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As the U.S. opening date for “Tenet” nears, Warner Brothers is dipping back into the time-honored practice of running ads for the film on TV. But not too deeply.

“What our traditional campaign would look like is not what this campaign looks like,” says Blair Rich, president of worldwide marketing, theatrical and home entertainment at Warner Bros. Pictures Group, in an interview.  With the world still grappling with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, says the executive, Warner Bros. needs to think beyond the concept of corralling moviegoers to a single opening night. Instead, the company may have to get the word out about the film to different parts of the country over the next few months. And Warner is likely to have to keep “Tenet” on screens for a longer-than-usual tenure.

“We have had to re-imagine how you bring a movie to market,” says Rich.

Yes, the studio is running trailers for the widely anticipated Christopher Nolan film on TV, but largely in live sports broadcasts like basketball games, “which is the real destination programming right now,” says Rich. Warner Bros. has also taken to Google, social media and digital video to promote the film, and even ran a trailer in the online video game Fortnite to raise awareness of the movie’s opening. “Tenet,” centered on a protagonist who must manipulate time to stop World War III, is slated to launch overseas, and then debut in certain U.S. markets in early September.

TV needs the movies. But as the pandemic has forced the closure of countless movie theaters, new questions have surfaced about how much the movies will need TV.

In the first five months of 2020, the big studios spent $356.1 million on TV ads for motion pictures, marking a nearly 60% drop from spending in the year-earlier period, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending.  In the first five months of 2019, the studios spent about $884.2 million.

As new movie releases like “Tenet,” “New Mutants” and “Unhinged” begin to surface, the TV networks could use the cash the movie studios have long waved around to run long sneak-peek trailers and other types of creative TV spots. In 2019, the big movie studios put just over $2 billion into TV commercials for their blockbusters, indie films, and rom-coms, according to Kantar.

The studios aren’t the biggest purchasers of TV’s commercial time (that distinction belongs to pharmaceutical manufacturers), but they can be extremely influential. For years, the Fox broadcast network often got a jump in the industry’s annual “upfront” sales market because studios rushed to snatch up ad time in “House,” “24” and other programming that appealed to viewers who typically skewed young and male – the most likely purchasers of opening-night tickets.

The studios often snatch up commercial inventory in the nation’s top-rated programs well ahead of other advertisers  – and typically require more ad time as executives monitor box-office and opening-weekend projections. That “as-needed” inventory is called “scatter,” and usually costs much more than commercial time bought well in advance during the industry’s annual “upfront” ad-sales negotiations.  Movie maneuvers can spur others to start buying, out of fear of losing an important primetime ad perch.

Such activity has not been seen in recent weeks. Movie ads have essentially been off the air since late June, according to Kantar’s tracking of the number of 30-second TV spots aired each week. The number of movie ads was down 94% in the usually robust week containing the Fourth of July, compared with the same period last year, and down nearly 100% until the seven-day period ended August 9th. During the week of August 10 to August 16, according to Kantar, the number of movie ads was off 84% from the year-earlier period.

Now TV networks, working their way though a very slow “upfront” process that has lasted long past its usual July end, are likely hoping the movies will provide them with a happy ending, But Warner’s Rich says she has been looking at traditional TV in a different light.

“Cord cutting is getting stronger and people are changing how they look at content,” she says, even as marketers must contend with TV’s “media inflation,” or higher pricing.  With more people watching streaming services and using interactive technology, says Rich, she has looked at “more direct, person-to-person” contact with potential moviegoers. “The goal is really helping us speak to the consumer directly.”

That doesn’t mean she has turned off TV. Warner Bros. has advertised “Tenet” on ESPN’s NBA broadcasts and “SportsCenter,” CNN’s coverage of the Democratic National Convention,  and CBS’ “Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” according to data from iSpotTV, a tracker of ad spending and ad placement.  The company estimates Warner Brothers has spent around $951,000 on such advertising.  Some movie-studios see these figures as directional indicators rather than an absolute representation of actual ad spend.

Rich says she is looking at “focused” linear buys for “Tenet” that can reach a lot of audience, but be purchased efficiently. Rapper Travis Scott debuted a song he had on the movie’s soundtrack last week during a telecast of an NBA game on TNT – also part of WarnerMedia. Such “synergistic” plans may also be of more use going forward, she suggests.

To be sure, the studios (or the companies that own them) may be spending TV-ad money for other purposes. TV viewers in recent months have seen ads for the debut of a taping of the play “Hamilton” on Disney Plus and the availability of first-run movies on video-on-demand, as was the case for Universal’s “The King of Staten Island.” Ads touting the availability of Disney’s”Mulan” for streaming soon have recently gone into TV rotation.

Intriguingly, the TV networks have only one entity to blame for any movie-advertising morass: their parent companies. Four of the biggest-spending movie studios are owned by one of the big entertainment conglomerates, which also own the TV operations. Universal is part of Comcast’s NBCUniversal. Warner Brothers is part of AT&T’s WarnerMedia, owner of the Turner cable outlets.  Walt Disney Pictures and 20th Century Studios are part of same entertainment giant that owns ABC, ESPN and Disney Channel.  If the companies that own TV aren’t willing to spend money to advertise on it, who will?