March 10, 2004

What The Market Will Bear: The NASCARization of Movies

mo•vie the•a•ter (MOO-vee THEE-a-tur) n. A specialized fast-food restaurant having two distinguishing traits: 1) charges prices much higher than competing fast-food restaurants, and 2) provides, instead of tables and chairs at which customers can eat and drink, darkened auditorums showing filmed entertainment that customers must also pay a fee for before they can buy their food and drinks

For years that's been my definition of the typical movie theater in the United States. Looks like the time has come to change that definition, but not for the better.

Twelve years ago, my wife and I went to Paris on a business trip. We were very jetlagged from the long flight and after a long walk around parts of the city, we decided to catch a movie. We found a huge cinema on the Champs d'Elysees that must've had 2500 seats. The lights dimmed. The commercials began. These were major productions, some lasting several minutes. And at the end, the ad revealed what product (Shell gas, Coca-Cola, whatever) you were supposed to buy. We marveled at how many ads there were. The movie didn't start for nearly thirty minutes after the lights dimmed. It was a first for us: we'd never had this kind of movie experience before back in the States, despite the fact that we were frequent moviegoers.

Just recently on CBS's 60 Minutes TV program, Andy Rooney had a segment on what he called Those Maddening Movie Ads. From his essay:

There ought to be a law that a movie theater has to say exactly what time the show starts. If we want advertising, we'll stay home and watch it for free on television.

(I can sympathize with Andy. However I'm not sure such a law would work, since there'd be no seats left if you showed up 24 minutes past "show time".)

The AMC Experience
I generally loathe the AMC Theatres chain of megaplexes. They're by far, in my experience, the most crassly commercial theatres. While from a business perspective I am able to marvel at how well they are able to monetize every second of the moviegoing experience (from the moment you approach the exterior of one of their megaplexes, Movie Tunes urban contemporary country and western music blaring from outdoor speakers, to the concessions, gift certificates, pre-show ads, post-show games) for that very reason I make a point of avoiding AMC at all costs.

I made the mistake of going last night to the local AMC to see Starsky & Hutch (awful movie, imho: Aykroyd & Hanks' Dragnet -- even Police Academy -- is brilliant filmmaking in comparison). But the thing I marveled at the most in this AMC filmgoing experience was the ads.

Not one. Not two. Not three. Not four. Not five. Not six. But seven commercial advertisements after the lights dimmed. Or was it eight . . .

  • An ad announcing the availability of a new DVD of the film comedy Duplex. Own it today!

  • An ad that mimics typical thriller/horror flicks but turns out to be a spot for Colgate toothpaste

  • Tiger Woods in the same Caddyshack spoof shown during the recent Oscars TV show. Turns out to be an American Express ad.

  • An ad for large Hersheys chocolate bars.

  • An ad for the Scion SUV.

  • An ad for Eclipse breath mints

  • An ad for Coca-Cola featuring NASCAR drivers racing radio-controlled toy NASCAR cars.

  • An ad for

  • And finally a house ad for AMC Theatres Gift Certificiates

And then about six previews for upcoming films were shown, followed by . . . another ad:

  • A fake submarine movie scene that turns out to be a plea from AMC to turn off your cell phones so others can enjoy the movie. AMC even has the cojones at this point to show "Silence Is Golden" with a registered trademark symbol after it. But then they show you that this public service announcement was brought to you by Best Buy, Sprint, and a third company whose logo I don't remember.

I thought about Andy Rooney's essay while I dealt with the commercials shown on the screen, and thought, "what the market will bear...". Theory goes that in a free-market economy, merchants try all kinds of things to make money and if they're successful, they discover what the market's willing to put up with and what they're not willing to put up with, and the merchants then pursue profit strategies focused on what the market will put up with.

Question: why do we, the market, put up with these ads? Like Rooney says, "At least on television, you get to watch network shows free in exchange for being advertised at. None of us like it, but it's a deal we accept. You get 60 Minutes for nothing, but you have to watch 15 minutes of advertising."

I paid $9 to see Starsky & Hutch. I didn't pay $9 to see Starsky & Hutch and over a half-dozen commercials.

Rooney asks, "Don't they understand that's what we go to a movie to get away from - commercials?"

I don't think most people go to movies to get away from commercials. I fear that most people don't know the difference anymore between what's a commercial and what isn't. (Have you noticed how ads are popping up during television shows?)

Next time you go to a movie theatre, look around and study what people are wearing. Study what you are wearing. How many items of clothing do you see that have corporate logos and slogans on them? From our Nike shoes to our Major League Baseball hat: we are walking commercials already, just less brazen than the logo-saturated uniforms NASCAR drivers wear. At least for now.

Oh yeah: I just remembered. The very first thing they showed when the lights dimmed down was one of those propoganda pieces run by the MPAA. Got me thinking: when are the copyright holders going to start respecting consumers? It's no wonder people are copying music and movies for free. At least they don't have to watch the ads!

One more thing. This blog was brought to you by Google AdSense.

UPDATE 2pm PST 10 March 2004:

Surfing through AMC Theatres' corporate pages is enlightening. Some items:

  • The company's mission statement: AMC’s Mission — to provide the best possible moviegoing experience — has driven AMC to set the high standards for performance that others attempt to follow.

  • On their trademarked "Silence is Golden" campaign: AMC's Silence Is Golden® “Silence is Golden” is AMC’s proactive national program aimed at providing a distraction-free moviegoing experience. A pre-feature trailer asks our guests to please not “spoil the movie by adding your own soundtrack.” AMC has created other entertaining trailers to express this important message. The program has received overwhelmingly positive response from guests.

AMC's NCN subsidiary is the firm responsible for the commercials one sees before the movies. Be sure to read this page. Hell, here it is in full:

Advertising with NCN
Whether launching a new product or promotion or increasing brand awareness consistently in the marketplace, national, regional and local clients come back to NCN over and over again for the results they're looking for. This section highlights NCN's client list, as well as its top advertising categories.

Auto branding at its best.
Spinning your wheels with traditional ad vehicles? Steer your brand toward cinema media - there's no better place to build brand loyalties for life. At the movies, you'll reach first time car buyers, parents buying their first "family car", and older adults who are high-end, luxury consumers.

One-Stop shopping for captive moviegoers.
Fashion. Music. Language. Movies shape our culture. Teens and young adults are influenced by the images on the big screen - your brand can be there too!

Get a return on your media investment - at the movies.
People go to movies throughout all phases of their lives. From the time they open their first bank account, apply for their first college loan or mortgage, or set-up their retirement fund, people are influenced by the images they see at the movies.

When you talk to our audience, they listen.
Moviegoers are captivated by the images they see at the movies. There's no better place to build brand loyalty or support your brand's promotions than at the movies. Where else can you reach friends who are together, boyfriends and girlfriends, parents and grandparents - all in one place?

NCN's menu delivers the right audience at the right price.
If you're craving teens and young adult consumers, take your message to the movies. There's no better place to build lifetime brand loyalty. At the movies you'll reach kids who are developing their tastes and brand preferences, parents looking for "meals-on-the-run" and older adults looking for a night out.

And be sure read their Annual Reports, where you'll learn such goodies as:

"The AMC BRAND is the embodiment of our commitment to guest satisfaction."

"The AMC brand is a single and uniform retail brand. The AMC brand is recognized by consumers in the marketplace as the embodiment of our commitment to guest satisfaction and our continuing invitation for moviegoers to 'Experience the Difference' at AMC."

There's only one problem: it is this very difference (commercial ads, brazen monetization, overpriced concessions) that one must endure at AMC that makes AMC stand out. Where is the value? Is this "difference" something the company really wants to be proud of?

Posted by brian at March 10, 2004 10:43 AM


Found your blog while browsing I'm glad I did. I really enjoyed this post. I've stopped going to the mega-corp theater chains, and commercials happen to be one of the main reasons. I prefer Landmark and Madstone because one gets quality movies and the commercials are usually only previews. It's bad enough that branding has become an essential part of the movie-making process, but to force us to sit through a half-dozen commercials is downright absurd.

You might want to check this out:

I also detest any movie over two hours that doesn't have a brief intermission for those of us w/ a) weak bladders or b) smoke. I know the latter isn't exactly being catered to anywhere anymore, but hey, we pay our taxes, too.

But I ramble...

Posted by: Jeff at March 11, 2004 08:13 PM

I'm glad I found your post. It was very enlightening. The only problem I had was your comment " (I can sympathize with Andy. However I'm not sure such a law would work, since there'd be no seats left if you showed up 24 minutes past "show time".) "
The "show time" IS when the movie should start, with or without ads. If your AMC starts after that showtime, it is not the ads fault, it is the movie theatre's fault, and you should complain (heck, you'll probably get a free pass and everything).
See, with the system that AMC has, the show time they give you (i.e. the one on the marquee), is the time they should start. however, even before the pre-ad days, sometimes movies start early or late. (all the projection booth operator's fault, btw. bastards.) Anyway, the ads are a part of the AMC program called the 'Pre-Show Countdown'. They go on for a few minutes and replace the 'Pre-Show Slides'. You know, the slides, the ones with local restaunt ads, or random trivia, or coca-cola ads, etc. Yeah, those. Anywho, the only thing you're missing are the slides. I know, it's I sad thing.

Posted by: Tiffany at May 8, 2004 08:14 PM

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