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James McFarlane / MSNBC.com
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/2/2005 10:51:53 AM ET 2005-05-02T14:51:53
COMMENTARY

A new attraction is coming to theater multiplexes across the country.

Regal Cinemas calls their version of this feature “The 2wenty,” named so because it runs during the 20 minutes before the advertised start time of feature films, and because replacing letters with numbers in names is witty and cute. Regal says “The 2wenty,” which is shown with digital projectors, is “a larger-than-life pre-show adding unique and special entertainment to the REG movie-going experience.” The country’s largest theater chain refers to it as “quality entertainment supplied by our four content partners.”

To understand what this is really about, replace “entertainment” with “advertisements” and “content partners” with “companies that are paying for these advertisements.” Essentially, movie theater chains have found a way to give us even more advertising: by running pre-show ad films while the lights are still on and audiences are finding their seats.

In addition to Regal's pre-show film, AMC has a version called the “Pre-Show Countdown,” and Loews Cineplex is working on something that will similarly occupy those 20 minutes.

Regal’s “2wenty” is not boring. In fact, it’s well-constructed and engaging, a series of entertainment-related infomercials and featurettes. If all advertisements were like this, they’d be significantly less annoying. The problem is that “The 2wenty” starts 20 minutes before the film is supposed to start, and thus it completely changes the nature of the film-going experience as we know it.

No way to tune out ads
Perhaps the slide-show advertisements that used to be shown before the actual film began were outdated and ready to be retired. Static images and hokey puns aren’t exactly in step with this high-speed, digital era. And their introduction years ago probably irritated some people who preferred to stare at a blank screen before watching a movie.

But the slide-show ads were easy to ignore. These new pre-show advertising films are not. Most significantly, the sound is loud and overbearing, preventing the quiet conversation between audience members. The noise from the pre-show may obscure the awful sound of popcorn being chewed by the halfwit sitting behind you, but talking while it plays is nearly impossible.

Worse, some people are beginning to watch these pre-shows with such rapt attention that finding a seat increasingly means irritating those who are deeply absorbed in this new advertising-watching experience. Everyone, suddenly, becomes that annoying person who shows up five minutes after the film has started. And if people really start showing up 20 minutes early just to watch these new advertisements, as the chains would undoubtedly love, finding a seat closer to the official start time may become even more difficult.

Of course, the actual time a film starts is generally a solid 20 minutes before the beginning of the feature. In advance of the film, we’re generally treated to a series of commercials, followed by trailers, followed by a digitally animated intro for the theater chain that involves flying around larger-than-life 3-D versions of branded soft drink cups and candy bars.

A prison of advertising
These advertisements alone are so annoying to some movie-goers that an entire organization exists to combat them (and now the new pre-show films). The Captive Motion Picture Audience of America exists to “[convey] the clear dissatisfaction audiences have with the movie viewing experience” and “to show TV-like advertising before movies is well past the line of ‘ad-creep,’ is unprofitable, and will lead to a consumer backlash.” Among other things, the organization has produced signs for audience members to leave on their seats. They say, “RESERVED. This patron is avoiding cinema advertising and will return when the feature begins.”

Are we really to the point where we need to stake out territory in a theater and then flee until the beginning of the actual feature? Are we really trapped in a prison of advertisements?

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Apparently so. National Cinema Network, AMC theaters’ subsidiary that produces its “Pre-Show Countdown,” pitches its services to advertisers by noting that the content is shown “in a captive environment.” The Cinema Advertising Council admits as much: “Advertising at the movies reaches active and affluent consumers in a uniquely captive setting.” In other words, since we’ve paid and are waiting to see the film, theaters can do whatever they want to us.

Late last month, AMC and Regal announced that they are combining their cinema advertising divisions into one company, which will produce a shared pre-show. Loews Cineplex also recently announced plans for its own advertising-filled pre-show. While advertising before films has been around for a while now, they’re clearly on the verge of tragically dominating the movie-going experience, as chain theaters now dominate the cinema landscape.

It’s somewhat surprising that a company like AMC, which has done quite a bit to improve the film-going experience — by creating multiplexes, designing stadium seating that makes the people in front of you truly invisible, adding cup holders to armrests, and constructing “love seats” where the armrests move out of the way — would damage that experience with a pre-show. And it really does damage the experience, as these pre-shows fundamentally alter the dynamics of movie-going.

No socializing, no relief
Movie-going is often described as an antisocial activity. In fact, for those who see films with others, it's the opposite.

Although staring forward in a darkened room does not, on its surface, appear to be a communal activity, what occurs before and after the film is quite social. Seeing a movie is a shared experience that occurs in real-time; it’s like reading the same novel simultaneously and being able to discuss it after only a couple of hours have elapsed. And now we can't enter a theater and have a conversation with our friends.

Seeing films in theaters is about transition. We break from one part of our lives and settle into the lives of others. With pre-show films, there’s no time to make the transition, to settle into the semi-darkened room. One of the major reasons to see films in theaters, besides being able to watch on a large screen with surround-sound, is to be in an isolated environment that allows total immersion in the on-screen action. Films viewed in theaters are removed from everyday life, whereas DVD viewing can be interrupted by the telephone, a hungry cat or any number of other distractions. The quiet time before the film begins — even if it is preceded by commercials and trailers — allows us to shift into a mode that we don't normally experience in everyday life.

Entering a theater that’s overwhelmed by cacophonous advertising doesn't allow us to leave one world behind to enter another. The traffic on the way to the theater; the noisy, popcorn- and children-infested lobby; the pre-show ads; the trailers and commercials that begin at the advertised time; and the film all become part of the same thing, a giant blur of noise and sound.

We may watch these new ads, but somehow, that doesn’t seem like the best way for advertisers to get our attention.

Andy Dehnart is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.

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