Cinema-ad lawsuit could chill business

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A class-action suit against Loews Cineplex Entertainment Group, alleging it falsely states a start time for films and instead first shows commercials, threatens to broaden to other theater chains. If the suit prevails, it could have a chilling effect on the $250 million in-theater ad business.

The suit complains that moviegoers are misled by start times and forced to watch pre-film commercials. Douglas Litowitz, the Portland, Ore., attorney handling the suit, said an 8 p.m. start time for a film may be delayed from one to four minutes by spots, followed by another 14 minutes of movie trailers. However, he said trailers are not at issue.

Mr. Litowitz cited as offenders Cingular Wireless, Internet movie service Fandango and Coca-Cola Co. "Coca-Cola is the most bothersome," he said. Coca-Cola had no comment.

`without merit'

The suit seeks an injunction forcing Loews to let filmgoers know what time ads will run and what time movies will start, already a common practice in parts of Europe.

"This lawsuit is frivolous and completely without merit," said a Loews spokesman. "The moviegoing public has come to expect this type of content prior to viewing the main feature."

Mr. Litowitz said he is "collecting data" against other chains including Regal Entertainment Group, the largest U.S. theater owner. A spokeswoman for Regal CineMedia, Regal's ad unit, said, "we are in the process of converting our theaters to digital distribution," which will "move the non-trailer movie commercials in our non-digital theaters prior to advertised show times."

Regal CineMedia, Screenvision and National Cinema Network represent about 77% of all in-cinema advertising. But these groups don't have a say when the advertising runs, according to theater executives. However, Laura Adler, VP-marketing at NCN, said, "NCN has always been respectful of moviegoers' experience and that is why all of our prefeature ads run prior to the scheduled showtime." A Screenvision representative declined to comment.

Still, Mr. Litowitz said ad reps' Web sites often tout their "captive" audiences, something that irks him and consumers. "There is no mute button."

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