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Marketing in the Movie Theater

This past summer, when Turner Network Television wanted to promote its new action thriller "Witchblade," the network didn't buy ads in entertainment magazines or newspapers. Instead, it advertised its TV program in an unlikely venue: the local multiplex.

Moviegoers around the country were treated to a 30-second commercial, running just before the usual trailers and feature.

"Our focus was theaters and television because of the show's special effects," said Steve Koonin, executive vice president and general manager of TNT. "We wanted to be able to demonstrate them, to show audiences the mystical nature of Witch- blade. The campaign was so successful, we'll probably bring it back next summer."

Mr. Koonin has latched onto an increasingly popular marketing venue movie theaters.

And for advertisers of all sizes, the promotions don't stop at the movie screen. These days, at the ticket counter, at the concession stand, in the lobby, advertisers are hawking their products to a captive audience. The bombardment includes in-house radio complete with piped-in ads that follow patrons into the restroom and out into the parking lot.

Some of the advertising even has something to do with movies. For example, MOD Studios, a Santa Monica, Calif., multimedia company, has created a new CD-ROM magazine that is distributed free at 200 movie theaters across the country. The CD- ROM's, which feature movie trailers, celebrity interviews and advertising, also include links to movie studio and advertiser Web sites, providing a way to interact with potential customers, said David MacEachern, MOD Studio's chief executive officer.

Advertisers of all stripes, of course, have been using movie screens as a promotional vehicle since the mid-1980's, whether with still slideshows or filmed advertisements before the lights go down. But lately owners of cineplexes and multiplexes, despite raising ticket prices, have seen a spate of bankruptcy filings and are eager for revenue wherever they can find it.

Of the nation's 37,000 movie screens, some form of advertising is shown on about 24,000 of them, according to industry estimates. Exit polls have found that as many as 80 percent of theatergoers can recall the subject of an advertisement they have seen in a cinema - four to six times the number who can typically recall television commercials. And from ticket sales, advertisers know exactly how many people their messages are reaching, and many of the viewers are in the desirable 18-to-49- year-old group.

Movie theater advertising was down for the month of September after the terrorist attacks, as many advertisers pulled back as they also did with TV ads. But industry executives say business is once again on the upswing. The Screenvision Cinema Network, which acts as a broker between advertisers and theater owners, has completely sold all of its available slots for November, and expects to sell out for December, too.

"The movie theater is normally a wonderful vehicle for advertising, and now it's an unusually wonderful vehicle because of what it represents to people - an escape," said Andy Greenfield, the chief executive officer of the Greenfield Consulting Group, a marketing research firm in Westport, Conn.

To that end, moviegoers don't want to see television commercials on the big screen. Exit polls show that people respond best to ads with a cinematic feel, prompting advertisers to create ads specifically for the theater. If advertisers miss the mark, movie theater managers have the last word on which ads actually make it to the big screen.

"There are certain criteria that are set up so the advertising is entertaining and appropriate," says Mindy Tucker, a vice president for Loews Cineplex Entertainment. "If we see something that's not entertaining, we can go back to the ad distributor and object."

It can cost just as much to produce a movie theater ad as it does to produce a television commercial $1 million or more for a 30-second spot. But not everyone is spending that much to get their message across. Local advertisers often sign up for the pre-movie slideshows, prepared by companies like Screenvision or the National Cinema Network, based in Kansas City, Mo.

"Our environment is less cluttered than other advertising environments," said Chuck Battey, National Cinema's president. "We limit the number of slots because we don't want the viewer to be bombarded, and that means a slide ad is going to be shown every six and a half minutes or so while they're waiting for the pre-show countdown," he says.

And what do the ticket buyers think of this advertising? Gary Ruskin, executive director with Commercial Alert, a consumer advocacy group in Portland, Ore., says some moviegoers are feeling overwhelmed. The organization is asking lawmakers to adopt laws so theaters have to tell patrons exactly when a movie actually begins.

"This industry is hammering movie patrons with ads," Mr. Ruskin said. "It's a really bad deal because they don't tell us when the movie actually starts so we can make our own decisions and choose whether or not to sit through them."

In fact, pressure from patrons has eliminated some forms of movie advertising. Filmed ads are not allowed before any films distributed by Disney Studio Entertainment films, a ban that went into effect in the early 1990's after the company received angry letters and phone calls from parents.

But such complaints are rare these days, according to Bill Towey, senior vice president of operations for the National Amusements theater chain. "We've had little if any negative comment," he said.


By KAREN J. BANNAN, The New York Times October 8, 2001

Copyright © 2001 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.