Shorts deliver studio angle to theater auds

Movie trailers are supposed to get audiences excited about a new release, introduce characters, summarize the plot and show off a money shot or two.

At least the good ones do.

But what happens when a two-minute trailer running in theaters or online — or a 30-second spot on TV — just isn’t getting the right point across?

Ask Universal.

The studio has spent the past four years using in-theater advertising — specifically the 20-minute preshows that run in front of films before the trailers start — to push a specific message to auds.

The featurettes are used to clarify what a movie’s really about or offer up additional visuals that could help combat bad buzz on the Internet.

It’s a strategy that’s not only worked for Universal but could also provide other studios with a way to help promote hard-to-market movies.

“There are almost always misconceptions about a film,” says Adam Fogelson, U’s president of marketing. “There’s so much discussion about a movie that’s being made, who’s in it, why it’s being made, what the intentions are. (In-theater ads) are one of a number of great vehicles to explain that.”

U creates two-and-a-half-minute advertorials around certain releases whose purpose, in most cases, is to hammer home a message in order to kill off any preconceived notions about the films, while still being interesting enough to entertain.

They usually feature exclusive interviews with filmmakers (some have included Judd Apatow, Adam Sandler, Paul Greengrass, Jamie Foxx), take auds behind the scenes of the productions and offer up new scenes that couldn’t make it into the trailer. They’re essentially HBO “First Look” making-of specials for the bigscreen.

Consider some recent examples that have aired during National Cinemedia’s “First Look” programming block that runs in AMC, Century, Cinemark, Regal and, soon, Lowes theater chains:

? For a featurette about “Knocked Up,” U stressed that the pic isn’t your typical romantic comedy but is essentially a sequel to “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” made by the same director and featuring some of the same cast, that will appeal to average guys who want to end up with beautiful women.

? A featurette for “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” is built around interviews with stars Sandler and Kevin James explaining the film’s intricate plot, talking up its buddy comedy antics and downplaying the gay theme.

? One for “The Kingdom” featured director Peter Berg explaining it’s not just an action film, but deals with the complexities of American and Saudi Arabian relations.

“It would be really easy to imagine that it’s about Americans stepping foot on Saudi soil to kick ass and take down anyone in their path,” Fogelson says. “That’s not the movie at all.”

? Earlier, the studio tried to combat the negative reactions to the design of the computer-generated lead in “The Hulk” after early shots of the green giant leaked online. The in-theater piece explained how the filmmakers wanted him to resemble the character’s original look from the comicbook.

? An extended ad for “United 93″ relayed the message that the families of the victims of the doomed flight backed the project.

“When it first came to the public’s attention, there was a lot of speculation about the studio or filmmakers profiting from the events of that day. The truth is the filmmakers had gone to great lengths to speak with the families and get their full support. The families wanted that message out there.”

? And a promo for “Ray” stressed that the film wasn’t trying to cash in on Ray Charles’ death.

“We had acquired the film prior to his death,” Fogelson says. “When he passed away, it was important for us to let people know we hadn’t quickly thrown together a movie on Ray Charles. It was a passion project for him and he had been intimately involved in the casting of the person who would play him (Jamie Foxx). There was amazing footage of Ray and Jamie at a piano. It was a very moving and effective piece that showed people it was made with his complete and full support.”

The in-theater spots may help spread Universal’s marketing messaging, but the strategy is also supplying preshow producers like National Cinemedia and Screenvision with original content.

The companies have been encouraging marketers to come up with something new to show auds — 70% of which are under 30, according to Cinema Advertising Council stats — other than commercials for products.

Studios are only happy to oblige.

The reason: “If you’re marketing movies and you have a chance to speak to people who like to go to the movies, that’s incredibly hard to pass up,” Fogelson says.

Particularly when there’s a subtle point to make that could get lost, studios have found the strategy effective.

While U was the first to actively use preshows as a marketing tool, the other studios have also produced projects to appear before the trailers.

But producing the in-theater ads doesn’t come cheap. U spends approximately $50,000 to produce each featurette inhouse. It pays an additional fee, as part of a multiyear deal, to show the spots to auds, usually eight months of the year. The rest of the time is split with NBC.

Wrangling the stars or filmmakers to sit down for interviews can also be a painstaking task. Sandler is notorious for not doing on-camera interviews, for example.

After each spot’s month-long run, they are usually repurposed for use on DVD or on the Internet.

“I can’t point to any single piece of research that shows without question that these pieces in and of themselves are critical,” Fogelson says. “But we frequently see and hear the messages in our pieces being replayed back to us. It does seem like these pieces stick.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more