Movie theater advertisers return to the big screen, but audience will take time to rebuild
After months of being dark, brands including Mars, Ford and Heineken returned to movie theater screens this weekend.
The opening weekend of the new Christopher Nolan film, “Tenet,” provided the first glimpse into the state of the U.S. movie theater business for advertisers in the pandemic era.
The film brought in $20 million at the box office, less than Nolan’s other flicks. But NCM and Screenvision, which sell ad inventory on movie theater screens, say the Labor Day box office shows moviegoers are excited to get back to theaters—but audiences will still take time to rebuild.
“There is no expectation that ‘Tenet’ or anything in these coming weeks will open the way things used to open. We will see longer runs and more consistent viewership week over week,” says Katy Loria, chief revenue officer, Screenvision.
Still, "Tenet" is the third-highest Labor Day opening of all time, with reports of some moviegoers even flying to states where theaters are open to see it.
During the rebuilding, NCM it is working with advertisers to plan campaigns accordingly and right-size audience levels.
While 70 percent of domestic theaters were open this weekend, according to data from NCM, capacity is limited and theaters in some major cities including, New York and Los Angeles, remain shuttered. Even without a full reopen and trepidation among moviegoers over the safety of returning to the theater, there’s demand from advertisers to be on screens.
Mars, Unilever’s Dove, Progressive, Ford, AT&T and Heineken were among the brands who returned to NCM this weekend, while Screenvision featured 15 brands, including one new advertiser for the company, Allbirds.
Matt VanDyke, director of U.S. marketing at Ford, says the automaker struck deals with both Screenvision and NCM during the calendar upfronts, and that its current advertising is part of those commitments. Ford will use movie screens to feature a new brand campaign debuting this month.
“They have been great to work with,” VanDyke says, but moving into next year Ford will reassess the impact of the pandemic on audience size.
Similar to other media, advertisers are asking for flexibility in ad deals with movie theaters, Loria says. In some cases, this means if Screenvision doesn’t deliver a certain level of key audiences by a certain date, it will relieve a brand from its ad commitment.
More high-profile debuts
With TV networks delaying the return of much of their scripted primetime series until later this fall, Scott Felenstein, chief revenue officer, NCM, says there’s an opportunity for movie theaters to bring in viewers with fresh content. Several high-profile film debuts are scheduled through the end of the year, including “Wonder Woman 1984” and “Black Widow.”
While live sports have returned, in most cases viewers can’t actually attend a game, making movie theaters one of the few places for people to go for a night out, Felenstein says.
And as more viewers shifted to watching content on streaming platforms , Felenstein says advertisers are eager to find hard-to-reach audiences who aren’t watching content on linear TV.
Movie theater have been looking to woo TV advertisers for some time, making the case that theatergoers aren’t distracted by their devices as they are at home—and can’t skip through the commercials.
Shutdown in March
Movie theaters shut down in the U.S. in March as the coronavirus swept across the country. At the same time, Hollywood studios postponed the release of many big-budget movies, while others decided to release films direct-to-consumer through pay-TV operators and streaming platforms. Walt Disney opted to release its live-action remake of “Mulan” on Disney+ this weekend, while Universal Studios released its “Trolls’” sequel outside of the theater in the spring.
Felenstein believes that in order for the majority of big films to make money, they need to have a theatrical debut and run in theaters for a stretch of time. While he acknowledges the windowing agreements will likely change, he expects it to mostly impact mid-tier releases being moved off theater screens and onto streaming sooner than they typically would.
While both Screenvision and NCM are optimistic movie theater business will pick up, both companies are thinking beyond the big screens and diversifying business in case viewers don’t return in a meaningful way, or if theaters need to be closed again.
NCM is looking at other potential screens it could represent, as well as for media that’s complementary to its audience and would align with its business on the big screen, Felenstein says.
Similarly, Screenvision struck a deal with Volta, giving it access to 1,300 ad-supported electric vehicle charging stations in retail, grocery, sport venues and movie theater parking lots. And it is looking for opportunities to strike similar deals.
Staying connected to customers
Both companies are both tapping their troves of data about moviegoers to help brands reach them outside of theaters.
Screenvision did its first deal with marketers to put ads in front of moviegoers when they are watching TV on connected platform, Loria says. And NCM is also allowing advertisers to reach movie fans they might not have reached on the silver screen.
NCM also released its Noovie Trivia app earlier this month, giving it another platform to sell in the marketplace.
But both companies say movie theaters will continue to account for the lion’s share of their business.
“We are encouraged and optimistic, with a healthy dose of caution, that we are finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” says John Partilla, CEO, Screenvision.