Sunday, May 25, 2003

Ads leave audiences grumbling

To many, they're no big deal, but some are taking legal action

By Margaret A. McGurk
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Not long ago, a young woman slumped in her seat at the Esquire theater for 10 minutes with her right arm extended and middle finger held high.

It was not the evening's feature, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, that provoked her gesture. It was the pre-show screening of The Hire: Beat The Devil, a short adventure directed by Tony Scott (Top Gun). The credited star was Clive Owen, but in fact it was an expensive, star-powered showcase for BMW cars, as are all eight The Hire shorts.

Most in-theater commercials don't bother to cloak their TV origins. And with fans flocking to theaters to sample the summer's cinema crop, those ads are stacking up.

No Movie Ads - Web site about the class-action lawsuit against Loew's Cineplex Entertainment Group.
Captive Movie Audience of America contains a petition addressed to Regal Cinemas and other exhibitors.
A fan site that includes a list of movie theaters that do not show TV-style ads.
Bad Ads - A Weblog aimed at intrusive advertising, including telemarketing and junk faxes.
This Web site urges boycott of products advertised in movie-theater commercials.
Commercial Alert - A non-profit organization critical of many aspects of advertising; its supporters include Ralph Nader.
Screenvision Cinema Network , large advertising network that places commercials in theaters, along with slides and other promotions.
To voice your opinions about pre-movie commercials, you've got to know the exhibitors' numbers:
Newport on the Levee:
AMC Theatres
P.O. Box 725489
Atlanta, GA 31139-9923
Toll-free (877) AMC-4450
Showcase Cinemas:
National Amusements Inc.
200 Elm St.
Dedham, MA 02026
Showplace 8 and Cinema 10:
Kerasotes Theatres
104 N. Sixth St.
Springfield, IL 62701
Great Escape 14 and Princess Oxford:
Alliance Entertainment
821 Mount Tabor Road
New Albany, IN 47150
Esquire and Mariemont:
Theatre Management Co.
7 W. Seventh St., Suite 1800
Cincinnati, OH 45202
Danbarry Middletown:
Danbarry Cinemas Management
105 W. Fourth St.
Cincinnati, OH 45202
New West Chester multiplex (opening June 27):
Rave Motion Pictures
3333 Welborn St., Suite 100
Dallas TX 75219
Jennifer Spurlock counted eight commercials - for the U.S. Marines, American Express credit card and XBox video game, among others - when she went to see X2: X-Men United. That did not include six "coming attractions" trailers and the theater's courtesy announcement reminding patrons not to smoke, talk or let their pagers beep.

"I always thought of going to the theater as an escape from the norm," said Spurlock, a 31-year-old Liberty Hill resident who works at the Cincinnati Art Museum. "I'm paying good money not to watch television.

Miriam Fisch, a Chicago schoolteacher, was so annoyed at seeing commercials for Coca-Cola and Cingular Wireless before a screening of The Quiet American that she hired a lawyer.

Her complaint against the Loew's chain has been expanded to a class-action suit; it claims that theaters commit fraud and breach of contract when they run ads after the advertised starting time for a film. Loew's described the suit as "frivolous."

Local theaters report their listed starting times include coming-attractions trailers, but not rolling-stock commercials. National Amusements limits the ads to a maximum of 31/2 minutes.

"I don't believe it," said Nancy Barker of Sharonville, who estimated commercials and promotions took up a full half-hour at a screening of Harry Potter last fall. "It seems they are running at the start time. And there are more and more of them.

"I don't pay $9 per ticket to watch commercials that I turn off on my TV at home," she said. "I enjoy the previews, and I hate to miss them. ... So I usually just sit and zone out a little bit when (commercials) are showing."

Barker once complained to the management of the Showcase Cinemas Springdale and was referred to corporate headquarters, where she was told, "This is the way it's going to be and there will probably be more of it in the future," she said.

Exhibitors: Keeps prices down

In an industry still recovering from a wave of bankruptcies, exhibitors defend the ads as a revenue source that helps limit ticket prices. The president of the National Association of Theatre Owners estimated the average ticket price, now $7 nationwide, would rise to $12 without commercial income.

The BMW short came to the Esquire as part of a package deal offered by Microsoft to provide digital projection equipment to theaters; the car company has been producing the shorts since 2001, using renowned directors including John Woo, Guy Ritchie and Ang Lee.

Nonetheless, as the disgruntled Esquire patron demonstrated, some fans are intensely offended whenever TV-style commercials impinge on the movie-going experience.

Author upset

Kevin Murphy, author of A Year at The Movies (Harper Entertainment; $14.95), so despises in-theater commercials that he included a blank complaint form in the book, and urges readers to copy it for use whenever ads continue after a movie's advertised start time. He also advises waiting in the lobby while the ads run.

Murphy, best known as the voice of the robot Tom Servo on the TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000, said, "The horrible thing is that it works. People are so inured to advertising, they don't mind. ... It just lends itself to the whole stultifying experience of going to a giant multiplex to get your entertainment."

Even so, he said, he hopes "there are enough people who are conscious enough to be cheesed off when this happens" to stem the tide.

Yet, while fans gripe to one another about the phenomenon, relatively few complain to theater management. For instance, the company that manages The Esquire, which normally does not show any so-called "rolling stock" commercials, received only one complaint about The Hire.

"It bugs me to no end that we have to pay to see a film and then we're inundated with commercials," said Matt Hader, 42, a writer and producer from Madeira. "I don't see HBO or Showtime placing commercials on their channels. Promos, yes, but no commercials."

And yet, he said, "To date I have not complained to the manager or written an angry letter. It's just one of those everyday type of pet peeves that I have."

Some viewers unfazed

"I have never complained," said Jennifer Curry of Loveland, a 22-year-old pre-law student at the University of Cincinnati and an avid moviegoer, along with her cinephile boyfriend Tracy Allgaier, 22, of Fairfield.

Jarrod Hennessey, a 25-year-old marketing representative from Edgewood, is a dedicated movie fan who doesn't find commercials objectionable. "As long as they do not affect when the movie starts, it's no big deal to me," he said. "We were all subject to advertising with the boring slide shows already. At least the commercials are a bit more interesting."

Hennessey speculated that more elaborate in-theater ads could be on the way. "If they started debuting new commercials before movies we may even see a Super Bowl-like phenomenon, and people will want to get to theaters early to check out the new commercials. Not me, though."


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