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You don't go to the movies a lot anymore. Ticket prices have neared or exceeded $10, and most Hollywood fare seems painted-by-numbers. Comedies aren't funny, action movies bull through plots a television psychic could forecast, and “family� flicks are long ads for toys and video games. But you make an exception for Sunshine State, the latest ensemble parable from indie auteur John Sayles. The tale of the inevitable creep of corporate culture and profit finagling into even the most remote hamlets in the country surely will be an oasis of pristine storytelling in a universe of contrivance and snake oil.

But it's not. Eight minutes prior to show time, the lights dim and a rumble churns in the Dolby surround sound system, building to a roar. It's some NASCAR driver promoting Coke. Then more rumbling and rolling, and it's an ad for NASCAR. Then it's Kobe Bryant promoting Sprite, made by Coke.

Coke and NASCAR have shrugged off the hisses and grumbles that greet their advertising, but it's not what one might call a nurturing environment for their brands. Nevertheless, though recently heading into the most concentrated blockbuster movie season of the year, the cash-strapped cineplex industry was dead set on delivering more screen time for advertisers. The nation's biggest film exhibitor, Knoxville, Tenn.-based Regal Entertainment Group — operator of Regal, United Artists and Edwards chains, some 5,700 screens in all — went public last year, attempting to buoy its IPO with the promised assets of a digital technology web touted as the most sophisticated ad sales and placement network in the movie business. Regal and other exhibitors have been putting their brains together with those of their partners in Hollywood to press ahead with a digital switchover that, overall, should enhance theater owners' abilities to log and scroll a spate of ads and get them in front of the right people. “[Digital distribution] is going to revolutionize advertising in this business,� says Todd Siegel, senior vice president of sales and marketing at New York-based Screenvision Cinema Network, which brokers ad sales on 13,500 screens across the country, including those of Loews, Carmike and Cinemark.

Therein lies the problem for a raft of critics of the medium, such as Ralph Nader's Consumers Union and a new group calling itself the Captive Motion Picture Audience of America (CMPAA). Audiences had come to expect “coming attractions� trailers prior to films, but turning the big screen into a cross-category ad medium didn't happen until the mid-1990s. Such pioneers as Screenvision began pitching advertisers as the cable and new media explosion shortened attention spans and siphoned readers and viewers away from print and TV destinations. Whereas ABC, CBS and NBC garnered 55 percent of prime-time TV viewers 10 years ago, the “Big Three� now claim only 33 percent, prompting advertisers to look to new venues to get their messages in front of consumers.

The '90s, however, also witnessed a building explosion in the movie theater business. As megaplexes cropped up across an already sprawling suburbia, the nation's screen count increased 58 percent between 1996 and 2000. The public's attendance couldn't keep pace, and by the summer of 2001, eight of the 10 largest exhibitor chains were in bankruptcy. So to keep their vast tracts of “plexes� afloat, more and more are counting on exploiting their real estate as media.

According to Regal's online media kit, two-thirds of Americans attend one movie or more a month, 61 percent of its audience falls in the 18-to-49 age group, and 54 percent of moviegoers are from households with incomes of $50,000 or more. Based on June 2001 numbers, Screenvision's research shows that its screens reach 12.8 million 12- to 17-year-olds and 21.5 million 18- to 34-year-olds per month. By comparison, The WB network, drawing solid numbers on its youth-magnet Tuesday night, scored an average 4.15 rating among viewers 12 to 34 for its October 22, 2002, showings of Gilmore Girls and Smallville. With each ratings point equal to 1,067,000 TV households, over a month of Tuesdays, at that same rate, the network still garners only 17.7 million viewers ages 12 to 34 — and that's early in the season, before reruns erode viewership.

The American Cinema Advertising Network, a San Jose, Calif.-based movie ad sales firm, sums up the appeal of the movies to advertisers: An audience “relaxed and in a receptive mood is sitting in a darkened auditorium facing a larger-than-life-size screen with nothing to do but watch your ad.� And in terms of recall, consumers remember cinema ads better than TV ads: 43 percent of moviegoers recall ads they saw onscreen, unaided, versus 6 percent for TV, per Screenvision's crunching of numbers from Lieberman Research and Zenith Media.

Derided as it is, it's one of those cases of ad-creep that marketers hope inches its way into broad, if shrugging, acceptance among consumers. And by Screenvision's measure, there are signs that it's already happening: 88 percent of moviegoers who watched on-screen commercials liked them (58 percent) or were neutral (30 percent), based on 14 exit studies conducted in 2000 and 2001 by Certified Reports, Inc., a field retail evaluation firm in Kinderhook, N.Y. “Numbers get very close to 100 percent in the teenage demographic, and shrink to the low 60s with adults 55 plus,� Siegel says.

Other measures aren't so definitive. According to New York City-based research firm RoperASW, between 1996 and 2000 — the most recent year the issue was broached — the percentage of the public that found in-cinema advertising “acceptable� dropped to 31 percent from 42 percent, and more people expressly found it “annoying� — 37 percent in 2000, up from 27 percent in 1996. By comparison, the traditional nadir of annoying advertising in Roper's studies, magazine scent strips, also gets 37 percent thumbs-down from consumers. As of August 2002, 75 percent of Americans felt advertising (in general) had overproliferated to the point where one couldn't “get away from it,� that sentiment up from 66 percent in 1998. “It doesn't mean you can't advertise in a movie, but it does mean that the barrier is much higher, so you have to be a lot more movie-like,� says Jon Berry, senior vice president at Roper. That certainly is the goal, Siegel says: “As these commercials add to the experience — with drama, humor, high production value — the objections shrink.�

The question is: Does consumer grumbling even matter? Given the sweeping economic woes in the exhibitor industry, it doesn't seem likely that theater operators are going to walk away from such a potentially lucrative revenue source. Moreover, because this industry — like so many others — has undergone consolidation, few people will be able to “vote with their wallets� and walk across the street to an ad-free theater.

If it is inevitable, digital technology at least offers the pushbutton wherewithal for advertisers to better tailor their creative work to specific audiences. Ads for the U.S. military will certainly play better with viewers of the heartfelt war flicks so in vogue these days than they will with an Oliver Stone film. Coke will likely appear across many screens, but its Dolby-roar NASCAR tie might play better with an Adam Sandler movie than Sunshine State. And then there are the attendees of a Jerry Bruckheimer-produced action opus, who will buy pretty much anything.

Advertising isn't inherently bad, but few things grate more than someone making a pitch and doing it badly. When compared with the perception of an earnest businessman who genuinely wants to make your life better, the hackneyed pitch exposes the hollow nature of the whole process, that he'll say anything to anyone just to get your money — and that hardly leads to “purchase intent.� Unaided recall is one thing, fond remembrance still another.

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