Computer Arts

Big Spaceship

Visit the website of the latest movie blockbuster and you're probably enjoying the work of Brooklyn-based Big Spaceship. But how did this small web design firm from Brooklyn, New York, make it big in Hollywood? Ian Harris finds out..

Big Spaceship appears to have the film industry all wrapped up: each year its team of 30 designers produces between 20 and 30 blockbusting film sites for movie giants such as Miramax, Sony and Paramount. "Right now we're on the verge of launching the international campaign for Batman Begins, which is directed by Christopher Nolan and shot in England," says Big Spaceship's founder and CEO Michael Lebowitz.

The company has just celebrated its fifth birthday, which it marked by picking up one of the biggest awards in movie marketing for its work on the film Identity, and a nomination for this year's D&AD Awards. So how did Big Spaceship become so entrenched in Hollywood? Lebowitz, who formed Big Spaceship with a colleague he worked with at a previous agency, insists that all the company's work comes through referrals and word of mouth.

"My business partner and I didn't have a goal of doing movie stuff. But when we started out on our own, one of the clients we wanted to maintain was Miramax Films," Lebowitz explains. "The first two projects the company got - Bridget Jones and Serendipity - earned us a lot of other recommendations."

With credibility established, larger "old school" studios beat a path to Big Spaceship's door: with Paramount and Sony quick to offer work. "We don't have a sales team of any kind," says Lebowitz. "Our portfolio is our one and only sales tool, alongside awards, references, and word of mouth. Our most valued asset is the quality of our work, and that comes from the quality of our team."

Working with Hollywood
Big Spaceship's glittering client roster is regarded with envy across the industry. But Lebowitz insists there's no conspiracy behind its rise and rise. "Our client list is glamorous," he says, "and we work with some amazing companies. But there might be a perception that this is somehow easier than other types of work, and that it's not difficult. That isn't the case at all."

Big Spaceship is now branching out with work for Gucci and electronics giant LG, but film websites remain its bread and butter. Despite the creativity attached to Hollywood, the basic movie site formula rarely changes - visitors are generally just looking for downloads such as wallpapers, buddy icons and photos of the stars.

"The movie website is now an accepted form. But lately the bar has been raised," says Lebowitz. "Now there are sites about movie websites! It's become a part of the Hollywood marketing industry."

The main aim is still to generate a positive response to the site - and plant a seed that will hopefully grow into a desire to see the movie. "Basically, you just want to create something that's really rich - and bridges the gap between the trailer and the film," Lebowitz explains.

Despite the time and effort spent on Big Spaceship's projects, it is difficult to track exactly how many cinema seats they fill. "You never know how much you've contributed to a movie's success," Lebowitz admits. "But our stuff gets seen a lot and sent around a great deal. With something like The Grudge, they'll do exit polls outside cinemas, asking people why they saw the movie. As I understand it, The Grudge respondents' web incidences were high compared to the norm, so we know that's been successful."

Sometimes, Big Spaceship does its best to produce a good campaign, only to see the film flop. "These things you just can't overcome," says Lebowitz. "Elektra didn't do well, but our interactive game notched up over 80,000 hours of playing time."

Tricks and gimmicks
Big Spaceship likes to push the envelope with projects, inventing new tricks to generate traffic and drive the movie underneath visitors' skin. For Alfie, the team hacked up some software and replaced its stock phrases with cheeky quips, enabling surfers to "chat" to Alfie.

"The whole concept was to bring Alfie to life - to make it feel like he was there with you," Lebowitz explains. For horror hit The Grudge, designers used cookie technology to make the names of registered users appear in the movie's banner adverts on other websites. "That sure freaked out a lot of folks!" he laughs.

Last year's Starsky and Hutch site had a seventies Flash pinball machine that people could challenge their friends to, and Big Spaceship's latest project, Batman Begins, uses smart server-side technology that remembers what previous visitors have shown an interest in.

Until recently, movie websites were very much an afterthought - but now they're firmly entrenched in the Hollywood marketing machine, the very first step in a film's publicity campaign.

"They are the first thing Hollywood uses to establish a presence," Lebowitz admits. "A way of reaching a global audience without having to purchase tremendous quantities of media in local markets."

The need to have sites established long before cinema show-times is a headache for Big Spaceship, which usually struggles to get the materials it needs. "The other week, we were contacted to establish a presence for a film that doesn't come out for a year and two months," says Lebowitz. Often, the firm is asked to start on a project long before the film has even moved into production.

"The access we get varies wildly. Big Spaceship is intensely focused on collaboration with studios and our clients, but sometimes we just don't get to see the movie," says Lebowitz. Often, the team will just get an early draft of the script - and will have to use that to snag a sense of what the website should be like.

Grabbing the assets
Getting access to the movie's superstar talent can be tricky: "Sometimes actors don't want assets put out in a particular way, or you can't track an actor down because they've moved onto another production and they're impossible to get hold of," says Lebowitz.

On occasions, though, Big Spaceship does get the access it needs. "On Identity, we were given tremendous freedom by Sony and director James Mangold gave us original props that we got to scan and really flesh out the film," he adds. Usually, though, it falls to the team to be creative and come up with their own material. "A lot of time, we create our own video. We did a site for Underworld and shot some of it locally in Brooklyn and it blended into the Eastern European locations."

In contrast to most of the industry, Big Spaceship likes to keep its team in-house - and only uses freelancers if they can work at its Brooklyn office. "We've assembled what I think is the best team in the world," says Lebowitz. "And [often] we're trying to follow very closely a film we've never seen! So we have a very organic process, and like to have people there to brainstorm at a moment's notice."

Despite the cosy office just across the Hudson from Manhattan, Big Spaceship has just opened a new office in Los Angeles. Although 80 per cent of its clients are based there, a wholesale move isn't on the cards. Curiously, despite its status as the financial capital of the world, many in Hollywood see New York as a distant web design backwater. Lebowitz and the Big Spaceship team take no umbrage with that attitude: "It means we're the little web design firm that could," he laughs.

For more information on Big Spaceship - and direct links to a batch of its superb movie websites - check out the official home site at www.bigspaceship.com

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