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Ryan Johnson, Published February 25 2014

Trade organization, local theater owners try to balance need to play trailers while not taking up too much time

FARGO - Concerned that trailers are taking up more of your time at the movie theater?

Don’t worry because NATO is working on it – the National Association of Theatre Owners, a trade organization that collectively lobbies movie distributors on behalf of cinemas across the country.

West Acres Cinema General Manager Rick Solarski said the group successfully got film companies to lower the volumes of trailers years ago, when previews got louder in an attempt to draw more attention.

NATO’s latest effort was the Jan. 27 release of new voluntary guidelines limiting the length of movie trailers to two minutes, as well as restrictions on distributors to not market trailers for movies more than 150 days before release.

Informal observations by Forum reporters who went to movies in recent weeks found the average movie at the West Acres or Century multiplexes in Fargo, both owned by Milwaukee-based Marcus Theatres, had 15 to 18 minutes of trailers and commercials before the feature film. Showings at the independent Fargo Theatre, however, had 6 to 8 minutes of ads.

But officials with both theater groups say they’re constantly trying to balance the need for marketing upcoming films and meeting customer interest in getting a peek at new movies with the goal of not taking up too much time before patrons get to see what they paid for.

Several factors could be behind the common perception that we’re spending more time than ever watching ads, and not the feature film, when we go to the theater, according to NATO North Central States President Jeff Logan.

While theaters have run trailers since the early days of film, improving technology – and a changing economic landscape – has required major changes, he said.

Before the 1980s, Logan said theatergoers who arrived a few minutes early would have no choice but to sit and wait, with nothing more than a curtain to look at. But affordable slide projectors changed that, he said, and theaters began to run a “preshow” before the advertised start time that included about 20 minutes of local commercials and trivia questions.

“What that did was fill the time before the previews start,” he said. “Everyone kind of understood that the houselights were up full-bright, and it gave you something to watch while you’re waiting.”

But those slideshows began to look low-tech in recent years, Logan said, and because many theaters had already upgraded to digital projectors, they switched to video presentations with animations, music videos, ads and behind-the-scenes features.

That made the preshow better, he said, but also made it hard to distinguish the in-house entertainment and the trailers that actually marked the start of the show time.

“Some people get confused and they think that their movie time is being pushed back or that they’re being misled,” he said.

Logan, a second-generation theater worker who started in the business at age 9 by putting up posters around town, now operates 10 screens in three South Dakota cities. Generally, he said theatergoers today can expect about 15 minutes of ads before a feature film, and said that amount of time has remained more or less the same over the past 25 years.

But trailers have gotten longer, with many now exceeding 2½ minutes, and theater owners often aren’t given many choices in the matter.

Studio rules

West Acres Cinema customers occasionally complain there are too many trailers, Solarski said. But many others are upset if they miss the previews – they want to see that sneak peek for the next blockbuster.

“We’ll even have times when a new trailer’s released that people will almost buy a ticket just to see that trailer because they’re so excited,” he said.

Decades ago, theaters often could pick which trailers its patrons would see, he said. But now, especially with major releases from Hollywood studios, trailer placement is determined by marketing departments, not local movie theaters.

While 12 to 15 minutes of pre-film commercials used to be the norm, Solarski said it’s now more like 15 to 18 minutes.

Marcus Theatres as a company has been able to set some of its own rules, he said. For example, its cinemas won’t air R-rated trailers before a PG movie, even if the preview is approved for PG audiences.

But a venue like West Acres Cinema, which primarily plays the biggest new films, has to deal with more restrictions than the indie releases that make up many of Fargo Theatre’s offerings, he said.

Fargo Theatre Executive Director Emily Beck said the independent venue has made a conscious effort to generally only show three trailers per screening, which is how they manage to an average of 6 to 8 minutes of previews before each movie.

That’s not always the case – several Academy Award-nominated movies now showing at the Fargo Theatre have required trailers.

But many of the movie trailer issues covered under the new NATO guidelines don’t apply to the type of film coming to Fargo Theatre, she said, because they aren’t the big-budget, box office-sweeping releases that are usually reserved for multiplexes.

“They’ll do those teaser trailers for the next ‘Avengers’ film, and there will probably be a teaser a year before it comes out,” she said. “But not really for the next Wes Anderson movie.”

Theatergoers also might notice that even after they make it through trailers, they might see two to four commercials, whether it’s for an upcoming film series or a national advertisement for soda.

Fargo Theatre shows two 30-second ads to promote specific events or remind viewers that it could use their financial support, Beck said, and people don’t seem to mind.

A Marcus Theatres customer might see a short montage of popular film clips and ads showcasing the digital projectors before trailers even start, and advertising for specific events like special kid-friendly screenings are common.

Logan said the difference is in the mission of the venues – while Fargo Theatre is trying to keep providing its programming and asking for support, Marcus Theatres is a publicly traded corporation that needs to focus more on its profits.

Another issue, he said, is the escalating costs of building and maintaining a modern multiplex, where it’s now normal to spend $500,000 to $1 million per auditorium. Even after it’s built, Logan said they face high property taxes and steep utility bills.

Movie studios take an average of 55 percent of ticket sales, he said, and that doesn’t include sales tax and other costs that theaters need to cover.

“I know in my case, I get 39 cents out of every dollar to pay my overhead, and that’s to pay the mortgage on that shiny new building because the bar’s been raised,” he said. “The theaters are much more expensive to build.”

Local and national ads before a film can become an important revenue stream for large theaters like this, Logan said – and without them, ticket prices and snacks at the concession stand would need to be more expensive.

Even as the Internet has made it easier than ever to watch trailers and keep up with upcoming films, Logan said there’s no sign that these previews that are frequently complained about – but are still enjoyed by 98 percent of moviegoers, in his experience – will be leaving the theater anytime soon.

“They’re really the best advertising because you’re advertising to people who like to go to movies and who like that kind of movie,” he said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587