The cinema advertising business is getting ready for prime time. A television term in reference to cinema' It may not seem apt but the market is heading in that direction. The roll-out of digital projection worldwide could create a single global living room, and with it opportunities for brands to target an international cohort.
Imagine a simultaneous day-and-date release of a tentpole picture on 10,000 theatrical screens around the world. Imagine the ability to put a brand before all those faces staring up expectantly at a screen. It is like a cinematic Superbowl but with, according to claims of cinema advertisers, four to six times the recall.
As digital projectors become more commonplace, exhibitors will present pre-show programming not unlike television programmes, with entertainment, infotainment and, of course, commercials, says Stu Ballatt, chairman and president of the US Cinema Advertising Council (CAC).
The similarities to broadcasting do not stop there: just as digital can free distributors from the tyranny and expense of bulky celluloid reels, so are advertisers freed. The logistics of tracking so many commercial reels made minimum play periods a necessity - in the UK, the minimum advertising commitment was a week. With digital comes flexibility and the chance to sell premium spots, says Ian Cartwright, creative solutions account director at the UK's Carlton Screen Advertising. Presumably the converse would hold true: much like specialty channels in the cable spectrum, independent films could attract specialty advertisers.
But this being advertising, the mob rules. Those same expectant faces overwhelmingly inhabit the sought-after 17-25 year-old demographic, according to Salah Bachir, president of Cineplex Media, the largest cinema advertiser in Canada. Tech-literate, they tune out TV, they do not read newspapers and they frequent cinemas more than most. They have disposable income and they are not killing time before a TV; they are literally waiting to be entertained.
There lies cinema advertising's greatest hurdle and, to a small degree, that which will keep it honest.
Cinema advertising has a reputation to uphold. Like the much-hyped Superbowl commercials, advertisements made for cinema audiences are not the bog-standard advert of workaday television. The ads cannot just sell soap, they must entertain.
Last year, Carlton Screen Advertising introduced interactive games to UK cinemas using a technology that allows audiences in different cinemas to direct the movement of an animated Volvo by waving their arms.
What qualifies as entertainment is a matter of cinema-going culture. Perhaps it was to be expected that in the US, the country where television was built on the back of commercials, cinema advertising is a tougher sell; whereas in the UK, the nation where public broadcasting was born and television advertising was limited for decades, cinema advertising is seen as part of the show.
There are signs of weakening resistance in North America but exhibitors are wary of pushing audience boundaries. UK cinema patrons have been exposed to all manner of pitches, including live actors performing adverts within a cinema, says Cineplex's Bachir, "[whereas] we try to stay away from the inside of the auditorium. We want to preserve the sanctity of the motion picture experience." (See sidebar, right.)
CAC's Ballatt agrees: "Cinema owners and advertising sellers have a vested interest in keeping the entertainment value high." Similarly, ad sellers have an interest in keeping advertisers interested. While the idea of selling premium spots is intriguing, Carlton's Cartwright wonders if it is feasible given the flip-side. "It's a small medium and selling quieter periods may be tricky."
And what about peace and quiet - will more and more ads turn-off audiences' Ballatt does not think exhibitors will ever kill the goose that lays the golden egg. "Though the dollars generated through advertising are important, they are not close to the film or concession levels. Cinema advertising only lives between the ending of one film and the beginning of the next. So there's an inherent limit in the quantity of ad time."
Ballatt puts it another way: roughly 1.5 billion tickets were sold in the US last year. At an average of $10 a ticket and $3 at the concession stand, that makes nearly $20bn. The entire US cinema advertising industry is worth about $500m. "It's nothing to sneeze at, but it's not 50%," he says.
ALTERNATIVE ADVERTISING FOR ALTERNATIVE CONTENT'
If an exhibitor presents alternative content, is there a temptation to exploit that alternative audience' Not really, says Stu Ballatt, chairman and president of the US Cinema Advertising Council. "Advertising in alternative content is primarily a sponsorship participation. In that way, they engage the audience. But the nature of it is single execution. The audience for that one day is small relative to the 50 million you might reach through traditional cinema advertising."
That said, alternative content such as Bollywood films on North American screens also creates an opportunity. Toronto, New York and New Jersey have specialised advertising aimed at the ethnicity of the audience.
Cinemas are keen to leverage the advertising opportunities within the cinema environment: banners, drinking cups, popcorn bags, facials in the lobby presented by a cosmetic brand. Cineplex Entertainment even found a novel usage for a long staircase. Each of the 75 stairs leading up to Cineplex's Scotiabank Cinema in downtown Toronto features a game date of the Toronto Raptors basketball team, representing the entire season, transforming a long, boring environment into a revenue source.
As the cinema's name attests, the advertising opportunities expand to the building itself and beyond. Cineplex and the Bank of Nova Scotia entered a naming relationship that sees the bank's Scotiabank moniker on several sites across Canada. Meanwhile the bank and Cineplex entered a 50/50 joint venture to create Scene, a frequent movie-goer's loyalty programme with the bank offering branded credit and debit cards.
Scene has far outstripped its first year target of 500,000 members, reaching 600,000 wallets in its first six months. Patrons (or 'guests', as Cineplex likes to call them) fill out a profile and the bank and exhibitor mine the data. Scene's benefits soon make themselves apparent. When Transformers (pictured) was released in its Imax version, the company alerted target patrons who lived within a 25km radius of an Imax screen showing the film. Those cinemas took 15% more business than a control group.
Cineplex president Ellis Jacob says: "It's amazing what you can do when you communicate with your guests."