Only in Theaters? Not Anymore

Comcast Plans to Supply New Movies on Demand During Opening Weekend

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LOS ANGELES ( -- Last week was supposed to be movie theaters' moment to bask in the sun, but rascally Steve Burke, chief operating officer of Comcast, all but ruined it.
Mark Cuban, owner of Landmark Theaters, says he would support Comcast's plan as long as there were a $30-to-$60 premium and theaters received a portion of pay-per-view sales. | ALSO: Comment on this article in the 'Your Opinion' box below.
Mark Cuban, owner of Landmark Theaters, says he would support Comcast's plan as long as there were a $30-to-$60 premium and theaters received a portion of pay-per-view sales. | ALSO: Comment on this article in the 'Your Opinion' box below. Credit: Lisa O'Connor

Mr. Burke told a gaggle of reporters at the Cable Show in Las Vegas that the nation's biggest cable company, Comcast, planned to offer Hollywood's biggest movies on pay-per-view cable the same day they appeared in theaters. "You can imagine a situation where we put 'Spider-Man' concomitant with the opening weekend for $30 or $40 or $50," Mr. Burke said.

Two days later, the Los Angeles sun blazed down on Ad Age's Marquee Marketing at the Movies conference, but cinema-ad-sales execs weren't basking; they were foaming. Onstage, they wanted to wax poetic about "leveraging the cinema experience," but the hot topic in the lobby of AMC's Century City multiplex was how Mr. Burke's plan might gouge their advertising revenue.

Connecting with the disgusted
Mr. Burke insisted day and date pay-per-view would serve only to boost theatrical receipts -- finally connecting new films with the disgusted (those tired of lousy prints, talkers and cellphones) and the overwhelmed (the millions of parents of young kids who can't imagine getting to the movies on a Friday night).

As the conference got under way, Nick Chavez, Yahoo's senior director-brand advertising, seemed to prove Mr. Burke's point, if inadvertently. As Mr. Chavez introduced a Yahoo in-cinema ad screened for the conference's attendees, he said: "I have 2-and-a-half-year-old and 5-month-old sons at home, so this is the first time I've actually seen the Yahoo spot in a theater."

Cinema advertising may well be "the uninvited guest" in the theater -- as Cliff Marks, president of the Cinema Advertising Council, put it -- but it's not necessarily the unwanted guest. Arbitron's 2007 Cinema Advertising Study found that while moviegoers are twice as likely to use a "commercial avoidance device" (that is, a TiVo or DVR), they're also, paradoxically, less likely to dislike in-cinema commercials. Two-thirds of adults 18 to 34 say they don't mind cinema ads. For kids 12-17, the rate of acceptance jumps to 74%.

Two opening weekends
But the cinema-advertising folks were a mite testy at the suggestion of sharing opening weekend with anyone armed with a remote control and a TiVo. "70% of our audience is under 30," said Jason Brown, exec VP of Screenvision. "If they're not downloading movies, it's a total counterargument. There's not enough appetite." But a reporter pointed out: "If movies aren't even available for download on opening weekend, how can you say that?"

If cinema-ad-sales execs seem disenchanted by the idea of the living room as movie theater, try talking to the exhibitors.

"They're trying to take away the magic, the luster of the movie-going experience," said Bob Laemmle, owner of the 44-screen Laemmle Theaters chain in Los Angeles. "There's a lot of money involved in running a theater; we're opposed to anything that takes customers away."

Higher price point possible
But not all theater owners see doom. Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of Landmark Theaters, told AdAge in an e-mail interview, "I love it as long as the pricing is at the premium $30-to-$60 level and theaters share in the take." He added: "A high price point makes going to the movies a better bargain. Sharing 25% of the revenue rewards the theaters for creating value for the VOD showing. I think it's a great win-win opportunity."

Adam Fogelson, president of marketing for Universal Pictures, was similarly sanguine about Mr. Burke's revolutionary proposal. "There are people who aren't going to the movies, who aren't part of the international dialogue about what just happened opening weekend, but who want to be," Mr. Fogelson said, adding that the arrival of opening weekend pay-per-view could change that overnight.

But, he said, noting the clutch of cinema-advertising suits well within earshot, "No solution was ever predicated on people not going to movie theaters. I can have my dinner delivered from any restaurant in L.A. But I still go to restaurants -- a lot."
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