Originally published in the Colorado Springs Gazette
July 20, 2003
by Brandon Fibbs
You paid your money to see "Hulk," "Terminator 3" or some other summer blockbuster, but that's not what you get - at least not right away.
First you have to sit through the commercials. Spots pushing body fragrances, cars, soda, running shoes or public service ads touting friendship and universal good will can go on 10 minutes or more before the trailers come on.
What plays on the screens at cineplexes around the nation increasingly resembles the programming on your home television. The average American viewer must now endure four to eight ads per movie. When combined with the usual battery of movie trailers, it can be half an hour or more after the posted show time before the film actually begins. (In the name of full disclosure, we should mention that some of those pre-movie ads have been for The Gazette.)
"I think we have enough commercials on television," says Adam Muse, 30, a payroll technician waiting to see a movie at Cinemark. "We don't need to see them when we come in and pay to watch a movie."
Lindy Hargiave, a 19-year-old bookstore clerk, agrees. "The next thing you know they're going to be putting commercials in the movie," she says.
Lots of Internet chatter and informal water-cooler polls point to overwhelming displeasure with commercial advertising at movie houses. Yet a recent survey suggests that those opposing ads in cineplexes may be in the minority.
In May, the Arbitron and Scarborough research firms released what is perhaps the most comprehensive study ever conducted on cinematic advertising. The study was administered over the holiday season, during which 95 million Americans (more than 40 percent of the total population) reported going to the cinema. It concluded that more than two-thirds of adults and teenagers do not mind advertising played before movies begin. In fact, without exception, every age demographic polled gave an approval rating of nearly 60 percent or higher.
Regal Entertainment Inc., the nation's largest chain, now has a mandatory 20 minutes of pre-movie programming consisting of eight to 10 commercials. Watchdog groups insist that - sooner or later - the addition of 20 minutes of paid commercials will pressure studios to make shorter movies, penalizing filmmakers and audiences.
Kimball Bayles, owner of the Twin Peak Theatre, agrees.
"That will backlash," he says. "You can't charge people all that money and then expect them to sit through that. That's what people are fleeing from."
Bayles, who years ago considered showing ads for local businesses only, is now adamantly against the practice.
"I go to these giant megaplexes and you can tell the audience is really upset by the commercials," he says. "I try to distance myself from that entire experience. It's just not worth the agitation it costs. The audience reaction isn't good even if I play too many trailers."
Attorney and author Douglas Litowitz, a visiting professor at the Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore., is co-author, with Chicago attorney Mark Weinberg, of a lawsuit against Loews Cineplex Entertainment Group and, most recently, AMC Entertainment Inc. He calls the Arbitron study "propaganda nonsense."
The pair's stance is spelled out in their class-action lawsuit: "Failure to start the movie at the scheduled time and only after foisting commercial advertisements on the movie-going audience constitutes a breach of contract. In addition, the showing of commercial advertisements prior to feature films, without informing consumers of the real starting times, constitutes a deceptive business practice." Weinberg is more irritated than surprised by the Arbitron survey. That the survey was undertaken with the cooperation of the National Association of Theater Owners and the Cinema Advertising Council makes him skeptical of the results.
Jason Thompson, director of Captive Motion Picture Audience of America, an advocacy group, says, "The issue of advertising itself is not what is being disputed, but rather the use of 'invasive' vs. 'passive' advertising practices." Most forms of advertising - newspapers, magazines, television, radio - are passive, he says. "The audience has a choice of accepting or rejecting these messages. This is not the case in a darkened movie theater. Advertising to a captive audience is not only an unfair business practice, but it also creates hostility toward the advertiser."
None of the theater chains currently embroiled in litigation owns screens in Colorado.
According to industry estimates, some form of advertising is shown on 24,000 of the nations 37,000 screens. In-theater advertising is a $250 million-a-year business in America alone.
Only in the past several years have filmed ads have proliferated to such a degree that the public is sitting up and taking notice. Why the sudden influx of commercialization?
Theater owners glutted the market with new screens in the 1990s. The number of theaters in the U.S. far outpaced the rise in admissions. The result was financial disarray; a dozen chains imploded; others managed to fold together. To survive in an industry in which as much as 80 percent of the ticket price goes back to the studios, theater chains had to find other ways to stay afloat. Concession prices ballooned, but not enough to offset costs. The industry settled on in-theater advertising.
John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners, says, "You can either have movies with ads and pay $7 a ticket, or you can pay $12 a ticket and not have commercials."
The problem, say watchdog groups and patrons alike, is that theaters continue to raise prices and push ambitious new ad campaigns despite the fact that this year and last, box-office revenues topped the records set in the late 1950s.
"I would venture to say that the majority of people simply dislike movie ads or tolerate them, believing that the ads reduce ticket prices," audience advocate Thompson says. "However, the little feedback I get from people who like the ads almost always give the reason that the ads give them more time to get a snack or go to the restroom. Not exactly good news for advertisers."