A New Media Frontier for Actors

Celebrities Experiment With The Internet

  Keith Stern 
Los Angeles, California

For Immediate Release
Monday, 10 July 2000
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Los Angeles --  Cher offers to sell you cappuccino mugs and sweat pants. Will Smith gives you a chance to win his upcoming video compilation. Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones announce their engagement. Cybill Shepherd greets you with balloons and cake, wearing a party hat to celebrate her 50th birthday. Leonard DiCaprio offers a ticket to his own party - the premiere for his movie "The Beach". It's all happening on the Internet at "official" celebrity websites.

As distinguished from "fan sites", official websites are created in collaboration with the celebrities themselves, or at least with their cooperation and approval. Like fan sites, they feature photos, news articles, biographies, filmographies, and merchandise for sale. Though they vary in quality from amateurish to state of the art, official sites on the whole are more professionally designed and feature better content than fan sites.

They can be educational. Jerry Lewis provides an audio lesson on proper use of your mouse. Lily Tomlin conducts a private tour of her personal cheese museum. Fernanda Montenegro presents a video "Message for Netheadz" (in Portugese).

Warhol's 15 minutes of fame are not enough when you can achieve immortality on the Internet. The time will come when almost every working actor will feel the need to have an "official" website, but we're not nearly there yet. In fact, most actors today fall into five categories:

1. "I'm already making $20 Million a picture, why do I need a website?" 
2. "My fans think I'm so gorgeous, 32 of them have already done websites for me -- for free!" 
3. "What can a website do for me that my agent can't do?" 
4. "This whole Internet thing is just silly and below my dignity -- I haven't figured out how to get online myself." 
5. "I can't afford to have my own official website."

Some actors fall into more than one category -- some are in all five!

As a group, though, they are beginning to catch on to the fact that they really ought to do something about having their own official home page. For the most successful actors, such as Ian McKellen, it can be an extension of their career into a new medium -- a way of giving back something of value directly to the public. McKellen.com started in Sir Ian's mind as a substitute for an autobiographical book, but it has become something more like a library or an encyclopedia. He probably has more information about British Theatre in the '60s - '80s than any other site on the Net, including posters, cast lists, photos, and anecdotes about over 150 productions. Actors looking for insight into other actors' methods can find documents like Lynn Redgrave's "Hanna Notebooks" at redgrave.com. Directors about to stage a new production will want to use the Internet to research prior production history, photos of sets, and reviews (though they'll find mostly the good reviews at official sites - who can blame them for putting the best spin on things?)

An official home page for an actor will at least reduce the number of dreadful fan sites. Now most of the fan sites are wonderful, and they certainly are flattering, but they often tell you more about the fan than they do about the actor. Sometimes what they have to say about the actor is incorrect, out of date, or irrelevant. The quality of the photographs and other design elements are often not the best - after all they're not getting paid. For the moment, though, the fan sites provide the bulk of factual information about actors, and they have been a tremendous service. Still, eventually most actors will realize they need to control the content of an official page if they want to have accurate, high quality information about them on the Internet.

An official website can increase the visibility of an actor in the public's eye, in the press, and within the professional community. A few minutes spent at an official home page can instantly familiarize people with who you are, what you've done, what you're doing, and what you want to do. Unlike other media, the information is available "on demand" to people who are thinking about attending a movie or play, to writers about to do a story, to casting directors about to take a meeting.

Hollywood is famously a place where everyone works a "day job" while they pursue their true ambitions. Waiters want to be actors, actors want to be directors, directors want to become producers, producers want to run studios, and studio chiefs want to own casinos. A website can emphasize different aspects of talent to help with such career moves.

The new generation of actors are totally hip to the Internet. Their home pages go online as soon as they have their first set of head shots and a resume - sometimes before their first paying job. When success comes, they'll bring their websites along and continue to develop them.

The Internet is changing the rules of the old game of public relations. As soon as a film starts production, information becomes available instantly to everyone on the Internet. Dozens of sites, such as Harry Knowles' "Aint-It-Cool-News", monitor the finest details of script, cast, crew, budget, costumes, locations, and production. Actors' websites can be viewed as a hinderance by the studios, who want to run the whole show. Pressure is building on the studios to loosen their grip on publicity materials for use at their stars' official websites. I was recently in the offices of Fox, pleading to run photos from the set of the upcoming Bryan Singer film "X-Men". I was politely refused, and told I shouldn't feel bad: Leonardo DiCaprio had been in earlier that day trying to pry loose some stills from "The Beach" to run on his own website. It's becoming less possible for the studios to control release of information, to run a "closed set" and maintain the elements of surprise to create excitement. The Internet creates excitement in another, more direct way -- through interactive involvement of the public in the inner workings of the production. By fostering that relationship online, official websites can increase the interest of the public in a project or a career -- and at the box office.

A website is only as good as its content. Luckily, many actors are packrats. These people keep scrapbooks going back to early school productions: programs, clippings, snapshots, telegrams, and props. In the past, these wonders have rarely made it out of their attics or cellars. The luckier collections wound up in cardboard boxes in the vaults of University libraries in Indiana or Texas. A website makes it practical for actors to present the treasures from their trunks to the public during their lifetimes. Of course, every website needs a good webmaster and the closer the collaboration between the "Samuel Johnson" and his or her "Boswell", the better. They will spend a lot of time together, so it helps if they are patient and understanding of each other's needs. The webmaster must learn to project the actor's personality, philosophy, and image. He or she must take their subjects' ideas, and structure them in a way that works on the web. You can't just dump boxes of material into a hopper that churns out web pages. They have to be organized and presented in a way that makes it quick and easy for people to find what they need, and to keep it all entertaining.

Email is the real wonder of the Internet, turning an actor's website into a two-way communication. With the slightest encouragement, fans eagerly send in their opinions, flattery, criticism, encouragement, and questions - and actors eagerly read them. Aside from the occasional maniac, fans don't really expect a reply, and are thrilled by the thought that their idol might actually read their message. Actors tend to travel a lot to work, and there's always some idle time between performances or shots while on location. Email can reach them instantly wherever they may be and they may even have time to answer a few of them. Again, the old "star system" ideals of aloofness and mystery should give way somewhat to the possibilities of more personal involvement in this electronic universe. It should be part of the actor's job to keep in touch with their fan base. Email and official websites make that easier.

Here's a selection of some of the best "official" celebrity websites: Jeff Bridges (jeffbridges.com) - casual, handwritten graphic elements fit his personality perfectly. Malcolm MacDowell (malcolm-mcdowell.com) - cool, well-organized Italian design with great photos and just the right amount of information. Lily Tomlin (lilytomlin.com) - a collaboration between Lily and artist Allee Willis, this is a near-perfect exploitation of the WWW for entertainment purposes. Sam Neill (metalab.unc.edu/samneill)-- His website is run from an American university computer, and appear to be in the form of somebody's doctoral thesis. Lots of facts, clinically organized -- at least they're intelligent and pertinent. Willie Nelson (willienelson.com) - Designed by his daughter, this site really makes you feel like one of the family - and a fun family it is. Willie shows off his new great-grandson. Kevin Spacey (spacey.com) - The FAQ page is appropriately, mysteriously, completely blank. Rodney Dangerfield (rodney.com) threatens to leave nasty messages on your voice mail. Rodney's is the only celebrity site with its own online casino. Jet Li (jet-li.com) -- Totally zen

Also rans: Frankie Avalon (frankieavalon.com) offers his line of tanning products. Tori Spelling (tori-spelling.com) shows off her poodle. Camryn Mannheim (camryn.com) sends you to her brother's online law school. Esther Williams (esther-williams.com) sponsors an essay contest.

Other websites mentioned: Cybill Shepherd (cybill.com) Fernanda Montenegro (www.uol.com/fernandamontenegro) Leonardo DiCaprio (lenoardodicaprio.com) Jerry Lewis (jerrylewiscomedy.com) Cher (cher.com) Michael Douglas (michaeldouglas.com) Catherine Zeta-Jones (greenroomonline.com/Stars/ZetaJones)

Keith Stern is a website designer based in Hollywood.  He has produced official websites for Ian McKellen, Lynn Redgrave, and Spinal Tap.

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