their old domains, their standalone movie sites will be preserved forever in digital amber. Hell, the official site for Warner Bros's animated 1996 hit Space Jam is still live, at the memorable URL http://www2.warnerbros.com/spacejam/movie/jam.htm – and it's wonderful. Boasting a cavalcade of "Neat Stuff" including a coloring book ("Print out and colour in!"), basketball tips ("It's always a good idea to warm up before a game") and "Sound Clips" (!), it's a perfect snapshot of a mid-90s internet: low-res, garish but eager.
I can think of no better fate for film websites than to function as online time capsules, destined to be rediscovered by technologically advanced future generations, who'll laugh at the way we used to consume media as they download the latest trailers directly into their cerebral vortexes by blinking.