Since when have cinema owners been given free rein to assault moviegoers with 20 minutes of soul-crushing commercials before the main feature starts? Since a while ago, I know, but lately matters seem to have gotten worse. These ads can take you right out of the movie mood.
Last time I checked, there was a trade-off. Paying almost $80 for a family of four – not including popcorn – meant you weren't supposed to be subjected to annoyingly slick ads for wine, cars, or travel destinations. (Never mind the annoyingly unslick ads for local businesses and nearby real estate.)
If theatre owners are worried that DVDs and downloads are going to put them out of business, the steady creep of in-theatre commercials can’t be helping their cause. Why not just wait for the movie to be shown on free-to-air TV? Wouldn’t the cumulative commercial time be about the same? Trailers for upcoming films, of course, are fair game, but more and more they seem to have become an afterthought as the pre-show time drones on.
The sorry state of affairs recently hit a new low as my wife, our two teenage boys and I waited to be inspired and edified by the latest computer-generated, semi-plotless, non-stop action blockbuster. It turns out there’s a price to pay for showing up when the movie’s supposed to start rather than watching the clock go past that point when you’re on your way to the theatre. The twist of the knife was that it was mostly the same round of ads we saw as before the last movie we went to. It felt kind of like being put on hold for another 20 minutes by a bank or telecom that filled the wait time with product promos instead of classical music, with the added benefit of fidgety, moody teenagers nearby.
By the time the feature came around we were down to unpopped kernels and I was seriously considering having a word with the theatre manager and asking for some kind of ad kickback. Shouldn’t there be such a thing? The teenagers did not endorse this plan, but I think my argument was airtight. I came for escapism, not to help the theatre expand its revenue stream.
Wouldn’t you know it? Movie theatre ads have become a big source of revenue for theatre chains. And is it any surprise that the US is leading the way in blurring the line between going to the movies and flicking the remote from the comfort of your couch?
A few years ago the US theatre chains Regal, AMC and Cinemark formed an ad production and distribution company, National CineMedia, whose ownership is split evenly between shareholders and theatre chains. In November last year Forbes Magazine reported that the company had raked in $275 million worth of theatre advertising in the first three quarters of 2010. That’s a lot of movie theatre ads, and some hefty cash distributions for theatre owners (shareholders got dividends of 20 cents per share).
The major player in Australia, though, is Val Morgan, which says it’s committed to “the continued development of the cinema as an advertising medium in Australia and New Zealand”. The company boasts some impressive stats. It says it’s responsible for the pre-show advertising on 1000 screens – or “digital panels” – in 250 shopping centres across Australia, including 40 “super screens”. Since the business model is doing so well, perhaps the commercials-in-theatre industry and theatre owners can figure out a way to give something back to the people who actually have to watch this stuff.