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Shhh! The Ads Are About to Start
Pre-Movie Commercial Creep Is Nothing New, but Some Folks Aren't Taking It Sitting Down

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 Fandango.com 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.

"With God as my witness, I WILL DESTROY THE 2WENTY."

Arlington software engineer James Furdell, 29, posted those words last summer on his blog at Furdell.com. The object of his unbridled wrath: Regal's pioneering pre-show, "The 2wenty," which runs for 20 minutes before every movie on 5,300 screens nationwide.

"I really like watching movie trailers," Furdell said when reached by phone. "But those prepackaged commercials are just more offensive to me for some reason."

So far Furdell's threats remain unrealized, as evidenced by a recent screening of "The 2wenty" at the Regal Cinemas in Rockville. The program, a bit like "Access Hollywood" punctuated by product placements, included featurettes about Ron Howard's boxing movie "Cinderella Man" and TNT's miniseries "Into the West" as well as commercials for Cingular Wireless, Scion and Sprite. At the end, the voice-over asked, "Did you catch all of 'The 2wenty?' If not, get to the theater early next time."

Gary Ruskin, the executive director of Commercial Alert, a consumer group aimed at preventing intrusive advertising, is not a fan. "This is part of advertisers' attempt to turn nearly all entertainment into an infomercial experience," he says. "And that's sad and pathetic because people spend eight or 10 bucks and don't deserve to be hammered with ads when they're looking for a moment of solace."

While he concedes that programs like "The 2wenty," which ends prior to the published movie start time, are an improvement over commercials that run beyond that limit, he still says consumers would be happier without them.

The Captive Motion Picture Audience of America agrees. Or rather, Jason Thompson, a multimedia designer from Portland, Ore., does. Thompson is the only official member of the CMPAA, the name he assigned to his Web site and lobbying effort aimed at stemming the tide of movie marketing.

Among other things, Thompson's site encourages moviegoers to print out signs they can use to hold their seats while they escape to the lobby during the commercials. The message: "RESERVED. This patron is avoiding cinema advertising and will return when the feature begins."

"With movie attendance down for the second year in a row, theaters should engage in activities to enhance the theater experience rather than detract from it," Thompson contends. (Revenue from ticket sales for 2005 is down 7 percent compared with the same period in 2004, according to Variety.)

Many cinephiles aren't bothered by the advertising. An Arbitron study conducted in 2002 found that 66 percent of respondents didn't mind the commercials; among moviegoers ages 12 to 24, that percentage rose to 71.

"As long as the commercial is something thoughtful, interesting and more targeted, people will respond to it, just like they respond to advertising at the Super Bowl," says John McCauley, senior vice president of marketing for Loews.

Still, some moviegoers are responding with more than just concession stand griping.

In 2003, Illinois attorney Mark Weinberg filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Chicago resident Miriam Fisch after she suffered through several commercials before watching "The Quiet American" starring Michael Caine. The suit demanded that Loews accurately inform customers about the starting times of its movies. A judge dismissed the case, but Weinberg appealed. Now that Loews has agreed to post more showtime information, Weinberg says the matter is moot.

"I personally do have a problem with the barrage of commercials, but that's not a problem one can deal with legally," he says. "That's just a vulgar part of our culture. This [Loews' announcement] solves the legal issue, but this doesn't address what I think offended a lot of people."

Similarly, Illinois state Rep. Jack Franks and Connecticut state Rep. Andrew Fleischman, who each proposed legislation seeking more accurate film listings, plan to drop attempts to revive their respective bills, which both died earlier this year.

"There are always market solutions for making changes in policy," Franks said by cell phone on his way to the state capitol. "I think this will work and I bet other chains will be doing it as well. I think it's just good business."

As for New York City Council member Gale Brewer, whose proposal suggests theaters should be fined $500 to $1,000 each time they fail to disclose the real reel times, she's not planning to abandon the fight yet. "We think this is a great step in the right direction and we're very pleased that Loews decided to do this," said Ali Davis, Brewer's legislative director. "But this doesn't solve the problem."

So far, no additional theaters have announced similar plans. Both Dick Westerling, senior vice president of marketing for Regal Entertainment, and Pam Blase, vice president of corporate communications for AMC Entertainment -- the two largest U.S. chains, with 6,273 and more than 3,500 screens, respectively -- say they do not need to take any action because the public already knows their paid advertising ends before the posted showtime.

In fact, they're expanding the reach of their "advertainment." Regal and AMC will combine cinema-ad efforts beginning next year to deliver a new, as-yet-unnamed version of "The 2wenty," which will eventually appear on more than 8,000 screens throughout the country. Meanwhile, Screenvision, the cinema advertising company that works with Loews, will roll out its own 20-minute pre-show on 5,000 screens during the next 18 months. Matthew Kearney, Screenvision's chief executive officer, says the new pre-movie promos will debut at the Loews Georgetown and Gaithersburg's Loews Rio this summer.

Not all venues are going the way of "The 2wenty."

Landmark Theatres, an art house chain with locations in the District and Bethesda, runs 10 to 12 minutes of commercials and trailers, but chooses spots -- like a series of independent shorts sponsored by Stella Artois beer -- that mirror the spirit of the indie and foreign films on the marquee. "We've had a lot of positive feedback because of showing the shorts," says Ray Price, Landmark's vice president in charge of marketing. "We actually had one patron who went in and watched the short, then tried to leave because he thought the movie was over."

And then there's Cinema Arts' Tomashoff, who hopes the challenges of remaining an independent theater don't force him to rescind that theater's no-promos promise. (Other Washington area independents that run commercials -- like the Avalon on Connecticut Avenue NW -- don't exactly get rich by doing so. Andrew Mencher, Avalon's programming director, estimates its sparse spots bring in $5,000 to $6,000 each year.) "As long as people make no commercials a factor as to why they come here as opposed to going somewhere else," Tomashoff says, "it's to our economic advantage not to be showing them."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company