Marketers step up in-cinema efforts

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Popcorn bags will talk to you, theater screens will ask questions that you can answer in real time by text message, and video-game-enabled cellphones stationed in the lobby will let you duel with fellow moviegoers.

It's not the plot of Hollywood's latest futuristic thriller. It's a multiplex near you, where brands are reaching into every inch of the cinema environment with stepped-up levels of marketing that go well beyond on-screen ads and lobby standees. Not only are brands deepening their commitment, they are testing more innovative ways to impress the entertainment-loving consumer.

captive audience

Revlon recently launched a two-minute minimovie with actresses Halle Berry and Julianne Moore, and Cingular Wireless set up cellphone lounges in Loews theater lobbies. BMG hyped the 50th anniversary of rock `n' roll and the release of new Elvis DVDs with a one-night-only screening of the iconic `"68 Comeback Special" in Regal Cinemas, and Discovery Networks' Discovery Kids has created a five-minute animated short to run before its sponsored Free Family Film Festival. Circuit City, Radio Shack and Hewlett-Packard will air on-screen ads for the first time, and fragrance advertisers are sniffing around the area in growing numbers, underscoring the importance of the captive movie audience.

"Against the backdrop of all the noise and all the fragmentation, it's a place where people actually pay attention," says Howard Handler, chief marketing officer for Virgin Mobile USA. "And at this time of year, what teenager isn't hanging out at the multiplex?"

Virgin Mobile sponsored a live simulcast of the recent MTV Movie Awards, inviting its customers for a free evening of entertainment and giveaways in 15 markets. A related sweepstakes sent a winner to the awards show in Los Angeles.

Overall, media spending in theaters has increased 37% to $356.1 million in 2003, up from the previous year's $259.3 million, according to figures released recently by the Cinema Advertising Council. Spending in theater lobbies jumped by 79% to $51.4 million. Though it's still a fraction of marketers' ad spending, less than 1% of the total, it's one of the quickest-growing segments. It also has sky-high recall rates.

`breakdown in resistance'

"We've seen a breakdown in resistance to buying cinema advertising category by category," says Matthew Kearney, cinema ad service Screenvision's CEO and current CAC president .

Screenvision's corporate-solutions group helped spawn the idea for a "talking" popcorn bag that, when a strip is removed, will tell moviegoers if they've won a prize. Another in-the-works program is real-time, text-message trivia games, to be backed by an advertiser. Now in theaters is a Nokia promotion, for its N-Gage QD model, which places the gaming phones in lobbies so that moviegoers can have a hands-on experience.

Discovery Kids, in addition to its custom short for its Free Family Film Festival, will promote via popcorn trays and co-branded local TV and radio ads. The festival at Regal Cinemas shows kid-appropriate movies on weekday mornings.

The Convex Group's LidRock, which gives free samples of music and video games on CD-ROMs attached to soda-cup lids, adds marketing partners for the first time. United Online's NetZero and Farequest Holdings' 1800cheapseats.com have put consumer offers on the Janet Jackson LidRock being doled out in Regal theaters this summer.

Theater executives say the marketing partnerships have to be based on added value for the consumer. "We bear a huge responsibility not to turn this marketing experience into a circus," says Cliff Marks, Regal CineMedia's president-marketing and sales. "We walk a fine line between strategic marketing and burdening the consumer. We have to keep the patrons happy."

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