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Film studios lure viewers with Web gimmicks

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LOS ANGELES — Michael Van Gorkom remembers the first call he got from the robot.

"It was a real person's voice," the 26-year-old Santa Monica resident said. "Very freaky."

Phone calls from robots, e-mails from someone called "mother" and cryptic instant messages are just some of the intrusive elements of a Web-based game being used to market the Steven Spielberg movie "A.I. Artificial Intelligence."

Similar techniques, including a worldwide scavenger hunt to find props from the upcoming 20th Century Fox release "Planet of the Apes" are being used more often as the Web graduates from being a mere interactive movie poster to a vital part of studio marketing campaigns.

Today, studios spend $40,000 to $500,000 on elaborate games, behind-the-scenes footage and live Webcasts to lure hard-core Web users — the same people, research shows, who rush to see movies on opening weekend and spend millions on related merchandise.

The "A.I." game was developed by Microsoft and Warner Bros. as a joint promotion for the movie and a game Microsoft has developed for its new console, the XBox. It's by far the most complex attempt by a studio to use the Web to create buzz for a film — an effort undertaken in earnest after the stealth Web campaign for "The Blair Witch Project" made that film a huge hit in 1999.

In April enthusiasts who had been waiting for years for "A.I" to come out noticed strange markings in posters and television commercials — notches carved in the words "Summer 2001."

Treating them as a code, people like Van Gorkom figured out the notches were a telephone number. They called the number, and a woman's mysterious voice greeted them with, "Welcome, my child," and provided hints to start the listener on a scavenger hunt to solve the murder of scientist Evan Chan in the year 2145.

Credits in an early trailer for the film also mentioned Jeanine Salla, a "sentient machine therapist" at Bangalore University. A search for the fictitious institution reveals a Web site chock-full of more clues.

To be sure, only a small percentage of moviegoers will ever opt to receive calls from robots, but studio executives are hoping that a movie's core audience — called "alpha fans" — will be dazzled by such Web efforts and spread the news to friends, creating a groundswell that translates into an enormous opening weekend.

That effort is helped by writers and directors who fill in a movie's "back story" for the Web site and stars who promote the Web effort during junkets.

"With 'Swordfish,' we pretty much left no stone unturned," said Don Buckley, senior vice president of theatrical marketing and new media at Warner Bros. "I had (John) Travolta and (Halle) Berry and (Hugh) Jackman mention the Web site in their interviews and provide a password to various levels of the site."

Fox began building an audience for "X-men" nearly nine months before it was released last July.

"You had people hungry for early information that the general public wasn't interested in," said Jeffrey Godsick, executive vice president of publicity and promotion at Fox.

Fox also started a "Mutant Watch 2000" campaign that blurred the line between fantasy and reality. The site did not betray its connection with the movie. Instead, it purported to be a political action campaign against mutants. Fox even had Bruce Davison, who portrayed a crusading U.S. senator in the film, hold a rally and make a television commercial promoting the phony cause.

"It drew a huge amount of traffic and gave us a real news hook," Godsick said. "That's where the real home run is — when you can get news coverage."

Studios are experimenting with various ways on the Web to get fans interested in a movie months before it opens.

The efforts include simple gimmicks such as the "blonde translator" on the site to promote Metro Goldwyn Mayer's new movie "Legally Blonde."

Type in the phrase, "I love you," and the translator, sponsored by the "Blonde Legal Defense Club," suggests the alternative: "I am like so totally into you."

On the Net: www.aimovie.com;