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HBO Goes Online with Interactive Prequel Campaign for Sexually Super-Charged Vampire Series <i>True Blood</i>

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Remember that wild Internet marketing campaign way back in 1999 that had people convinced there really was a murderous witch in the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland? It sent millions of people scurrying to watch the terrifying "found footage" of three unlucky young adults who wandered into the witch's territory and never wandered out - and made the sub-budget Blair Witch Project the most profitable independent movie of all time.

Ten summers of heavy duty Internet usage later, HBO is seeking to generate similar excitement for its upcoming vampire series True Blood with a viral video "prequel" campaign that was quietly launched last month on YouTube. Collectively, the five videos that have already been posted make an informative if somewhat hokey run-up to the series, and there are more to come before its September 7 premiere. Journalists haven't paid much attention to these videos (or to companion Web site since they began appearing in early June, but that is going to change, because HBO made some noise about the campaign during its session Thursday afternoon at the Summer 2008 Television Critics Association tour.

The videos set the stage for True Blood, exploring the impact of a new synthetic blood substitute known as Tru Blood that allows vampires to come out of their coffins and finally move about in society, now that they are no longer forced to feed on humans to survive. Here is the first in the series:

Based on the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris in which vampires figure prominently, True Blood isthe latest project from HBO favorite Alan Ball (Six Feet Under), and ithas everyone at TCA buzzing louder than they have buzzed about any new HBO series since Entourage. Anna Paquin stars as Sookie, a pretty young waitress and telepath in a backwoods Louisiana town who is romantically drawn to a handsome vampire named Bill after they each save the other from vicious human assailants.As the series progresses, the recently liberated vamps encounter prejudices and find it difficult to live comfortably among others. ("God hates fangs!" their enemies declare.) Some of them have wicked hot sex with vampire-curious humans, others simply do their best to co-exist.

Ball and HBO were warned by critics who are still hearing from outraged readers about CBS' cancellation of its vampire drama Moonlight that, now that they have committed to a series about blood-drinkers, they will never be able to cancel it without facing the wrath of the millions of vampire fans who routinely congregate on the Web. Ball said he was not concerned. He also said that he had not watched Moonlight, which he clearly looked down upon.

"I think it's pretty lame to let your vampire go out in the day just because you don't want to shoot at night," he sniffed, noting that while the vampires in True Blood no longer need to feed on humans, they still only come out after the sun sets. Ball claimed to have never seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer or read any of the vampire novels by Anne Rice. His only vampire influences come from theatrical movies, especially the ultra-violent 1987 effort Near Dark, which he described as "the best vampire movie ever made."

Happily for HBO, True Blood is filled with the bloody violence, nudity and graphic sex that pay-cable viewers seem to adore. In fact, the premiere features a scene of vampire-on-human sex the likes of which has never been seen in any medium and is not easily forgotten.

HBO previewed many other projects yesterday, including Generation Kill, the seven-part miniseries from executive producers David Simon and Ed Burns (The Wire) that is based on Evan Wright's 2004 best-seller about the early weeks of the Iraq war as experienced by the young men on the ground (debuting July 13); a stand-up comedy special starring Ricky Gervais (set for November), and an Americanized adaptation of the outlandish BBC sketch comedy series Little Britain, featuring the two men who star in the English series, Matt Lucas and David Williams. (It will premiere Sept. 28.)

HBO Programming Group and West Coast Operations President Michael Lombardo announced that the network had greenlighted three new pilots just hours before he and Co-President Richard Plepler met with the TCA: Treme, a drama about the rebirth of New Orleans post-Katrina as experienced by local musicians, produced by David Simon; The Washingtonian, a half-hour comedy about women in Washington, D.C., that counts Sarah Jessica Parker among its executive producers; and Boardwalk Empire, an hour drama about Atlantic City in the '20s. It's from former Sopranos writer Tim Winters and will count Martin Scorsese among its executive producers. In fact, Scorsese will direct the pilot!

Plepler briefly mentioned the newest project in development by David Milch, a drama about the New York City police department in the '70s titled Last of the Ninth, which somehow prompted one critic to ask if Milch might finally have time to shoot a movie for the network that would bring his very popular and abruptly cancelled Western series Deadwood to a proper close. "I think it's safe to report to you that the likelihood of a Deadwood movie happening is slim to none," Plepler said.

That wasn't the lamest question asked during the session. One reporter asked True Blood star Anna Paquin if there was anything from her personal experience that she brought to the role of Sookie. "Well, I stopped dating vampires when I was 15, so I can't possibly remember," Paquin replied.

Among other interesting info-bits that HBO revealed yesterday: Season 5 of Entourage is set to begin on Sept. 7, Season 3 of Big Love will be back in early 2009 and Season 7 of Curb You Enthusiasm could be ready in late 2009. (Larry David has yet to begin working on it.) No word on when viewers can expect the second seasons of Tell Me You Love Me and In Treatment.

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