Movie marketers are poised to see a significant boost to their online marketing budgets, according to eMarketer, which predicts studios will spend $2.7 billion by 2013 in online advertising. That’s more than double the $1.2 billion spent this year.

Digital LA, a networking organization for online entertainment, marketing, advertising and tech professionals in Los Angeles, hosted a “Movie Marketing: Online, Social, Mobile” panel on September 29 that featured several studio executives. In attendance were Doug Neil, senior vice president of digital marketing at Universal Pictures; Damon Berger, director of digital marketing for 20th Century Fox; Mark Levien, executive director of domestic digital marketing for 20th Century Fox; and Kate Neligan, director of on-demand and digital marketing at Lionsgate.

They discussed a variety of ways studios are trying to capture consumer attention and box office, including creative campaigns on social networks, engaging apps and podcasts, as well as the latest buzz-generating content and promotions. The discussions were lively — but also off the record.

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Doug Neil

In order to share some of the insights of the panel, I connected with Doug Neil of Universal Pictures a week later to follow up and discuss what Universal has done to drive word-of-mouth online and on mobile. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation.

Q&A

At the Digital LA event, you mentioned creating webisodes to support “Funny People.” How successful were the webisodes in promoting the film?

“Funny People” was very well-received. We created a separate webisode series for Aziz Ansari’s character, Raaaaaaaandy, and hosted it on FunnyorDie.com. Aziz helped promote it through his Twitter feed. The series provided an outlet to introduce and socialize the character prior to the movie coming out.

We also created special trailers that [writer and director] Judd Apatow shot with Adam Sandler in character as George Simmons for these make-believe movies. We made one-sheets and album covers and posted them on his character’s site, George-Simmons.com. It’s all because Judd Apatow had the vision, with his team, to make sure we had the materials so that we could create a website that would host the content.

The movie also had a YouTube video titled “Cute Cuddly Kittens” featuring Jonah Hill’s character, Leo Koenig.

That video was really popular. People like to discover content that is truly organic. They don’t like to have it thrust upon them, but at the same token, you’ve got to get things out there.

What are the key lessons learned from Universal’s recent digital efforts?

Moviegoers want to discover fresh, original content — whether it’s a great trailer, an exclusive film clip, photos or web videos that are story extensions for a film. Humor or shock are two elements that garner attention.

Is there a digital content hierarchy when it comes to driving awareness of a movie online? Are trailers the most important?

Trailers and press/tastemaker outreach are two of the most important elements to building awareness online. However, other content such as photos, clips, games, apps, etc. are also part of the toolkit that creates awareness and drives interest.

Has feedback from moviegoers influenced the development or distribution of any digital marketing efforts or content?

We always look for ways to generate positive buzz from moviegoers via social media outlets. Word of mouth is one of the most important influences in the moviegoing decision.

What do you think is Universal’s most successful digital marketing campaign to date — whether defined by online buzz, consumer participation, box office or other metrics?

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“Fast & Furious” and “Bruno” were two of the most successful campaigns this year. “Fast & Furious” had over one million Facebook fans by the time film opened. In addition, the content that was released — trailers, photos, clips, an iPhone game — had significant traffic. Similarly, “Bruno” built a tremendous community online — 700,000-plus fans on Facebook, 350,000-plus friends on MySpace, 60,000 followers on Twitter — which demonstrated the interest in the film and the character.”

What’s next in digital for Universal?

At the Digital LA event, there was a lot of talk about tools, especially Twitter. We’re certainly looking at what that next opportunity is going to be. For our 2010 titles, we’re looking at a number of different ways to best socialize those films.

**Many people point to poor reviews of “Bruno” on Twitter for hurting the film’s long-term success. Do you think that’s true and how can you monitor or counter that on Twitter?

We were very pleased with the opening weekend box office for “Bruno.” We did not see an impact as a result of any feedback on Twitter.

Nick Mendoza is the director of digital communications at Zeno Group. He advises consumer, entertainment and web companies on digital strategy, distribution and engagement. He blogs at The Social 7 and is the film correspondent for MediaShift. Follow him on Twitter @NickMendoza.

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