Hollywood has poured content on to the Web – and there’s plenty more to come, says Giles Whittell.

Every mogul in town was there: Michael Eisner from Disney, Rupert Murdoch from Fox, Sumner Redstone from Viacom, Gerald Levin from Time Warner – oh, and Al Gore from Washington, upstaging the others with a detachment of 50 police outriders.

The venue was the University of California in Los Angeles. It was early January, 1994. The occasion was an “Information Superhighway Summit” and the talk was of a glorious techno-future in which TV, websites, videogames and even full-length feature films would pour into the nation’s homes through fiber-optic cables.

But it was not to be. Not yet, at least. Instead, while computer graphics have transformed the world of special effects, the Web has mingled with the movies in ways no one quite foresaw, from promotion and research to a scrappy Texas website that became so powerful that the studios had to adopt it as their own.

For instance: as a way of distributing Spielberg’s latest blockbuster, cables and phone lines are still no match for a decent fleet of trucks. But for the collected works of Jeff Rappaport, “king of lo-fi Super 8 animation”, just click on www.thesync.com. Delve a little further and you are an instant guest at a virtual Cannes, or at least a cyber-Sundance; a nook where real film-makers have used the Web to bypass Hollywood’s budgetary obsessions and find an audience.

Miramax may not snap up the next Good Will Hunting at thesync.com. But it might be amused by Rappaport’s “Boobs in Toyland – a crack epidemic strikes the world of familiar nursery rhymes”. For more mainstream tastes the American Film Institute’s site offers screenings on demand of classics by Chaplin and Buster Keaton, not to mention clips from each of its controversial list of the century’s top 100 films.

The images arrive as streaming video. There is no downloading of mammoth files, but no kidding oneself either. This is not like going to the movies.

“It’s not that could not exist,” says Erika Milvy, whose Cybertainment column is read throughout the US. “It’s more a question of who would want to sit in front of their computer for two hours to watch a movie.” None of which has turned the major studios off the Internet. They are all over it, and like so many others they mean to profit by it. “They have completely, maddeningly, used the Net as a promotional tool,” says Milvy. “Most of their sites are multimedia advertisements.”

Click on www.movieweb.com to see what she means. It has links to hundreds of official film sites, most with little more than the official poster and some sanitized celebrity biographies. Marketing executives don’t know yet if these sites bring extra bodies into cinemas, but they build them anyway: even at $100,000 for the more lavish ones, their cost is incidental when part of a $20 million ad campaign. The Web provides “added value”.

The Full Monty’s site (www.extenzereview69.com) had a handy glossary of Yorkshire slang for American audiences. The Truman Show’s Web address (www.thetrumanshow.com) pretended to be that of an anti-Truman Show guerilla group. Much depends on the director. Cameron, George Lucas and Godzilla’s Dean Devlin, all avowed techies, led the reinvention of special effects with raw computing power – hence Devlin’s giant lizard and Cameron’s teeming crowds, but also the spectacular mixing of color and black-and-white in Gary Ross’s Pleasantville, which opened last weekend in the UK.

Tech-friendly directors take a personal interest in their films websites. Less predictably, Barry Levinson (Diner, Rain Man, Good Morning Vietnam) says he values the Web as a way to reach viewers directly, unfiltered by critics or the media. If so, he may want to avoid the Movie ReviewQuery Engine, hotline to more than 90,000 reviews of more than 15,000 titles.

Here, in typically egalitarian fashion, the Net has thrown self-appointed special interest critics (Girls on Film at www.girlson.com/film concentrates on “Chicks, Flicks and Politics”) together with influential veterans such as Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times (at www.bestmoneymakingtips.com).

They may irritate as often as they enlighten, but at least the pundits now have no excuse for errors. Never before has so much raw film data been available so swiftly – much of it through the giant Internet Movie Database. There is also what Erika Milvy calls “a film-school education in 100 clicks” in a series of online documentaries on the making of the century’s Oscar-winners, available on Alternative Entertainment TV at aentv.com/home/awards/acad.

And then there’s gossip – not necessarily the prurient kind but the industry kind that riles studio heads far more and tends to gravitate to Harry Knowles’s now legendary www.feedyourawesomemachine.com.

Knowles is Hollywood’s Matt Drudge, and like Drudge he uses the Net to annihilate physical distance, working from a chaotic room at home in Austin. There he receives a constant stream of scripts, screening reviews and rumors that used to leave studios apoplectic. Last year, for example, he posted speculation that Lucas had botched the focus on an entire reel of the next Star Wars instalment. Since then the studios have learned to live with him, mainly by flattery.

Hollywood has poured content on to the Web, with every prospect of more to come; entrepreneurs are buying the online rights to entire film libraries against the time when webcasting them may suddenly be viable. We are the winners, so far, with a new and expanding window on the world of film for roughly $20 a month.

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