January 21st, 2003

Commercials Steal Show at Movie Theaters

By Donna De Marco
Washington Times

Commercials have become a feature presentation in theaters as moviegoers chomp on popcorn, turn off their cell phones and wait for the featured flick to begin.

In addition to the in-lobby promotions, popcorn-bag advertisements and ticket-stub ads, more commercials are popping up on the big screen for pre-movie viewing.

When the lights go down, advertisers like Coca-Cola, the Air Force and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People take center stage.

Industry officials say what has been a viable advertising option in Europe for years has caught on in the United States as more advertisers use the valuable real estate to get their message and products in front of millions of eyes.

"[Advertisers] are looking for places they can reach a captive audience and stretch their advertising dollars," said Laura Adler, vice president of marketing for the National Cinema Network, a theater advertising-services provider that represents nearly 8,000 screens in theater chains like AMC.

But movie audiences that have shelled out close to $10 for a ticket don’t necessarily like to be held captive to ads.

"Pre-movie ads are something that drives moviegoers nuts," said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a media watchdog. "It’s insulting to moviegoers."

Nonetheless, cinema advertising is enjoying one of the best years in the movie business.

Hollywood sold 1.64 billion tickets last year and hit a box-office revenue record of more than $9.4 billion. At the end of 2001, there were 35,000 movie screens in the country, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners.

"This industry is a sleeping giant," said Cliff Marks, president of marketing and sales for Regal CineMedia, a subsidiary of Regal Entertainment Group that represents more than 5,700 screens.

Regal Entertainment, which includes Regal Cinemas, United Artists Theatres and Edwards Theatres, has 22 million patrons during any given month, Mr. Marks said.

Many factors are driving the growth of the cinema advertising industry, which brings in an estimated $200 million to $300 million a year.

The clutter on television, the growing number of channels and the option of TiVo, which can wipe out commercials, are forcing advertisers to broaden their options.

The theater venue itself - with larger-than-life sight, sound and motion - is one of the biggest draws for advertisers. Not to mention the fact that the majority of moviegoers are 18 to 49 years old - the target group advertisers want to reach.

Research has shown movie-advertising recall is three to six times higher than that of television advertising.

Given the advantages of cinema, "it is inevitable that advertisers will gravitate to it," said Todd Siegel, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Screenvision, which represents about 14,000 screens in theater circuits including Loews.

The medium is expensive - especially on a national level. For instance, a national 30-second pre-show spot may cost between $450,000 and $1 million for a four-week minimum run on more than 5,600 screens, depending on the season, National Cinema Network says.

"There’s a huge market out there and so much room for growth," Ms. Adler said.

Most of the pre-show ads start when the lights dim, at the advertised movie time. For some, it’s a deceptive way to get an advertising message across.

Commercial Alert has been pushing for years to get theaters to advertise the movie’s exact showtime.

Mr. Ruskin said theaters are giving consumers no choice but to watch the ads, even if it annoys them when they advertise a movie’s start time but bombard the viewers with ads instead.

"It’s an effort to convert the moviegoing experience into an advertising-bombardment experience," he said.

The advertising industry says the spots in movie theaters have to be different from those on TV. To work, they must fit in with the movie experience.

"If it’s something annoying or bad to begin with, it’s not going to work with any medium," said Gavin McDonald, vice president of the Kamber Group in the District. "If it’s the same old thing, no one wants to see it."

Last summer, the ad agency developed two 30-second ads for the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, which appeared in 430 screens in several markets in Florida. The ads, trying to recruit members, were spoofs of the blockbuster hits "Scream" and "The Matrix" and directed viewers to call the union or go to its Web site at http://www.jointhetrades.com.

During the 3 1/2-week run, the Web site had more than 10,000 hits, spiking after prime movie times like Thursday evening and Sunday afternoon, Mr. McDonald said.

"We view it as a success," he said. "We wanted to get the union’s name out there and wanted people to remember it as a job opportunity."

Cinema advertising becomes a viable option when "you’ve got a brand that’s connected to the fabric of the culture and if you’ve got great creative that fits the environment," said Steve Moynihan, managing director at ArnoldMPG, a media-planning agency in Boston. "It’s not the best place to sell diapers or green beans."

"You want to cause a lot of buzz and chatter," Mr. Moynihan said.

While some advertisers are beginning to make room in their marketing budgets for cinema advertising, others remain cautious.

Volkswagen developed an ad in the fall that teased audiences about its yet-to-be-introduced Beetle convertible

The 60-second spot was created for the movies. After running for a month, the ad started airing on television. The new Beetle convertible was introduced this year.

"It’s a unique medium that can showcase our message in a particular way," said Karen Marderosian, director of marketing and advertising for Volkswagen of America. "We created the spot for the cinema, to play up to the music and showcase it in the proper environment."

Ms. Marderosian says cinema advertising isn’t something the car company will always use, adding that the wrong kind of advertising can aggravate moviegoers.

However, the ads work "if it feels like it should be in the movies," she said.

Cinema advertisers agree and want to make the pre-movie experience just as entertaining as the feature presentation.

Regal CineMedia plans to kick off a digitally formatted pre-show full of content and advertising, beginning in select markets at the end of this month. The pre-show is slated to begin about 20 minutes before the advertised movie time.

"The idea is to give patrons a better experience and give the marketer a better environment," Mr. Marks said. "Rather than showing trivia, we’ll give them a real entertaining bonus. We know they came there for the movie."

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