Lights, Camera, E-Commerce!

In the film “The Truman Show,” the hapless title character is the star of his own life — an extended TV show that includes advertising spots that are seamlessly woven into the content.

While the movie is a pointed commentary on the voyeuristic nature of American society, many of its underpinnings are not as farfetched as they may seem. Many Internet users are already comfortably partaking in on-the-spot e-commerce transactions spurred by similar background advertising embedded in entertainment content on the Web.

While aggressive online promotion has rewarded a handful of independent films — most notably “The Blair Witch Project,” which exploded into the mainstream last summer — the Internet is quietly having an impact that may far surpass that of the hit-or-miss breakout film. As theatrically released films keep audiences in their seats — stuck, if not glued — for increasing lengths of time, the Internet’s direct marketing potential hails the comeback of the short.

Coming Around Again

Decades ago, short subjects were part of every movie theater experience, along with cartoons, newsreels, and Saturday afternoon serials. They went the way of double and triple features as downtown movie palaces disappeared and multiplexes began showing one feature per screen. And the features got longer and longer.

Now the MTV generation is discovering the pleasure of the short subject on the small screen. Increasing numbers of primarily 14 to 34 year olds are using their breaks from work or school to take in movies, animation, documentaries, and episodic programs that range from a few minutes to half an hour in length on 30 or so popular Web sites.

Built-in Interactive Commercials

The Internet shorts are perfect for viewers who prefer the fast cut to the slow narrative. Sponsors are flocking to the entertainment sites because their audiences are the ideal target for interactive marketing. They are comfortable with computers and multi-tasking, and far more likely than their parents to shop online.

The Digital Entertainment Network (DEN) shows segments that run about six minutes. While the content is not interrupted by the typical 30 to 60 second commercial spots seen on TV, ads do run at the beginning of segments, and users can point and click on sponsor products featured in the shows linking them to further information.

The site also includes a “Den-Mart,” where viewers can purchase music that is featured in the shows.

Narrowcasting Substitutes for Market Research

Because many of the sites “narrowcast” by tailoring their offerings to certain interest groups, advertisers also have the advantage of ready-made niche markets. For example, DEN offers a show about young Hispanics in East Los Angeles, another that revolves around a group of punk rockers, and a third that focuses on the Hip-Hop culture.

While going after the “unmainstreamed” with such fare, DEN also addresses a more general crowd with offerings that include a show about the capers of a group of fraternity brothers.

Shorts Ideal for Convergence

One of the most popular movie sites on the Web, AtomFilms, boasts a catalog of over 40,000 titles of short films, animation and digital media content — all running less than 30 minutes.

AtomFilms is pushing into the converged media space with a move designed to capitalize on this month’s Oscar mania. Digital television entertainment service provider DirecTV, Inc. and AtomFilms recently announced a syndication agreement to air 7 of this year’s 10 live-action and animated Oscar-nominated short films on DirecTV from March 15th to March 31st.

AtomFilms expects the TV exposure to drive more viewers to its online “Atom Store,” where they can purchase a DVD of the Oscar-nominated shorts and browse a huge collection of other DVD and VHS compilations for sale.

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