Engaging Movie Fans, From Teaser to Premiere


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Dave Harvilicz, left, and Andy Martinez founded Kernel in Santa Monica, Calif., to help maintain interest in coming attractions.

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Sam Comen for The New York Times

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Next month, 130,000 sweaty fans will swarm the San Diego Convention Center for the annual pop culture scavenger hunt known as Comic-Con International.

And some big film studios will be paying a very small company, Kernel, to find commerce in the chaos.

Kernel was started about a year ago by Dave Harvilicz, and Andy Martinez. They are both self-identified “superfans” who would be in San Diego next month even if they were not working for Sony Pictures and 20th Century Fox.

But fun aside, Kernel has been quietly burrowing into one of Hollywood’s more persistent problems. That is, how to channel and exploit audience enthusiasm, which can peak with the release of an early trailer (New Line’s “Snakes on a Plane,” from 2006) or a vibrant experience at Comic-Con (“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” in 2010), but then dissipate before the movie arrives in theaters.

Mr. Harvilicz, 40, is Kernel’s chief executive. He is comfortable wearing T-shirts that match the informality of his company’s quarters, in offices that face an oceanfront courtyard here. Mr. Martinez, the chief technology officer, is 31, skinny and a bit rumpled. He takes credit for an insight that gave birth to Kernel.

After watching a brief teaser for Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” — without actual film scenes, nearly a year before the movie’s release in November 2014 — Mr. Martinez recalls “wondering why it was I couldn’t act on that emotional moment.”

With backing from John Mackey, a co-founder of Whole Foods Market, and others, Mr. Harvilicz and Mr. Martinez began Kernel, which now has about a dozen employees. They have turned what started as an itch into a largely web-based business that proposes to help studios engage with fans while capturing dollars from the moment a blockbuster begins to generate excitement, or between releases in a long-running series like the X-Men films, from Fox and Marvel.

An initial foray has centered on Sony’s planned science-fiction adventure film “The 5th Wave.” Based on Rick Yancey’s young adult novel, the film, with Chloë Grace Moretz (“Kick-Ass”) in the lead role, is not scheduled for release until January.

But Kernel began selling movie tickets on its website on Dec. 23 — 13 months before the movie is scheduled to open. More, the tickets are bundled in packages that can include a future download, or a poster, or a script, or even a blue Burton backpack just like the one Ms. Moretz totes in the movie.

Prices can reach $1,000, for a premium package that includes two tickets to a yet-to-be-scheduled film premiere. “It’s the second generation of crowdfunding,” said Mr. Harvilicz.

The ticket sales help studios reach theater customers without getting directly into an exhibition business that is barred to them by longstanding legal strictures. At the same time, Kernel attends to the fine stitchery of fan maintenance by following the viewers through social media, and scouting for products, like that backpack, that can bind them to a film. It is the sort of work that many marketing consultants perform daily for film studios, but with special attention to the dedicated superfan.

Mr. Harvilicz, a Baltimore-born law school graduate, insists that studios should take this direct approach to the fans — with Kernel’s help — rather than relying heavily on companies like Facebook, whose fan pages can collect and use valuable information about moviegoers that film companies do not have or must pay to get.

“The studios need to do a better job of keeping track of their own fans,” he said, speaking at a patio table in that breezy courtyard last month.

Mr. Martinez and Mr. Harvilicz declined to say how much revenue had been generated by sales connected to “The 5th Wave.” But Michael Lynton, chief executive of Sony Pictures, is sufficiently pleased with the result to predict further involvement with Kernel.

“They’re terrific, incredible partners,” said Mr. Lynton, who spoke both of Kernel’s work on “The 5th Wave” and its assistance last year with a more ticklish project.

When Sony’s film “The Interview” was pushed out of theaters last year after hackers threatened violence against those who showed or watched the film, Kernel was among the first to enlist in an effort to make the film available online. It created a Sony-sponsored transactional site to accompany distribution channels soon offered by Google and others.

People briefed on Kernel’s Hollywood work, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality strictures, said Kernel worked closely with law enforcement officials during the cyberattack on Sony and later advised other studios about web security. Mr. Harvilicz and Mr. Martinez declined to discuss that effort.

At Fox, Kernel last week entered a deal under which it will assist a unit that oversees franchise management — the maintenance of films like “The Maze Runner” or the X-Men series, for instance.

In the past, “you let all of your fans kind of drop to the ground” between the release of a film on home video and the arrival of its sequel in theaters, said Cristina Mancini, the studio’s executive vice president for franchise management. Ms. Mancini said she expected Kernel to bridge such gaps, perhaps by selling tickets and paraphernalia for a third Maze Runner film, expected in 2017, even while the second, “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials,” is building toward its release in September.

Daniel Solnicki, who oversees worldwide television and digital distribution at DreamWorks Animation, said he was also hiring Kernel, with an eye toward marketing DreamWorks’s expanding collection of television series, including shows keyed to the “How to Train Your Dragon” films. “The lines between expression and commerce have completely vanished,” Mr. Solnicki said, referring to Kernel’s mingling of consumer interest with immediate sales.

At Comic-Con, Mr. Harvilicz and Mr. Martinez will be scouting for fresh ideas and merchandise. One notion, said Mr. Harvilicz, is to begin coupling the sale of movie tickets with the sale of books in the “5th Wave” series, which is published by Penguin.

And they say they are hoping Disney will display its new Millennium Falcon spacecraft. Disney has stayed silent on the subject, but true devotees take no chances.

“We’re both big ‘Star Wars’ fans,” Mr. Martinez said.



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