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In a theater near you: commercials
Multiplying in the multiplexes: These days, movie theater advertising is everywhere.
February 9, 2005: 7:26 AM EST
By Les Christie, CNN/Money contributing writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Whether you're drawn to animated fantasies like "Shrek 2," or the grittier realism of "Million Dollar Baby," most movie fans can agree on this: It is annoying to pay ten bucks to see a film and then have to sit through 15 minutes of commercials before the movie starts.

Movie theater ads have proliferated during the last few years. In 2003, according to the Cinema Advertising Council, a trade group that promotes the practice, the ads brought in more than $356 million for theater owners, up 37 percent from a year earlier.

But moviegoers may be reaching their breaking point.

Market research firm InsightExpress released a survey in November that reported 53 percent of movie patrons want movie theaters to stop showing commercials and 27 percent say ads will lead them to decrease their trips to the theater.

Gary Ruskin, of the media watchdog organization, Commercial Alert, says there has been "dramatic growth in forced ad watching." Even so, he thinks movie ads are on the way out. "Why is it worth it for movie theaters to alienate 27 percent of their customers?" he says.

Happy beginning?

Pam Blase, a spokeswoman for theater giant AMC, says that pre-movie ads are nothing new.

"We've had pre-show features that included advertising since the mid-1980s," she says. Even earlier, there were ubiquitous slide shows and animated ads urging moviegoers to "go out to the lobby" for a variety of snacks and drinks.

Matthew Kearney, CEO of cinema advertising firm Screenvision, cites the following as reasons to like movie theater ads:

  • They entertain. People arriving early to the theater to get good seats like to see something up on screen. The commercials help them pass the time.
  • They are informative. Research shows patrons retain much more of what they view than from TV ads.
  • They improve the overall theater experience. It provides a "very useful incremental income for the theater owner," Kearney says, which contributes to the proper maintenance and operations of the theater and so makes going there more fun.

What movie theater commercials don't do, says Kearney, "is interrupt the movie."

Production values in the commercials are state of the art. Most are not mere repeats of television commercials; they're shot specifically for theaters. Many have interesting plots, excellent effects, terrific soundtracks, and snappy surprise endings.

A-list directors, such as both Tony and Ridley Scott, began their careers as commercial directors and others, such as "Moulin Rouge" director Baz Luhrmann, have started making them, according to Kearney.

Luhrmann's Chanel ad at Christmas time last year featured Nichole Kidman. Robert DeNiro is doing a 90 second spot for American Express.

Acceptance

The industry cites research that shows upwards of 70 percent of viewers at least accept theater ads.

Mark Weinberg is a movie lover. He's also a Chicago attorney who filed suit against the Loews Cineplex chain. His rather limited goal was not to force the chain to stop showing commercials.

"I don't think we can stop them, but we can get them to disclose the length of the entire pre-movie experience so consumers can make an informed decision on when to arrive," he says.

"It's duping of people to get them to come to the theater early," says Weinberg, "It steals their time. I think people should be throwing tomatoes at the screen."

In the UK, where Kearney's from, theaters list both a program start time and a movie start time, a reasonable compromise, he says.

Weinberg says his suit received an outpouring of support, some from Hollywood itself. "Directors have called supporting the suit. They find the commercials offensive. It takes people out of the right frame of mind to view their movies."

Weinberg doubts that the ads will disappear. "There's not much pressure on the theater owners to stop the practice and there's billions of dollars to be made," he says.

Anyway, the ads don't seem to be keeping crowds away. U.S. theaters had grosses of $9.49 billion in 2004, according to the National Association of Theater Owners. That represented 1.57 billion admissions. The average ticket price (which takes into account discounts for seniors and children) rose to more than $6.22.

Many movie fans may find Weinberg strikes a chord when he says, "I love movies so much I'm willing to put up with the fraud to see the movies I love."  Top of page

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