In September, a small army of fans set out in the darkened streets of 14 American cities to paste up Day-Glo-colored posters of Andy Kaufman, the offbeat comic whose life story had been made into a big Hollywood movie that opened last week, "Man on the Moon."

The pop-art drawings--an image of Kaufman and another of his alter ego, lounge lizard Tony Clifton--were nothing like the posters issued later by the movie's distributor, Universal. They bore a tiny Internet address in the bottom right-hand corner--www.Andylives.org--which rages with a debate about Kaufman's death from cancer in 1984 and the film, starring Jim Carrey.

"This is not the Blair Witch project, [expletive]," warns an aggressive welcome to the Web site, referring to the cult hit of last summer that was fueled by huge Internet interest. "This is a Web site that addresses the life and legacy of a real man. It is not written to paint any single picture of Andy Kaufman, particularly ones that are repeated endlessly after people read the books or see the movie and consider them 'true.' . . . We are fans of Andy Kaufman. You are welcome to contribute." The message is signed AKA--Andy Kaufman's Army.

A guerrilla movement? An underground 'zine?

Or a marketing ploy?

Both, it turns out.

Determined to use every possible avenue to get people talking about their movie, Universal marketing executives decided to do something completely different: They gave about $100,000 to the tiny group of die-hard Andy Kaufman fans to run their own rogue marketing campaign about the film.

"The ingredients were out there. We were just trying to turn on the stove," explains Universal marketing chief Marc Shmuger. "When the Internet works, it's like piracy on the high seas. It's the inmates taking over the asylum."

But it's a tricky business. More than ever, moviemaking has become about generating, spreading and sustaining that ever-elusive commodity--buzz--that tells us what's hot, what's interesting, whether a movie is worth our time. In a word-of-mouth world drowning in Internet noise, Hollywood is going to extraordinary lengths to create, sustain and control buzz.

Why? Because amorphous as it is, buzz, oddly enough, is usually right: "The Blair Witch Project," on everybody's lips last summer, was a huge hit. "Wild Wild West," with its stink-bomb odor well ahead of release, was a bust.

It's a chaotic, unpredictable process. To sell "Man on the Moon"--a drama-comedy about a long-dead comic unknown to young audiences--Universal used all the traditional methods at its disposal: television ads, magazine covers, market research and movie star interviews. But the studio also resorted to a number of untraditional methods, such as print ads flipped upside down, TV ads that were inexplicably sliced in half, live appearances by the "Tony Clifton" character--and the secret Andylives.org campaign.

Did it work? Yes and no. All of it has put "Man on the Moon" on the cultural radar during one of the busiest weekends of the year. After five days at the box office, the movie has earned $13.8 million. But it's nowhere near the top of the heap; after the holiday weekend, the film came in sixth at the box office, after "Any Given Sunday," "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and even "Stuart Little."

As the unusual marketing campaign for "Man on the Moon" indicates, controlling the flow of buzz is anything but simple.

Wooing the Trendsetters

Thanksgiving 1998. Shooting wraps in New York on "Man on the Moon," reportedly a surreal experience in which Jim Carrey remains continuously in character as Kaufman or Clifton. Reports leak from the set about his behavior. Carrey hires Kaufman's ex-girlfriend, Lynne Margulies, to film a making-of-the-movie documentary but swears her to secrecy.

January, February 1999. Tension soars during a series of meetings between "Man on the Moon" producers Stacey Sher, Michael Shamberg, Danny DeVito, director Milos Forman, Kaufman's former managers George Shapiro and Howard West and Universal marketing executives, including Shmuger. The producers from DeVito's company are pushing for an unusual campaign, something that will draw attention to the film and pay homage to Kaufman's subversive style of humor.

"We said, 'We have to have an unconventional approach. We have to be on the Web. We have to reach people who'll talk about this,' " Sher says. "They're the trendsetters. The early adapters."

Sher and her colleagues from Jersey Films are "overzealous," as she put it, because they feel Universal shortchanged their critically lauded film "Out of Sight" last year with a lackluster marketing campaign. (The marketing team that led that effort has since left.)

But everybody in the room during the meetings knows that "Man on the Moon" is going to be a tough sell. Yes, the film features mega-star Jim Carrey and is directed by the Oscar-winning Milos Forman. Yes, it has the financial clout of a major studio behind it.

But will audiences really remember Kaufman, who played the quirky foreigner Latka Gravas on the 1980s sitcom "Taxi"? Will they show up to watch a movie about a performance artist whom viewers voted off "Saturday Night Live" for his antics? Who alienated his audience with stunts like wrestling women?

Sher and her colleagues suggest hiring street teams to "wild-post" movie art, a tactic to raise a movie's cool quotient that Jersey Films had tried with "Sunset Park" in 1996 and "Out of Sight" last year.

A report of the clash leaks to Aint-It-Cool-News.com, an influential entertainment Web site run out of Austin, which criticizes Universal's marketing department and champions the film.

Universal soon signs on to a campaign that will try several different avenues. Shmuger agrees to explore a few things that are--as they say in such meetings--out of the box.

Buying Into the Fake

Summer 1999. Through an intermediary (whom Universal executives have declined to name), the studio reaches four hard-core Kaufman fans who are involved with alternative magazines and Web sites including Grandroyal.com and Giantrobot.com. They strike a deal.

"Our only directive was, 'You're not allowed to overtly sell our movie, and we will not control your content--when it goes out, how it goes out or what you say,' " says Shmuger about the underground connection. "It was an experiment."

Says the site's webmaster, who won't give his real name: "We got paid to write whatever we wanted about Andy Kaufman. . . . There was no compromise. We had fun. If you suggest that we catered to any corporate ideals, much less tried to sell movie tickets, you never read a word of Andylives. . . . I think Andylives did a fine job of exploiting Universal."

Says Shmuger: "You have to understand how counterintuitive this was to how studios work. To let a program enter the culture and germinate, without any interference from us? We're watching alongside the consumer to see how it works out."

The fans hire computer wizards to create the Web site, and a well-known street artist, Shepard Fairey, to do the psychedelic-style drawings of Kaufman and "Clifton." The posters and stickers are wild-posted in bohemian neighborhoods all over the country, and replaced when they are covered by other posters. The Web site immediately draws the silent interest of thousands of Kaufman fans.

But almost immediately, many suspect a connection to the studio. "The more I looked at the forum, the more I realized it was like one or two people. It was obvious that it was a fake Web site, that it was funded by Universal," says Brian Sendelbach, a Kaufman fan from Seattle who wrote a rant to the Web site--which is still posted--saying exactly that. But Sendelbach decided that the subterfuge was kind of cool, and in an addendum to his rant, made up a story about meeting the webmasters, saying they had nothing to do with the film or the studio.

"It was almost like saying, 'I was angry about this for a second, but I'm not really angry about it,' " reflects Sendelbach, an illustrator. "At first I had a certain amount of resentment . . . but then it became less important to me that it was a fake Web site, and it was interesting as a new form of advertising, sort of. It was commenting on itself in a sort of meta-way."

'Indescribably Brilliant'

June 1999. Forman is hard at work editing his movie. Test screenings of his first cut in June in Santa Monica, Boston and San Francisco yield mixed reviews. The film is tested with and without an epilogue that occurs after the comic's death. The screenings are attended by fans who leak news of the film to the Internet. Online buzz is largely positive.

At first reluctant to submit to moviemaking-by-survey (he had not tested previous films), Forman ultimately goes back to the editing room and uses the research results to trim the film--and keep the epilogue. He cuts some Clifton and wrestling scenes and a key moment in which Kaufman reveals to his parents that the wrestling matches are staged.

In August, Universal executives screen the new version. One calls it "indescribably brilliant." Over three days, they screen the film for editors at glossy and weekly magazines and the Los Angeles Times, "the first stone to start the ripples of buzz that this could be a Best Movie of the year," Shmuger says.

Buoyed by the response, Universal decides to push back the release date from Nov. 5 to Dec. 22, giving the studio more time to promote the film for a broader audience. Vanity Fair, which beat out numerous magazines in securing Jim Carrey for its October cover (the deal guaranteed that Carrey would be on no other magazine cover for a month), is locked in despite the change of the movie's release date.

Turning an Ad on Its Head

September 1999. Universal runs the first television ad hinting at the campaign to come. During the 25th-anniversary prime-time special of "Saturday Night Live," the studio runs a 60-second commercial for "Man on the Moon"--a spot of Carrey-as-Kaufman singing "Mighty Mouse"--split in half. Some think it's a technical mistake. But a lot of people notice. The spot has agents, directors and actors buzzing around Hollywood (Leonardo DiCaprio calls the studio to say it's the "coolest spot I've ever seen") and sparks a flood of media calls to the studio publicity office.

Meanwhile, Universal gives the green light to a poster campaign that is self-referential and Kaufmanesque, Carrey in a spotlight with the words: "Hello my name is Andy and this is my poster." The idea evolves into a series of ads: "Hello my name is Andy and this is my ad/this is my bus/this is my press kit."

Marketing executives buy ads in USA Today and Time magazine that will run upside down, making them, they say, "interactive."

Oscar Conditioning

On Nov. 9, Universal has its first coming-out party for "Man on the Moon," a special screening and dinner in Century City for Hollywood insiders, influential press and powerful agents, designed to get people who count talking about the movie. The theater in Century City is packed. Milos Forman attends.

After the screening, "Seinfeld" creator Larry David comments: "I totally forgot I was watching Jim Carrey. He completely disappeared into the character."

Forman, after the screening, puffing a cigar: "To explain Andy would be to diminish him." About Carrey: "It was him--what else can you say? It's like trying to explain Andy--it's ridiculous."

The director recounts the first time he saw Kaufman, at a club in 1975. "You'll think it's ridiculous if I tell you," he says to a circle of rapt listeners. "He said, 'I am now going to read you a short story about such and such.' He starts reading this story, a story of which you know every detail already. That was it. That's all. And we were on the floor laughing."

The party is designed to win over Oscar voters, not box office dollars. Says Shmuger: "It's part of the conditioning process for the Oscar campaign."

Stalling the Buzz

Dec. 4, 5. Press junket for 130 entertainment journalists at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills--USA Today, the Boston Herald, E! Online, Leeza On Radio, CNN NewsStand, MTV, Larry King and many others. As usual, many journalists are flown in and housed at the hotel by Universal. Carrey, DeVito and Forman show up for several hundred interviews with television, radio, Internet and print journalists.

Carrey gives a news conference on Saturday but is almost immediately interrupted by the raucous entrance of "Tony Clifton," who shouts, "Where's my tape recorder?" He spray-paints "Tony On The Moon" on the door of the auditorium. Carrey, who seems startled, tackles Clifton, and ends up overturning a table full of tape recorders, breaking some of them, and then storms out. Clifton shouts, "I [urinate] on you," unzips his pants, does a vulgar joke with a prosthetic and then storms out.

Carrey returns to do a short news conference. The spray paint is water soluble and immediately removed. Universal denies knowledge or collusion in the stunt, and says it was mounted by Bob Zmuda, Kaufman's longtime collaborator. Footage of the incident shows up on "Entertainment Tonight" and becomes the subject of much debate on Internet entertainment sites.

But there's a backlash. Panic rises at Universal as studio executives get the results of market research after the stunt: Awareness of the film shoots up 10 percent, but interest in seeing the film remains flat, then drops slightly. Audiences who hear about the gag begin to perceive "Man on the Moon" as largely about a marginal, unpleasant character. Shmuger begs Zmuda to lay off his planned appearances as Tony Clifton at the New York and Los Angeles premieres, telling him it will kill the movie's chance at a broad audience. After several conversations, Zmuda agrees.

Upshot of the stunt, according to one Universal executive: "It stalled us." Buzzwise.

Tracking the Numbers

National Research Group, the company that does most of the research in Hollywood, reports to Universal its findings from constant telephone polling, called "tracking":

Dec. 4: Seventy-three percent of movie audiences are aware of "Man on the Moon." Five percent label it their first choice.

Dec. 8: Eighty-three percent of audiences are aware of the film. Six or 7 percent label it their first choice. (Universal has run about 25 percent of its ads.)

Dec. 17: Eighty-eight percent awareness. Eight percent label it their first choice. (Universal has run about 40 percent of its ads. The marketing department dumps cutting-edge commercials and reverts to traditional ads, emphasizing the star and positive reviews.)

Dec. 20: Ninety-one percent awareness. Eleven percent first choice.

Shmuger comments: "I'd like it to be higher. But the movies opening this week are all clustered together. No one is really breaking out."

Dec. 22: Ninety-three percent awareness. Fifteen percent first choice. Universal has run 75 percent of its ads.

Dancing in Heaven

Dec. 20, two days before national release, the evening of the Los Angeles premiere: The film is nominated for a Golden Globe in the best comedy category; Carrey is nominated for best actor in a comedy.

Shmuger is nervous but upbeat. Sher is just nervous: "In my bones, it feels good," she says. "I sat in a theater and saw the trailer play. I've got my fingers crossed."

At the premiere at Mann's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, a massive media presence has shown up. Carrey, on the press line: "The bottom line is, I had to make assumptions about Andy. I had to read between the lines."

How does he feel tonight? "I'm just elated. Andy's sister said she saw a psychic, and the psychic had a dream that Andy was dancing in heaven. He's gone now. But he's alive tonight."

Across eight lanes of traffic and behind police barriers, fans have gathered to watch the red carpet procession. An Andy Kaufman look-alike is standing quietly at the front of the barrier, dressed in the comedian's trademark tweed jacket, turtleneck and light-colored pants. Kaufman's former girlfriend Margulies, played by Courtney Love in the film, trips across the traffic to take a picture with him.

"This is very cathartic for me," she says as her current boyfriend hangs in the background. "It's so surreal, and it's so much fun. I haven't had this much fun since Andy was around."

Sher: "It's so nerve-racking. . . . It's up to the audience and the movie gods and the timing and everything. A lot of things have to fall into place. The stars need to line up."

`Moon' Hawking

January, February 1999: Jersey Films executives argue for an unconventional marketing campaign in a series of meetings among Universal executives, director Milos Forman and others.

June: Universal authorizes a rogue campaign using underground Andy Kaufman fans.

Aug. 11: Final test screening. Universal decides to delay release date until Dec. 22. Holds three days of screenings for editors at glossy magazines and newsweeklies.

September: "Andy Lives" posters start to appear, labeled with Web site for underground campaign, www.Andylives.org.

Sept. 6: Publication of "Andy Kaufman Revealed! Best Friend Tells All," by Bob Zmuda.

Sept. 19: "Tony Clifton" character shows up at the Emmys and is ejected.

Sept. 26: Universal runs offbeat ad during "Saturday Night Live" 25th-anniversary program.

October: Jim Carrey on the cover of Vanity Fair.

October: Bob Zmuda goes on book tour.

Oct. 12: Official "Man on the Moon" Web site goes up.

November: Publication of "Lost in the Fun House: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman," by Bill Zehme. He tours on media circuit.

Nov. 9: Special screening at Century City theater for Hollywood insiders. Party afterward in disco lounge.

Nov. 22: Music video of "The Great Beyond," movie theme song by R.E.M., premieres on MTV.

Nov. 24: "Interactive" ad -- it's upside down -- runs in USA Today.

Late November: Newsweek decides not to put "Man on the Moon" on its cover in December.

Dec. 1: Universal begins airing avant-garde TV ads, Carrey doing "Mighty Mouse" bit and the bouncing-ball routine.

Dec. 4, 5: Bob Zmuda dressed as Tony Clifton disrupts press junket. Footage airs on "Entertainment Tonight."

Dec. 6: Time magazine runs ad printed upside down.

Dec. 11: Danny DeVito hosts Saturday Night Live. R.E.M. is musical guest.

Week of Dec. 13: Universal dumps cutting-edge TV ads in favor of more mainstream commercials. Carrey appears on David Letterman, Conan O'Brien, MTV "Total Request Live" and morning drive radio talk shows.

Dec. 20-22: TV Land airs 1977 Andy Kaufman special, "Andy's Fun House"; "Taxi" marathon hosted by Danny DeVito.

Dec. 20: L.A. premiere, a benefit for Zmuda's group, Comic Relief. He agrees not to come dressed as Tony Clifton.

Dec. 22: "Man on the Moon" opens in 2,078 theaters across the country.

CAPTION: To create anticipation about the new Andy Kaufman biopic, "Man on the Moon," Universal Studios engaged the services of several of the comic's fans--who created this Web site claiming Kaufman faked his reported death from cancer in 1984.

CAPTION: Marketing executives decided to run this ad for the film upside down to make it "interactive" with readers.

CAPTION: Actress and singer Courtney Love, above left, arrives at the Los Angeles premiere of "Man on the Moon" with Andy Kaufman's girlfriend Lynne Margulies. Love plays Margulies in the film, in which Jim Carrey, left, stars as the comic.