Ad Nauseam

Earlier this year Chicago-area English teacher Miriam Fisch filed a class-action lawsuit against the Loews theater chain. Was she hurt in one of their theaters? No. Her complaint centered on the commercials running before the start of a movie. She is not alone. Roger Ebert spoke out against this practice. Angry filmgoers have organized boycotts against the companies running the advertisements. Many have created websites such as,, and to raise awareness and rally others to their cause.

Granted, the cause is not quite on par with civil rights or ending the Vietnam War, but there's a reason to be upset. More theater chains are running more commercials before the start of their movies. The Cinema Advertising Council, a trade group, estimates that this practice jumped 20 percent in 2002 and is expected to increase another 30 percent this year. According to Dailey Variety, cinema advertising generated $250 million for theater exhibitors in 2001, a figure that's likely to have risen since then.

Why the growth? Well, theater chains, like any other business, always look for new sources of revenue, especially when times are tough. The Associated Press reported that 12 theater chains were forced into bankruptcy in recent years. Much of the money from ticket sales goes to the studios, so advertising gives theater companies a cash cow all to themselves. From the advertiser's vantage point, theater commercials reflect changing media practices. With remote controls, VCRs, and now TiVo, viewers can easily ignore television ads. Along comes cinema advertising to fill the void. Filmgoers can't fast-forward past the ads. They can't change the channel and they can't hit the mute button. They are stuck with the commercials. The ScreenVision Cinema Network website lures potential advertisers by proclaiming that "We have a captive audience watching your advertisement. No interruptions! The patrons sitting in the theater are not going anywhere."

Let's make one critical distinction. The theater chains, in defending their practices, will group commercials in with the previews for upcoming films. But to me, these are apples and oranges. Trailers for other movies have been part of the filmgoing experience almost since the beginning. Audiences have come to expect previews. The trailers help get people in the mood for the feature presentation, almost like an opening act before the headliner.

I'm talking about the other commercials, for the Army, video games, soft drinks, sneakers, cars, etc. Simply put, these are annoying, and have nothing at all to do with watching a movie. One of the reasons people go to a movie theater instead of watching television is to avoid ads. Also, as the no-ads advocates point out, we have already paid for the theater experience. After plunking down nearly $9 for a ticket and almost as much for popcorn and soda, the last thing we should have to endure are more messages selling us more products. In an ideal world, we could just enjoy the previews and slide right into the movie.

But, as you may have noticed, we live in the real, not ideal, world. Even if Ms. Fisch wins her suit, the damages will be a drop in the bucket compared to what Loews will make from the ads. It's difficult enough coercing businesses to change practices that are discriminatory or harm the environment. Good luck getting theater chains to walk away from piles of cash just because the ads get on people's nerves. While I admire the efforts of those organizing a boycott against the cinema advertisers, I don't think they are going to have much success persuading people to avoid certain companies because of an annoyance. Let's face facts - the cinema ads are not going away.

So what's a reasonable solution? European movie theaters have been running commercials for years. Some of them advertise two times -- when the commercials will start, and when the actual film will begin. I like this idea, but I'm skeptical that it would work here. Advertising two start times would be more expensive to theater chains, and more cumbersome to newspapers, Moviefone, and other outlets that provide film information.

We need only look to Regal Cinemas for a simpler plan. According to Ms. Fisch's suit
"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." In other words, the problem is, to a large degree, that the commercials delay the movie. And that's truly the case with Loews and most of the other theater chains, which don't start the ads until the movie's posted start time. But a few months ago Regal tried something different, starting its group of ads twenty minutes before the movies were scheduled to begin.

Regal's plan is a true compromise. Yes, the ads are still annoying. But they're much less annoying knowing that they're not delaying the movie. Besides, it's time you would be just sitting there anyway. It's not much worse than the advertising slides most chains currently run before a film. According to an Arbitron study, funded by theater chains, more than 60 percent of filmgoers are in their seats at least 10 minutes before the movie begins. So the advertisers still reach their audiences, without running the risk of alienating them. Run the ads, but run them before the film's start time. OK, it's not a satisfying solution, but at least it's a fair one.

Adam Spector
July 28, 2003

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