I'm about a week behind, but I wanted to talk this week about something discussed at the ShowEast exhibition convention, which was held October 13 - 18 in Orlando. That something is onscreen advertising, which I'll get to in a second; first I wanted to just outline some of the other somethings that were addressed. For those who don't know, ShowEast is one of four annual events where studios and theatre owners meet -- along with others involved in the movie industry, such as food concessions companies -- in order to discuss trends and issues, while simultaneously (and it seems primarily) celebrating upcoming releases and big stars.
This year, ShowEast awards went to John Cusack ("Star of the Year"), Frank Darabont ("Kodak Award For Excellence in Filmmaking"), New Line Cinema theatrical distribution president David Tuckerman ("Show 'E' Award") and National Amusements' Shari Redstone ("Salah M. Hassanein Humanitarian Award"), among others. Typically the awards, particularly those given to talent like actors and directors, are handed out as thank you notes to people who made the money for exhibitors this year. Obviously, giving an award to Darabont before The Mist even hits theaters is a little weird. And despite the surprise box office for Cusack's 1408, his award is also for not-yet-released movies Grace is Gone and Martian Child. As for Tuckerman's award: I don't get it. New Line hasn't been having the best year, and yesterday I heard through the grapevine that The Golden Compass is a mess. Then again, the grapevine has been wrong before ... Anyway, back to the real issues regarding the theater industry. There was a lot of talk about 3-D and digital projection, which I may decide to discuss in a future column. The only really new, interesting thing that came up at ShowEast is how Jeffrey Katzenberg predicts in a few years that two-thirds of movie releases will be released in 3-D. Personally, I think the guy is a bit over-excited about the format. I love it -- don't get me wrong -- but about 40 3-D titles per year, as he says? Maybe if a lot of awful bandwagon productions get made. Which would saturate the format's worth. Doesn't sound like a good thing to me.
As for onscreen advertising, which is a topic that I could rant and complain about, it doesn't appear it will ever go away. So get used to it. According to reports announced at ShowEast, profits from onscreen ads increased about 15% from 2005 to 2006. And you know things that are making money are rarely ever terminated. Additionally, off-screen ads, the kind on your popcorn bags and other locations literally off the screen, also saw a significant increase. At a time when box office profits aren't always dependable, and even some concession items aren't as lucrative as they used to be (in Canada, at least), then in-theatre ad revenue is something exhibitors can rely on. And it might even lead to an expansion. I'm not talking about longer pre-show "entertainments", but I wouldn't be surprised if theatres don't start leasing out space in other places. I'm actually shocked they haven't started having billboards on the sidewalls of auditoriums. Wait, I shouldn't be giving anyone ideas.
The most ridiculous thing I've read in a long time, is the claim that customers are encouraging onscreen advertising. Profit stats I can understand as a motive for continuing with the practice, but doing it because people prefer it? I don't believe it. Maybe some strange people do enjoy the pre-show "entertainment" type, which turns the ads into an actual program, but there's no need for cinema chains to pretend enough people enjoy it to state that as a reason to have them.
Yet at ShowEast, the head of the Cinema Advertising Council, a guy named Cliff Marks who I wish I could have listened to first-hand, went completely overboard with such statements. First, he said that customer resistance, which he pointed out as being "portrayed in the media" as if it was exaggerated, has "died down." He claims the ads are a much better experience now that many chains are running them as entertainment programs. Of course, wouldn't you know it: he's president of ad sales at National CineMedia, one of the biggest producers of such programs. But here's where he really goes too far, and I'm going to keep his story in tact for you to enjoy it to the fullest:
"Two weeks ago we got a complaint -- Cinemark sent it over to us -- from a customer who went to a Cinemark theatre. There was a technical error, and the preshow did not run -- that happens one or two percent of the time -- and they actually sent a letter to Cinemark saying, 'I got there early to see the preshow, and it didn't run.' I'm thinking, 'I never thought I'd see this day.'"
Now, I wouldn't immediately call this story b.s., as a commenter at Boxoffice.com has, but it is certainly an extreme case, if true, which could use the contrast of the extreme case on the other end of the spectrum. "The pre-show entertainment ate my baby!" would be a sufficiently relative example.
I've never been to ShowEast, or any of the other exhibition conventions, but aside from wishing I could laugh at Marks' statements directly, I'd imagine there's less debating going on than should be. As far as I can tell, there are no panel discussions about the pros and cons of onscreen advertising. But I do appreciate comments made by Fox International co-president Tomas Jegeus, as printed in The Hollywood Reporter. He pointed out two things I've always been concerned about. One is that onscreen ads take away from the movie trailers, which used to be more of an enjoyable experience before they were lumped together with commercials for cell phones and cars. Sure, trailers are less of an attraction now that we can watch them all online, but I'm still nostalgic for the time when trailers were just as exciting as the actual feature. The other point is one that I've always been confused and concerned about: onscreen ads for TV shows. Does it really make sense for cinemas to be promoting the competition? Jegeus and I seem to agree that it is a bad idea.
Then again, I'd also love to see people like Jegeus and other studio executives debating the issue of why onscreen ads have to exist in the first place. Maybe if Hollywood shared more of the box office take with the theatres there wouldn't be a need for other alternative revenues.
I always picture these conventions as being an awkward but cowardly meeting of two industries involving a lot of high fives and hugs where there should instead be rumbles. Or, better, meetings of the minds to work out compromises, improvements and, above all, ways to make the customers happier. After all, the movie industry and the theatre industry need each other -- even if the former acts like it doesn't need the latter -- and they need to stop acting like everything is hunky dory, let alone warranting celebration.