You’ve paid your $10 or $12 admission. Endured the lineup for overpriced concessions. Negotiated your way into the theatre and settled into your seats. It’s 7:39 p.m. and the movie begins at 7:40 p.m. Just in time! Well, not exactly.
As every movie fan knows, the show is still a long way from getting started. Before you can see the movie you paid for, you’ll need to watch some ads: a lot of ads.
Captive movie theatre audiences must now endure 15 minutes or more of bank, car, soft drink, wireless and other assorted commercials plus a half-dozen coming attractions stretching well after the posted start time. Quite often the theatre will slip in a few of its own promos as well, touting the power of its sound system or the magic of cinema. But of course we already knew about that; we just paid good money for a magical experience. Is it too much to ask that the movie start when scheduled?
Last week Canada’s largest cinema chain, Cineplex Inc., announced its best-ever financial results. While movie attendance has been healthy, the star of the show for the firm right now is “media revenues,” which mainly consist of selling ads before movies. At $26 million−an improvement of 45 per cent over the previous year’s figures−Cineplex’s profit for the quarter was almost entirely from ad sales.
Across North America, pre-show movie ads have become a gold mine. In the U.S., it’s a $600 million-a-year business, with an average annual growth rate of 15 per cent. Selling pre-movie ads now rivals the more than 350 per cent markup on concession sales as the most lucrative aspect of the movie theatre business.
The attraction, of course, lies in showing ads to folks who have no choice but to watch. “With showtime advertising, there’s no channel switching, no commercial zapping, no multi-tasking distractions like phone calls or Internet surfing,” Cineplex boasts to ad buyers. “Audiences are focused on the screen, fully engaged in the cinema experience.” Better yet, these hostages have paid to be there. And movie theatre audiences are conveniently pre-sorted into family, teen and adult markets. (Admittedly Maclean’s also sells advertising, but we don’t force anyone to look at the ads before reading our stories.)
The time prior to a movie’s start once consisted of a few coming attractions and a cartoon. In olden days, it was a newsreel or two. Today the 21-minute pre-show is broken down into two advertising segments, each sold separately. After that comes the most desirable chunk of real estate: the 15 or 20 minutes when the movie should actually be playing. While we accept watching a few minutes of ads to see a free video on the Internet, paying to see a movie and being forced to watch ads seems to be both an insult and a waste of time. We pay more while our quality viewing time shrinks.
Moviegoers who value their time have made some brave attempts at fighting back. A few years ago a Chicago movie fan tried to sue her local cinema for “breach of contract.” A petition was started. So was a class action lawsuit. And in 2005 a Connecticut lawmaker proposed a bill that would have required movie theatres to post accurate movie start times. None of these efforts got past the initial pitch.
Others have tried to adapt to the new reality by timing their arrival to avoid the ads. Unfortunately, by this point the lights have already gone down and everyone else is seated. Toes gets stepped on and popcorn gets spilled. Skipping the ads can be as inconvenient to the rest of the audience as the ads themselves.
Certainly trailers are often as entertaining as the movies they promote, not to mention cheaper. And not everyone seems to object to idea of movie theatre ads. A 2003 survey by U.S. research group Arbitron, widely praised by cinema owners, claims two-thirds of moviegoers agree with the statement: “I don’t mind the advertisements they put on before the movie begins.” Half say they find movie theatre ads more interesting than television ads. It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, however; presumably the other half agrees with the opposite statement. Besides, anyone who really enjoys paying for ads can simply show up 21 minutes early and watch to their heart’s content.
We are now bombarded by advertisements from all sides and at all times: from subways and gas pumps to email inboxes and cellphone screens. Let’s not ruin our two escapist hours in the movie theatre with another 20 minutes of ads. How about starting the show on time?