Unlike most Internet destinations, official movie websites are useful for a brief moment in time—making them a perfect capsule of a specific moment in Internet history. Like all promotional material, movie sites lose value not long after a film's release. Yet, unlike a Times Square billboard, these sites (at least sometimes) neither get revamped nor get taken down because space out here is seemingly infinite and comparatively cheap. When faced with a choice to take down or continue hosting a site, movie studios probably figure, why bother removing them at all?
Thus we get these neglected pieces of Internet floating around the Web, like this untouched You've Got Mail site, which came to our attention through Twitter following writer-director Nora Ephron's death Tuesday. With its 1998 release date, the website gives us a frozen-in-amber look at the what 1998 Internet looked like. (And this site is oh-so 1998.) Though many movie websites get taken down or have expired domains, we've found a handful of relics still out there, through which we can learn all about our Internet past.
Mid '90s: The Originals
A little Internet research says the 1994 movie Stargate has the honor of putting up the first ever online promotional website. That historical site, however, no longer exists. As a look at early websites as promotional material, however, we discovered this Nickelodeon site for Amanda Bynes' All That persona. (We know, this is a TV show, but it still provides a look into early Internet promotional material.) It is from the late '90s, but done in the style of those from earlier in the decade.* Like early websites, this one didn't use space very well. The bulk of the page is that background wallpaper -- a fad of the moment. And all the links flank that square, which only takes up about one quarter of the site. As for design, it's complete with an early '90s animated GIF headline -- that Amanda Please logo jiggles and sparkles and also has some grating automatic jingle -- something that will become a hallmark of movie websites. (Yay!).
A little later, but in this same era, we get the 1996 website for Space Jam. Like the Amanda Bynes site, we get an orb of information in the middle of a sea of busy background wallpaper, in this case stars to match the space theme of the Michael Jordan-meets-Looney Tunes movie. Also, like many an Angelfire site, this website has a black background -- something you don't see much today (with some exceptions). The links, again, outline the main image, complete with one for a "site map" -- an early Internet page we don't see much anymore. (We no longer need maps to get around websites now that we have better search tools.) Clicking through our options brings us to sparse pages with that signature proto-Internet bright font that still gets obscured by the background. This page is particularly illuminating, as it not only flashing basketball GIF action, but it also has a bullet-point list of related link, middle school outline style.
Late 90s: Flash Upgrades and Simplicity
Compared to the Space Jam site, You've Got Mail's animations look sophisticated. The site has an opening sequence and everything. As for design, we still have a whole lot of empty space, but we're moving toward fuller use of the screen with the main characters on either site of the link list. Plus, we can just do more, including listen to (using Real Audio!) Ephron talk about her love of the Upper West Side.
In this same era we see a different kind of movie site emerge, too, via this Saving Private Ryan site. This exists as a part of the post-GIF Internet era. There's not much to the homepage and clicking through the links leads to a page that looks like the negative of a Microsoft Word document -- all words with a few photos.
Early 2000s: Let's Get Interactive!
At this point, people get how to navigate the Internet, so we see a lot more interactivity -- it's more about user experience than a simple promotional hub. The homepage of this 2001 Lost World site, for example, doesn't have any words, but has users click familiar objects to get places. Or, this 1999 Wild Wild West site opens with a single button that says "Do Not Push." Though the concept has started to change, the designs, however, still have those boxy looks of earlier sites, as you can see here and here.
Mid-2000s and Beyond: Back to GIFs
These sites have the sleek flash stuff we're used to seeing today. But, more than ever we see links back to the earliest sites. Both the Napolean Dynamite and Garden State sites have that annoying automatic music we heard on the Amanda Bynes site. Garden State even has what looks like a GIF animation, with rain falling down Zach Braffs super-2000s emo face. We still don't see full use of the page, with both of these sites having icky-grey space on each side, keeping the information concentrated in the middle. But, the design looks distinctive to the movie -- not like the standard Internet fonts of the 90s. The biggest departure from the earlier sites, however, is the flash technology. We get actual video footage, like an interview with Natalie Portman, and photo animations of Napolean Dynamite scenes.
Now: Like a Movie
Just looking at two very different movies coming out this summer, we see two differences from the early-aughts. Both the To Rome With Love and Dark Knight Rises sites start with a trailer and, in line with today's Internet stylings, their designs take up the entire page. Both of these try to bring visitors into the movie experience. They are more practical, and less gimmicky. We get information that will either tell us more about the movie or lead us somewhere where we can buy tickets to see the movie. Like everywhere else on the Internet these days, our Internet lives shouldn't differ much from our real lives.
*This post originally stated that Amanda Please was created in 1992.