Pre-show ad curtain lifted

Loews, AMC programs begin in 2006

Twenty-minute pre-show presentations — combining 30-second commercials, movie and TV promos in full-motion video and audio — took a major step toward becoming a standard part of the American moviegoing experience Tuesday.

AMC Theaters announced it was merging its ad-selling unit National Cinema Network with Regal Entertainment’s Cinemedia division — which pioneered the pre-show format with its “2wenty” two years ago — to eventually serve the ad packages on 8,200 screens in the two circuits.

Separately, Loews Theaters announced it will use on 1,424 screens a rival 20-minute pre-show created by Screenvision, which is investing $50 million over the next two years to get its package on 5,000 of the 14,525 screens now in its network.

As growth in box office revenues slows and attendance declines, the moves reflect the importance exhibs are placing on in-cinema advertising to pad their bottom lines. And execs pushing cinema blurbs say the entertainment value of their packages will enhance the moviegoing experience.

But studio execs are fearful that increasing advertising in theaters will only heighten the problem by giving auds another reason to wait for the DVD.

Both the Regal-AMC and Screenvision efforts rely on digital projection and distribution systems, which execs say could help move the entire industry closer to digital cinema.

“It creates a more interactive, more entertaining pre-show by providing sight, sound and motion,” John McCauley, Loews senior VP of marketing, who added the silent slide presentations are outmoded. “If there is going to be a connection to the audience, it has to play to a level that raises the creative ante.”

Peter Dobson, Mann Theaters chief, where the Screenvision system is already deployed, argued that auds are actually turned off by the more traditional slide shows.

“Our main effort is to improve standards because clearly slide projection is no better than home projection, and it’s just not acceptable in this day and age,” he said.

Studio reaction ranges from hostile to resigned. “I don’t agree with the advertising,” one distrib head said. “(Exhibs) have got to decide what business they are in: Are they in the advertising business or the movie business?”

Another studio exec said he isn’t a fan of the ads, but shrugged, “The cow’s out of the barn on this one.”

For now, showbiz rules at movie houses. Though exhibs believe blurbs could be big business, their income from cinema ads is puny compared with their other revenue streams. Regal, the largest circuit and perhaps the most aggressive at bolstering blurb income, reported $99.9 million in revenues from its Cinemedia unit last year, compared with nearly $1.66 billion at the box office and $636 million in concessions.

Regal co-chief Kurt Hall will be in charge of the newly minted National Cinemedia. Current prexy Cliff Marks will keep the post in the new company, in which both AMC and Regal will be equity partners and share revenues.

All told, National Cinemedia will rep 11,200 screens and sell them to both national and local advertisers, as well as pursue “alternative content,” such as live concerts and sports events, or hosting corporate teleconferences.

Moviegoers won’t see any immediate changes on Regal and AMC screens. Through the end of the year, Regal will continue its “2wenty” and AMC will show its “Pre-Show Countdown,” which includes an average of 13 minutes of commercials before the lights go fully down. But the new venture plans to launch a shared pre-show format in early 2006.

The Screenvision show, which will only be identified by the company’s name, is still primarily made up of “slides” with movie trivia.

Every few minutes, however, a host appears to introduce a two-minute “entertainment” segment — in a Screenvision demo, it showed promos for Paramount’s “Sahara” and E!’s “Hollywood Hold ’em” as well as HBO’s upcoming miniseries “Empire Falls” — followed by a 30-second spot and more slides.

The few minutes before showtime will be taken up with more ads and exhib messages.

Screenvision senior VP Stu Ballatt said the program was designed to be less in-your-face than Regal’s.

“The reality is the consumer is already there to see the film and they’re not leaving,” he said. “You don’t have to scream at them.”

Screenvision’s effort to install the digital equipment just got under way this year. In addition to Loews and Mann, both Colorado Cinemas and Malco have signed on. Though it plans to invest in 5,000 digital projectors over the next two years, it hopes to eventually roll out the package to the rest of its network.

“The first 5,000 is very much phase one,” Screenvision chief Matthew Kearney said.

As to whether auds will take to the increased blurbs in cinemas, even Kearney admitted there are limits.

“We carefully track consumer acceptance of cinema advertising,” he said. “We never expect to see a situation where the main feature is interrupted by advertising.”