In 2001 directors such as Ang Lee, Guy Ritchie and the late John Frankenheimer turned out short films that employed high production values to entertain online viewers, even as they pitched BMWs. Expectations were high in those days for the fusion of high-speed digital transmission and high-gloss Hollywood.
Freed from the constraints of a 30- or 60-second commercial, sponsors were able to capitalize on product placement in films that could take as much as five minutes to develop an idea -- enough time to provide viewers with some substantial entertainment value, yet not so much as to push the envelope on what is widely regarded as a narrowing attention span among entertainment consumers.
But A-list talent does not come cheap, and when the dot-com euphoria gave way to less fantastic business models -- and investors cut back on the amount of money they were throwing at the ventures -- the high-profile online film projects became less viable.
Now, with funding from official sponsor Chase, Amazon.com is presenting short films produced -- and in some cases directed -- by Hollywood veterans Ridley and Tony Scott.
Ridley Scott is the Oscar-nominated director of such features as "Thelma & Louise," "Gladiator" and "Black Hawk Down." Tony Scott has directed such blockbusters as "Crimson Tide" and "Top Gun."
The series of five short films they have made for Amazon.com features such stars as Chris Noth ("Sex and the City"), Blair Underwood ("L.A. Law"), Daryl Hannah ("Kill Bill") and Oscar nominee Minnie Driver ("Good Will Hunting").
Visitors to Amazon.com can view the movies free of charge and link to special artist "boutiques" to see more information on the performers. Oh, and by the way, visitors can also buy items they happen to see featured in the short films.
Amazon.com spokeswoman Jani Baker told United Press International the Web site's audience is demographically desirable for artists who want their work to be better known and for sponsors who want to sell their products.
"Amazon Theater is certainly a way that products and artists can gain exposure to a very large audience," she said, "an audience, I might add, that is very media savvy, that is largely affluent and that holds credit cards."
The first film in the series -- "Portrait," starring Driver and directed by Ridley Scott's daughter Jordan Scott -- premiered Nov. 9. The second film -- "Agent Orange," directed by Tony Scott -- rolled out the following Tuesday. The current film, "Do Geese See God," will be followed in future weeks by "Tooth Fairy," starring Noth, and "Careful What You Wish for," starring Hannah.
Entertainment consumers are well acquainted with product placement, of course, but the Amazon Theater films put something of a new twist on the convention. At the end of "Agent Orange," for example, the products are listed in the closing credits -- as if they were actors in the stories -- and viewers can click on those credits to purchase the items.
Baker said Amazon.com executives admired the BMW film series but did not necessarily use it as a role model.
"We had been experimenting with streaming video for some time," she said, "that either demonstrated products or showed celebrities talking about products."
Some streaming video on Amazon.com featured Paris Hilton talking about her jewelry collection, Christy Turlington pitching yoga products and, most recently, comedian Jon Stewart talking about "America (The Book)."
Baker would not say how much the films cost to produce, but she acknowledged that they were "not inexpensive" to create.
"We were very fortunate to receive huge financial support from Chase Bank," she said.
Chase issues the Amazon.com platinum Visa card, and the Chase brand is prominently featured on the site.
Amazon.com is, of course, counting the hits at Amazon Theater, but Baker said it would not be announcing those numbers "at this time." However, she said the company is planning to do more short film projects in the future -- and is already hearing from other filmmakers who want to be involved.
"We're getting a lot of questions," she said, "but we don't have any specific plans at this time to talk about."
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