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Posted: Mon., Mar. 3, 2003, 10:00pm PT
A tough sell
Exhibitors weigh fans' ire vs. preshow profits

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The multiplex may be the site of the ad buy of the century.

"You have a captive audience with no remote controls," observes Guy McCarter, director of entertainment marketing for OMD USA in New York, a full-service media agency and subsidiary of Omnicom. "Plus, you're delivering a message in an environment, unlike television, that's not cluttered with other advertising."

With ticket sales serving as an excellent way to measure commercial value, he says, the emergence of a pricing model in the $20- to $30-per-1,000-patrons range mirrors prime-time television. Exhibitors earned an estimated $250 million from preshow ads in 2001. The Cinema Advertising Council projects 30% growth in cinema advertising rev this year, compared with a growth rate of 20% in 2002.

Still, McCarter suggests that advertisers be careful about how they proceed.

"Everyone has been in a theater where a commercial plays and everyone starts booing." His point: It needs to be relevant to the movies, fun and a soft sell -- much like the cross-promotional spot for Pepsi and "Austin Powers in Goldmember" featuring Britney Spears and Mike Myers.

Cingular Wireless has a campaign that seems to have struck the right tone. The "Be Sensible" campaign features a 30-second spot that doubles as a public service announcement, urging moviegoers to set their cell phones on the silent or vibrate mode.

Vance Overbey, Cingular's exec director of advertising, describes the spot as creative, entertaining and nonthreatening in terms of sales-pitch potential. "Sometimes you get people clapping and you always get people laughing or nodding that they're thankful for the reminder," he says.

With many patrons showing up early to reserve a good seat, there's ample time to show commercial messages, notes John Rash, a media buyer for Campbell Mithun, an ad agency in Minneapolis. Trick is the spots need to have sex appeal and be about entertainment, enlightenment or escapism. They'll be accepted "as long as they deliver on that premise and don't delay the start of the film."

That's not always easy to do, however and bombarding a theaterful of patrons with ads before a screening is tricky business.

A recent screening in Portland that began late led to a lawsuit against Loews Cineplex based on deceptive starting times of the film.

"They showed ad upon ad upon ad, then previews and then the Regal ad with Coke, Milk Duds and Twizzler," reports Douglas Litowitz, a professor at Lewis & Clark School of Law in Portland and lead attorney in the class-action lawsuit.

It seems there's no escaping the ad man in the increasingly bottom line-oriented world of feature-film entertainment. Typical prescreening fare includes car and soft drink commercials as well as elaborate fashion spots plugging everything from Nike to Levis. Merchants and exhibitors, of course, see the trend through an entirely different lens.

"Our first and foremost objective is to build a preshow that's entertaining and respects the patron," says Cliff Marks, Regal CineMedia's prexy of marketing and sales.

Regal raises stakes

The nation's No. 1 exhibitor recently debuted a digital preshow featuring ads on about 2,000 of its more than 6,000 screens nationwide. By year's end, it will be running at about 80% of the chain's theaters. Regal has partnered with Universal, NBC, cabler TBS and media conglom Convex Group for short-form content interspersed with 30- and 60-second spots that account for a third to half of the 20-minute presentation.

The new approach, whose ads run prior to features, seeks to streamline the process and keep consumers happy. Regal theater managers are instructed to roll all commercials delivered on film about three to five minutes before show time, Marks explains. But complications can arise.

"Your watch could read 8 p.m. and mine might read 7:56 p.m.," he says, adding that human error may sink the old-style presentation.

The digital format is expected to arrive in Portland by April or May after a rollout to 15 larger markets. Regal seems to be pleased by the initial reaction. In early February, independent auditors from Theatrical Entertainment found that 44% actually liked the format, while just 1% disapproved.

All isn't so well at Loews, which has been slammed with a class-action lawsuit on behalf of patrons who are infuriated by prefilm spots. Plaintiffs, who seek $75 a piece, consider the policy a deceptive business practice, charging that commercials are shown during times deemed for feature presentations.

The suit includes an injunction that would force Loews to distinguish between start times for ads and features -- a common practice in parts of Europe. Loews declined comment, explaining that the company hadn't been served with court papers.

When asked if the lawsuit is somewhat heavy-handed, Litowitz is unapologetic.

"I'm not sure why the burden is on me to justify people's right to be free of advertising. It seems the burden should be on advertisers who want to take up your time," he says.

David Pritchard, prexy of Fat Rock Entertainment in Los Angeles, may have reinvented the wheel when it comes to niche programming. His firm is working with theater chains and other partners to turn Saturday mornings and off-peak summer hours at cinemas into a retail destination for children under 11.

Perfect product placement

In the pipeline are films based on a half-dozen licensed properties from Hasbro, including a live-action feature on the Super Soaker water toy slated for a fall release -- perhaps the ultimate product placement.

Loews Cineplex, Cinemark USA and Carmike Cinemas will distrib the films in the nation's top 150 markets, and share in box office profits and ancillary revenues from broadcast and DVD sales as well as merchandising.

"In most cases, the products we're licensing are pretty established brands," Pritchard explains. "All we're doing is using their product as a launch pad to tell a narrative story." Like "Spider-Man," Hasbro features will be based on intellectual property that he says "clearly has ingrained itself into the mass-market culture."

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