Shhh! The Ads Are About to Start

By Jen Chaney
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 15, 2005

At the Cinema Arts Theatre in Fairfax, no one tells you to obey your thirst.

You won't see Robert De Niro endorsing American Express, or ads for the allegedly alluring Axe body spray either.

The independent movie house,tucked away in the Fair City Mall near a Marshalls discount department store, doesn't show commercials before its films. Prior to showtime, audiences see a few promotions via the old-school, cinema-standard slide show, then three or four trailers and that's it; the opening titles roll.

"We've done customer surveys and it's quite clear from those that they detest the commercials," says Cinema Arts co-owner Jim Tomashoff. "Many of them tell us they come here because we don't show commercials."

Perhaps you're one of those peeved patrons who park in a barely legal spot, race breathlessly by the concession stand to make the 7:15 showing of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," and wind up watching a 15-minute guide to bite-size Snickers and the joys of Cingular Wireless. If so, then you know places like Cinema Arts are becoming rare filmgoing finds. According to UniqueScreen Media, a cinema advertising company, two-thirds of U.S. screens currently show advertising or, as industry insiders call it, "pre-show entertainment."

During the pre-shows -- which vary, but often last between 10 and 20 minutes -- moviegoers might see commercials for Revlon or NBC's "The Apprentice." As the product-pushing becomes more prevalent and sophisticated, some of its opponents have gotten increasingly vocal.

Earlier this year, legislators in Connecticut, Illinois and New York City introduced bills that would require theaters to post the actual movie starting times, so patrons could decide whether to skip the deafening fizz of all those Pepsi spots. In response to those efforts, as well as what the company described as "consumer complaints," Loews Entertainment -- the world's third-largest movie theater chain -- did something surprising: It agreed. Last Friday, announcements that movies will start 10 to 15 minutes after their posted showtimes were slated to appear at the box office in Loews's Connecticut locations, as well as on the company's Web site and in newspaper listings. The notifications will come to Washington and the rest of the country by the end of May.

But the cultural debate over movie theater advertising -- a conflict that's led to questions about "commercial creep," one class-action lawsuit and more than a few irate Internet postings -- continues.

Advertising at the movies is hardly new. American cinemas encouraged spending long before the first animated buckets of popcorn urged patrons to go to the lobby and get themselves a treat. Kim Tomadjoglou, a curator for the American Film Institute, says commercials existed as early as the nickelodeon period in the early 1900s and have likely been around "since the beginning of moving images." But promotional spots resembling TV commercials were a relative rarity in U.S. theaters until the 1980s, when more movie houses branched out from static pre-feature slide shows to motion-filled ads for Dr Pepper and Lee Jeans.

Even then, some theater owners weren't wild about the idea. In a 1986 New York Times article, General Cinemas, then the nation's largest theater chain, vowed never to show commercials in its venues, a promise it broke in 1999. (The company ultimately went bankrupt and was acquired by AMC Theaters.) In 1990 Disney began prohibiting theaters from airing paid advertisements before its films, starting with the romantic comedy "Pretty Woman." That policy remains in effect today, but only for Disney-brand releases, the ones most likely to attract young children. In 1991, the Maryland General Assembly became the country's first legislative body to attempt a ban on movie theater advertising, but the Motion Picture Prohibitive Screen Advertising bill died faster than a Ben Affleck flop at the box office.

These days, big-screen commercials translate into lucrative business. In 2003, this type of ad revenue grew by a whopping 37 percent to $356 million. When 2004 industry-wide figures are released in a few weeks by the trade group Cinema Advertising Council, another double-digit increase is expected. (By comparison, box office revenues for 2004 were $9.4 billion.) Cliff Marks, president of marketing and sales for Regal CineMedia, the Regal chain's advertising and promotions division, projects that the industry will continue swelling by "15 to 20 percent each year" for the foreseeable future. Part of the reason -- if you believe a recent study commissioned by cinema advertising company Screenvision -- is that moviegoers are more likely to remember in-theater ads and the brands they promoted than people who see them on television.

In other words, those paper-bag puppets won't exit theaters anytime soon. But there are some people who wish they would. And like the loud talker who invariably sits behind you at the cineplex, they refuse to be shushed.

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