Are TV ads bad for pix?

THIS IS THE TIME OF YEAR when showbiz CEOs take one final look at their summer ad budgets and start screaming.

The numbers are indeed intimidating. Ad spending by the studios on movies rose 25% in two years and the cost of launching a movie this summer is stratospheric. Some guess that as much as $50 million will be allocated to levitate “Godzilla” alone.

Hence, perhaps it’s worth taking a quick look at the way one other Western nation does things. In France, movie ads are banned on television, yet business continues to thrive. Ticket sales will climb to around 150 million this year, highest for the decade.

Now I realize this is a hallucinogenic proposition, but consider what would happen if all the U.S. movie companies decided simultaneously to stop advertising on television. For starters, they’d find themselves with at least $1.2 billion to bolster sagging profit margins.

According to some surveys, network TV has now become the No. 1 medium for studio ad spending, replacing newspapers (the newspapers apparently were inflating their numbers by using higher national ad rates to calculate totals rather than the more relevant local ad rates).

CONSIDER THE VARIOUS repercussions of a TV ad cutback:

Without TV blitzes, word-of-mouth may actually become a factor in movie promotion once again. The audience might have time to talk about a movie rather than simply glimpsing the fleeting TV images.

Similarly, the shelf life of movies might be extended. If a film doesn’t soar to the top of the charts in its first week, you might still be able to catch it in its third.

There might even be more room for independent movies or for studio “counter-programming.” It’s easier to convey a more provocative “sell” in the print media or even over the Internet than through the electronic media.

In France, French-language movies have been able to recapture 34% of the local market, vs. 55% for Hollywood pictures, and many exhibitors believe the TV ban is a key reason.

Most important, and the hardest to quantify, would be the impact on subject matter. Arguably Hollywood movies increasingly are shaped for a TV sell. Since a summer blockbuster is sold like tooth paste, its creators increasingly are designing their movies to resemble consumer products. Eliminate TV advertising and this process is reversed.

WHO WOULD SUFFER? Well, the networks and local stations wouldn’t exactly throw a party. Analyze ad spending on “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” last year and you find that some $13 million out of a total media budget of $22 million was spent on network TV and almost $2 million on spot TV. Total newspaper advertising came in at $4.4 million.

Not surprisingly, Disney was the biggest spender on TV and Miramax the biggest in magazines.

The heavy TV ad spending worked out fine for the megahits: On a movie like “Men in Black,” total ad spending was a mere 7% of box office gross. With turkeys like “Fathers’ Day” or “Speed 2: Cruise Control,” however, media spending climbed as high as 45% of total gross.

While the TV stations and networks would ardently resent any cutbacks, consider the following: By far the top two favorites for TV network movie ads are “ER” and “Seinfeld.” “Seinfeld” is going off the air, and all those flashy action shots from summer movies on “ER” get in the way of the drama.

If all the studios “voluntarily” stopped advertising on TV, of course, the Justice Dept. might become a little suspicious. And there’s no way that the U.S. government itself would initiate something like the French ban — lobbyists for the U.S. networks carry far too much weight.

Besides, it wouldn’t be worth the hassle. Sure, studio profits would increase. Better movies might even be made.

But what has that got to do with showbiz?

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