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Are out-of-control in-theater commercials driving away moviegoers?

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The time a movie is scheduled to start and the time it actually begins seem to be getting further apart. Take this story from a frustrated moviegoer who saw “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” in New Jersey over the weekend.

“The show time was 1:10 p.m., but the movie started sometime after 1:40,” he said. “There were lots of trailers mixed with advertisements for the theater and IMAX. Every time we thought it was over it, it just kept going.”

And he’s not the only one who’s complaining.

“Movie theater ads are out of control and history hasn’t been kind to businesses that insult their customers,” said Los Angeles-based media expert Michael Levine. “The experience of going to movie theaters today is, frankly, insulting. By the time the film starts, I am annoyed and exhausted.”

“In the age of TiVo, people are less and less comfortable with being bombarded by commercial messages,” Levine continued. “They prefer to sit at home in a more comfortable environment with their big screen TVs. Cinema numbers are declining because people no longer find the experience appealing.”

There’s no denying that attendance is down. In 2010 sales were off 5.2 percent from the previous year, and in 2011 the numbers fell a further 4.7 percent. Could it be that the ever-evolving number of ads and trailers are detracting from the cinema experience?

“One ad is too many as far as cinemagoers are concerned,” says Rob Weiner, movie librarian at Texas Tech University. “People get really annoyed with the ads and just make fun of them. I, too, am fed up with having to sit through ads; they don’t work anymore, as people simply hate them.”

Well, not everyone.

“I actually don’t mind sitting through a few ads; it gives me more time to find parking, use the bathroom, buy popcorn or chat with friends in the lobby if I need to,” San Jose-based publicist Angie Meyer said. “But sitting through them is fine, too. They’re usually interesting and different from what is on television, and I love the excitement and anticipation going into the trailers.”

But if you’re easily annoyed by watching what you didn’t pay to see, you may also want to rethink turning up early. An Arbitron study found that moviegoers arrive 24 to 28 minutes before previews begin, paving the way for theaters to show behind-the-scenes footage, interviews and trivia for 20 minutes before the movie’s scheduled start time, which is when the commercials and trailers begin.

There are no official surveys that measure whether ads and trailers have increased in recent years, but in 2010, the most recent year for which figures are available, cinema advertising revenues increased 12.7 percent from 2009. A 30-second spot can run as high as $2.5 million. Movie attendance is also the primary factor that determines the price of cinema advertising; thus seasonal trends in blockbuster releases often drive rates higher during holiday weekends. And the closer to the movie starting time, the more expensive the ad time.

But Bryan Jefferies, marketing director for the Cinemark theater chain, said there are only a set number of spots available for advertisers,and while that number hasn’t necessarily decreased, it hasn’t increased either.

“Two years ago, there was mild objection about the length of ads and trailers, but that seems to have passed and it isn’t a big deal anymore,” Jefferies said. “People expect it now, and have either adjusted or plan around it. He noted that at least in the case of Cinemark , each theater across the country has the same fixed number of pre-show ads. “Lots of people come for, and really enjoy, the pre-show. Advertisers take advantage of that and create unique, interesting spots and put fresh ideas in front of people. We don’t get calls of complaint like we used to.”

Over the years, some lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully to force theater owners to advertise movies’ real start times. In 2005 Connecticut state Rep. Andrew Fleischmann proposed a law that would have made it mandatory for movie theaters in the state to advertise the actual start times. The proposal never made it past committee.

Theater owners argue that even though ticket prices continue to rise, advertising revenue is crucial to keeping the industry alive.“It is part of the theater business model; cinemas already pay a large amount of money to studios just to play the film, so there are very few revenue streams for the actual theater. You have got to have money coming back in,” Jefferies said.

According to Mark Mitchell, president and chairman of the Cinema Advertising Council, the “youthful, socially connected, pop culture-loving” profile of the moviegoer is particularly attractive to companies and corporations who actively seek out those pre-movie ad spots.

“Connecting with that audience in a distraction-free, dark theater using a 40-foot screen and surround sound is like no other medium,” he explained. “Moviegoers are also in the mindset that is receptive to the experience. Research shows that someone shown the same ad on TV and in a cinema likes the commercial 10 times better when viewed at the movies!”

For several years, the Captive Motion Picture Audience of America (CMPAA) has devoted itself to eliminating what it calls the “invasive” advertising techniques used by movie theaters, which it claims takes away from what going to the movies should be all about. CMPAA encourages audience members to contact theater owners to convey their distaste for pre-movie commercials and to support commercial-free theaters.

Or . . . if worse comes to worst …

“Shout out ‘no commercials!’ or something more witty,” CMPAA advises on its website. “No need for a tirade, just make your dissatisfaction known.”

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