Loading…
Saturday, December 27, 2014
Current Weather
Loading Current Weather....
HomeA&EMovies
Published: Sunday, 4/24/2005

Sponsorship on the silver screen

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Jared Hayes, 25, is crying into his popcorn. He stands in the leather-chaired lounge of the Maumee 18 Cinema De Luxe (formerly the Showcase Maumee) and stares down into his bag and wonders where half the contents went. "They filled it part way," he says.

Two of his friends, Kate Krisjanis, 26, and Mark Wagener, 24, tell him to go complain.

Hayes just shrugs and sighs.

What's one more problem?

They have a few minutes before Fever Pitch starts and the topic moves from minor gripes about movie theaters to a major one - and aside from high ticket prices, the most controversial: On-screen commercials.

Or rather, to use a euphemism:

"Pre-show entertainment."

It's not going anywhere, and here's why:

Regal Entertainment, the largest theater chain in the country and most ambitious adopter of screen advertising, uses a 20-minute block of ads and behind-the-scenes promos of new movies and TV shows. The company spent $70 million on a network of digital projectors that beam this block into its theaters via satellite. They call this "The 2wenty."

Arbitron, the audience measurement company, did a 2003 study of commercials and movie theaters that's become a benchmark for the industry. No surprise - and despite evidence to the contrary (including other surveys) - they found you love screen advertising. They even have a phrase to describe you:

"Captive audience."

You, on the other hand, tend to find on-screen advertising pretty annoying.

Well, a lot of you do.

In a number of polls - including a rather unscientific Toledo one conducted by this reporter over many weeks - a nearly equal chunk of the audience isn't bothered at all.

Indeed, many say they expect the ads. We'll get to those moviegoers in a second.

The dissenters are more fun.

"I pay to see a movie," Krisjanis said. "And when theaters get money from advertisers, they're getting money for something I paid them to skip in the first place. And I don't think it's about theaters going broke if they don't have the additional money. I think it's about seeing what they can squeeze out of the market."

Wagener chews his pizza and swallows and nods: "Yeah, I'm opposed to it, too. I mean, if I wanted to see commercials I'd stay home and see them for free. It makes me wonder if someday movies themselves will be shorter to make room for more ads."

"And now we're seeing Fever Pitch," Krisjanis said. "Which, you might say, is product placement for the Boston Red Sox."

Little did she know: Fever Pitch is actually preceded by an animated spot for American Dad, the new TV series from Fox (which happens to be the same studio that made Fever Pitch). Generally, though, we're talking four or five commercials at a time, strung together, shown in theaters before the coming attractions - which themselves can pad roughly 8 minutes onto a 7:35 p.m. show of Fever Pitch.

If you haven't been to a movie in a while, a typical night goes like this:

A commercial for Apple. A spot for Pepsi. An ad for Verizon. Another ad for Verizon.

That annoying couple who just love using Move Tickets.com.

Charlie Sheen reminding you not to smoke in the theater. Five coming attractions.

And finally, the feature film.

That's in Toledo.

We have it relatively good.

The Fox Woodville on the east side still doesn't run on-screen advertising. Joe Sterling, president of the Denniston Theater Company, which operates the Fox, said "it annoys patrons and the income is not worth the aggravation. A funny sidelight to this, though, is we have people coming to our movies 20 minutes late only to find the feature film started 15 minutes earlier."

Regal, however - which operates 17 screens in Monroe and Defiance - runs its 2wenty block before all shows. While National Amusements, the Massachusetts-based theater chain that owns most of the screens in the Toledo area, say they allow only three minutes of commercials, not including promotions for the theater or movie trailers.

Somehow, it feels longer.

Call it ad creep.

Except, there's nothing creeping or remotely slow about this:

Since 2002 the theater industry has steadily added hundreds of millions of dollars of advertising revenue to its bottom line that were not there before on-screen advertising became a wide-spread practice. That's hard to give up or cut back on.

"We were one of the last major exhibitors to start running on-screen advertising," said Brian Callaghan, a National Amusements spokesman. The company began running on-screen advertising about four years ago.

"It's something we evaluated for a long time. We put it off longer and longer, but when it started, we felt the additional revenue would help us avoid asking for higher ticket prices."

Higher than $9.75.

In 2003, according to the Cinema Advertising Council, an advocacy group representing roughly 24,000 of the 34,000 movie screens in this country, about $315 million was spent for on-screen spots.

In 2004: close to $425 million.

According to Unique Screen Media, one of the country's largest screen advertising companies, on-screen ads have increased 40 percent since 2000.

So get used to it.

Or don't.

Jason Thompson didn't. The Portland, Ore., graphic designer started the Captive Motion Picture Audience of America - which is basically a Web site (www.captiveaudience.org) and a rallying cry. It also offers placards to print out that read: "RESERVED. This Patron is Avoiding Cinema Advertising and Will Return When the Feature Begins."

"I have dramatically dropped off my theater going," he said. "Or I just try to ignore the ads altogether. They should pay us."

In New York City, for the past few years it's become almost a ritual to boo the commercials.

More famously, in 2003 a high school teacher in Chicago filed a class-action lawsuit in Illinois State Court on behalf of all Loews theater moviegoers. She cited breach of contract. One of her lawyers, Mark Weinberg, said the suit was thrown out but appealed. They're still waiting for a response. (Loews, called for this story, would not comment on the suit or screen ads.)

Still, Weinberg said he's received thousands of letters and e-mails of support. "We touched a nerve. We tapped into this issue of a commercial glut in every aspect of our lives: billboards, e-mails, phone calls. And we've found a little area we can stop.

"But some think the lawsuit is frivolous, including my mother."

John Fithian, the president of the National Association of Theater Owners, admits there have been complaints. But he says the theater business has a low margin of profit. Most revenue is made on concessions, not ticket sales, and without ads, the business would be even worse off. NATO's argument will probably not get a lot of sympathy:

Do you want to pay $12 for a ticket and see no commercials or pay $9 and sit through a few?

Ruth Daniels is vice president of sales for the Emagine movie theater chain in Michigan. It operates 46 screens and projects advertising slides before movies with a little video - but the lights in the theater always remain on. (Regal, in comparison, dims its lights by 50 percent as soon as The 2wenty begins.)

Emagine, in addition, refuses to run full-blown commercials. For the moment, anyway.

"I won't deny it's all about the sales," Daniels said. "But you know how it started, don't you? Stadiums. Sports stadiums. You see so much advertising there, and from an marketing angle, movie theaters are very similar. It's advertising well spent. Audiences don't get a remote control. There's no flipping of channels."

Cliff Marks agrees. Talking to him it's astonishing to hear the split between how many moviegoers see things and how the theater industry sees things. He's the president of Regal CineMedia, the advertising subsidiary of Regal Entertainment, and The 2wenty is his baby. When I ask why theaters weren't full of commercials, say, 20 years ago - his answer is to the point:

"Twenty years ago marketers were completely frustrated by their lack of ability to communicate to people. And that's gotten worse. Look at the fragmentation of television. At how mobile people are now. It's harder to reach them in living rooms. It's hard to find a uniform family.

"But we're still the only media that doesn't interrupt programming to show commercials. Marketers respect that - the theater is a very docile environment."

Well, it used to be. Sort of.

Before the advent of television, the theater industry regularly showed commercials in theaters. When television became a household staple in the 1950s and a favorite vehicle for advertisers, theaters eliminated commercials as a way of remaining unique. The 1950s to roughly the mid-'80s were the years of merciful quiet. You took your seat and talked with friends or maybe half-listened to Jim Croce being piped through speakers.

By the 1980s still-frame advertising was introduced. Often these were ads for mattress stores and local steak houses and evolved to include ridiculously easy trivia questions and word jumbles. During that time, on-screen, full-motion commercials were already an accepted practice throughout Europe and Australia. And then, around the turn of the millennium, the dam burst.

Throughout the 1990s, theater chains overbuilt themselves into the red. By 2000, 12 of the majors (including Regal) had filed for bankruptcy. So they build new theaters to replace the old ones, adding stadium seating and more restaurants as an incentive to bring in more business. "So much of the industry is starting from scratch, they're looking for sources of revenue," said National Amusement's Callaghan.

Here's what they found:

"People would rather have something to look at on screen then nothing to look at," said Matthew Kearney, president of the Cinema Advertising Council and CEO of Screenvision, the largest screen advertising company. "And as long as cinema advertising invests a certain amount of money in the commercials, if we add music videos, scenes from TV shows, we are delivering, in fact, a more valuable moviegoing experience."

That's up for debate. The Cinema Advertising Council and advertising companies rally around that 2003 Arbitron survey, which said the majority of audiences don't mind. Meanwhile, Insight Express, a Connecticut-based research firm, did its own survey last year and found more than 50 percent of people wanted commercials in theaters to stop now.

As for my own random survey of moviegoers: You were evenly divided between the perfectly irritated ("I already know what a Pepsi looks like," said Robert St. John, 21) and the perfectly content ("I really don't mind them," said Zach Spitulski, 20). And the younger you were, the more likely you were to complain about the content of the ads rather than the practice of screen ads itself. (And no one had a problem with coming attractions, which seem to transcend all the usual gripes.)

But when you got mad:

Watch out.

"It is really expensive to go to movies," said Dedron Harris, 21. "Two tickets, that's $20. Popcorn or whatever, that's another $10. Then they want to show commercials? If they do, I won't come as much. I'll just wait for DVD."

In 2004, a paradox occurred: Box office revenue was up ($9.5 billion), but the number of tickets sold dropped by 1.7 percent.

A sign of things to come?

Jim Walters runs Great Eastern Theaters, a tiny chain based in Toledo that operates eight screens, including the Sundance Kid Drive-In on Navarre Road. For a time - until the process of soliciting ads became too much of a headache - he used on-screen advertising at the Paramount Theater in Fremont.

"You could say it wasn't 100 percent accepted," Walters said.

"Every show, except maybe one or two week, someone would come up and say 'Why do you need commercials when we pay you for a ticket?' We had our own reasons for not continuing but still, response was never big enough to get us to stop."

My argument is a critic's argument: that on-screen commercials cheapen the experience of going to the movies. But perhaps that's a sentimental attachment to the idea of moviegoing and the theater as a virtually holy shrine - the whole Cinema Paradiso thing - when the reality is that the thieves have been in the temple from the very beginning.

Of everyone I spoke with, one person echoed that argument:

"I remember years ago, the first time I saw such a thing in a theater," said Penny Parker, the manager of the nonprofit Cla-Zel Theater in Bowling Green.

"I had a very strong gut reaction and actually felt very offended. To me the movies are a place many people go to escape from ordinary life. It has always been, and should continue to be, a completely different experience than watching television."

Ruth Daniels of Emagine is not quite so sentimental. She remembers the first time still-frame advertising flashed on the screen. "I was running the Maple Art Theater in Bloomfield Hills [Michigan]. Remember, this is a highly affluent area. They hated it. But we found that advertisers were willing to spend a lot of money to reach this audience. So we kept them.

"A few years later, we realized audiences didn't mind so much. Why? They got used to it. They accepted it. And that's true of the generation going to films now."

Does she envision a day when commercials play during movies, like they do on television?

"Not in my lifetime. But then, who knows, right? My mother would have never imagined this happening in a million years."

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



Guidelines: Please keep your comments smart and civil. Don't attack other readers personally, and keep your language decent. If a comment violates these standards or our privacy statement or visitor's agreement, click the "X" in the upper right corner of the comment box to report abuse. To post comments, you must be a Facebook member. To find out more, please visit the FAQ.