Hollywood rolls out red carpet to 'influencer' fans

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Clad in his pajamas, Reid Jones often blogs about Marvel superhero movies, with starry ambitions of one day becoming an entertainment journalist.

A few weeks ago, the 16-year-old woke up to that opportunity when he was invited to conduct red carpet interviews with the stars of Marvel's "Avengers: Age of Ultron" during the Los Angeles premiere.

"It really felt like it was a dream," says Jones, who traveled with his dad from Kennesaw, Ga., to the premiere of the movie that hits theaters Friday.

Major Hollywood studios like Disney-owned Marvel are anxious to win over super fans, especially those who help build excitement online among other youngsters ahead of a movie's debut. While the fan connection has long been cultivated at conventions like Comic-Con or Disney's Star Wars Celebration, young writers like Jones — whose posts have been read nearly 11 million times — are increasingly being courted at events once reserved for traditional media outlets.

This outreach is important for marketers, who call people like Jones "influencers" because they reach an under-25 crowd of frequent moviegoers, who are not as easily reached by the traditional 30-second TV ads that advertisers typically use to reach their parents. Fading are the days when movie critics at newspapers, magazines and other publications set the tone, particularly for the big-budget superhero movies that can make or break a studio's annual revenue target.

"When you're reaching young people, you have to go to where the authorities on culture exist," says Angela Courtin, chief marketing officer for Relativity Media, the studio that has co-financed "Fast & Furious" series and is releasing action comedy "Masterminds," this fall. "They're no longer in bylines of The New York Times or the Los Angeles Times. They're now on YouTube and Snapchat and Instagram and Vine."

Many of these influencers write blogs for sites like Moviepilot, which draw a large following of the younger audience marketers covet. According to Google Analytics, 37 percent of site visitors are under 25 years old, and 71 percent are under 35.

Moviepilot Inc. CEO Tobi Bauckhage says that last fall, he and his co-founders decided to change the direction of their movie fan site to take posts directly from readers, which is when usage began to take off. In March, it had 17.3 million unique U.S. visitors, more than double that of a year ago, according to comScore. In a single week in April, fan posts outnumbered editor posts 1,431 to 486.

Bauckhage attributes the growing popularity to fans like Jones, the Georgia teen who for the last year has written more than a post a day for Moviepilot. A month ago, he pored over a trailer and deduced — correctly — the hidden nature of the new character, Vision, in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." He also figured out how two distinct weapons are actually part of one giant one that will determine the universe's fate in the two-part Avengers sequel three years from now.

"People like Reid knew more about specifics than some of our editors did," says Bauckhage, who sold off the original website he founded in Germany and launched a U.S. version in May 2013. "We realized we really have to empower these kids to become creators."

The company rewards contributors with seats at early movie screenings, or swag such as action figures, dolls and mugs. The most popular ones, like Jones, are awarded with paid contracts as freelancers — his was $1,000 a month — although Jones and the site said that arrangement had temporarily ended as school got in the way.

Some studios pay Moviepilot for access to these influencers. In one deal, 20th Century Fox allowed Moviepilot horror genre blogger Nicole Renee onto its lot for a sneak peek at its trailer for "Poltergeist" a day before its release. A few months earlier, she had been given early access to the Lionsgate movie "Jessabelle," after which she made the comment: "The film gave me chills throughout my whole body."

Fox paid the site a significant but undisclosed sum for a guarantee that her post about "Poltergeist" would be read 100,000 times and the trailer seen 1 million times, Bauckhage says. Usage more than quintupled the target.

Bauckhage insists contributors are allowed complete editorial freedom, and says the deal was cut before Renee wrote her post. He said the site is also considering a profit-sharing model with its most popular writers in the future.

"We're trying to empower fans to become part of the conversation and to give them the access, the platform, the tools to create great content about the stuff they really care about," Bauckhage says. "Now that seems to match pretty nicely with the interest of the studio because they're very dependent on this kind of buzz."

In Jones' case, the teenager's freelance gig with Moviepilot had expired for a short time, but the site paid for his and his father's expenses, Bauckhage says. A Disney spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.

Jones says the arrangement is fair, and he's looking forward to restarting a paid relationship with the site. His father, Bart Jones, says he's proud that his son took the initiative last year to turn his love of Marvel movies into a job.

"They've paid him for his contributions. They certainly paid him well with the trip and the experience," says Jones, 47. "I don't see any other avenues offering this type of experience to 16-year-olds. I think it's great."

The younger Jones wrote after the red carpet event that the movie was "infinitely better than the first" Avengers, but called a mid-credits scene that teased future movies "frustrating" because it "leaves us with so many more questions than answers."