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Virally targeting the audience

Editor's note: This edition of the Movie Answer Man was written by Roger Ebert before he went into the hospital for his most recent surgery -- and before the death Jan. 22 of actor Heath Ledger.

Q. I'm curious about the viral marketing campaigns for many big-budget movies (such as "Cloverfield" as well as the "Batman Begins" sequel "The Dark Knight"). "The Dark Knight"" uses Web sites that include puzzles in order to unlock stills or pictures from the movie. One allowed people to enter their e-mail addresses to get a coordinate. With the coordinate, they could enter it at the Web site and remove a pixel from a vandalized picture of Aaron Eckhart (as Harvey Dent from the film).

As more people did this, more pixels were removed, and at the end, the first photo of Heath Ledger as the Joker was revealed underneath. Besides this, there have been scavenger hunts that would ultimately end in more photos being released and lead to Web sites revolving around the movies' events and mythology. Do you believe that more studios will use this tactic to market their product?

Jeremy Flores, UCLA, Los Angeles

A. "Viral marketing" refers to a strategy that tries to involve a movie's target audience in talking up a movie among their friends. They tell others about the Web sites, the audience grows, word-of-mouth spreads, and the campaign rolls under its own momentum. It is essentially a practical application of Richard Dawkins' theory of "memes," which are to ideas as genes are to heredity. He argues that certain ideas, beliefs, songs, images and superstitions spread from mind to mind and, like genes, the hardiest survive.

Q. I was stunned by the death of Brad Renfro on Jan. 15. But what stunned me even more was how little news there was about his death. Is Renfro just not newsworthy? What gives? Jerry Roberts, Birmingham, Ala.

A. The tragic loss of Brad Renfro was low-profile because he was a private person, not fodder for the celebrity info-fodder mills. In contrast, an Associated Press exec recently alerted reporters that Britney Spears is a "big story," and the fact that AP was preparing an obit on Spears got more coverage than the death of the fine actor Renfro. The public self-destruction of such as Spears, Amy Winehouse and others has become a sick media circus. Shamefully, the media is obsessed with scandal, gossip and trivia, and is alienating the serious and grown-up public.

Q. I've heard you criticize the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for only being a collective group, and not having any real character distinction as individuals, aside from their weapons and being color-coded. I'm not a fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles myself, but I found it kind of funny that each one has its own separate article on Wikipedia. Will Lugar, Tulsa, Okla.

A. Good gravy! Leonardo alone has an entry of 3,006 words! And forget about the starring turtles: Wiki has descriptions of 155 supporting characters!

Q: I was reading some of the reviews of "Cloverfield" and wondering why every review of a disaster movie must refer to 9/11. The Japanese have made dozens of movies about the destruction of Tokyo in the years since the atomic bomb. Is America as traumatized about 9/11 as the Japanese are about the atomic bomb, so that we must now refer to it every time a movie featuring large-scale destruction comes out? Producer J.J. Abrams mentioned he saw Godzilla toys while in Japan and decided America needed its own "monster." That's all there is to it. Eric Paquette, Sherwood Park, Ala.

A. I'm not sure we got a monster much different than Godzilla, but I know why the reviews referred to 9/11. There is a shot of people fleeing from a cloud of smoke and debris after the collapse of a skyscraper that is an unmistakable reference to TV footage on that tragic day.

Q. What do you think of the controversial redesign of the Web site Rotten Tomatoes? User reaction seems to be running 10-1 against. Greg Nelson, Chicago

A. It's rotten. A nearly perfect site has been junked up, tamed down and made nearly unusable. Also, it looks anemic and ugly. What once took two or three clicks now takes five or six, perhaps an attempt to artificially inflate hits. I hope they listen to the user outcry and do what Salon.com did a few years ago: Bite the bullet, admit their error and revert to the old design.

I recently looked up a Sundance film, was able to see its Tomatometer (two favorable reviews, one not), then was completely unable to find a way to get to any of the three reviews. The typeface of the review summaries, when you do find them, is so small, it's unreadable. This is amazing: Countless users complain about the ALL CAPS, and the editor responds that it's fine on Firefox and only ALL CAPS on Internet Explorer. Are they seriously saying they unleashed this beta version without even looking at it on Explorer?

Q. In your review of "Memoirs of a Geisha," you quote Oscar Levant as having said: "I've been in Hollywood so long, I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin." I laughed at first, then realized I didn't know what I was laughing at. The association of virginity and Doris Day is indeed funny because of her famously clean image, but I am not sure what Oscar Levant's joke is.

Assuming he was being facetious and hyperbolic, wouldn't his words imply to the reader that she lost her virginity quite young, which is something any film fan would know is just not possible given her image? Does it mean that she remained a virgin until, let's say, around the age of 26 and during this time Oscar got his foot in the business? Or could it possibly mean that she lost her virginity at, say, 18 or so, which would imply that Oscar was around about eight years longer in the business had she not been a virgin? Michael Green, Upland, Calif.

A. I'm not sure I follow your math, but I think Levant meant, "I've been around so long I knew Doris Day before she became a virgin." We confuse a lively, spirited and gifted performer (who was touring as a singer with the Les Brown orchestra at 16) with her image in countless movies. As a callow young critic, I joined in the derision of her image, but later sincerely apologized. The fact is, Doris Day was a great and talented movie star, with a singing voice as clear as a bell.

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