It has probably happened to everyone who has recently attended a cinema. They get their tickets, swing by the concession stand, and then take their seats, eagerly anticipating for the feature to start. In the old days they might have to sit through a few movie trailers. Before that they might be might be treated to a newsreel and a cartoon in addition to the trailers. In the past few years, however, they have probably had to sit through several commercials.
To a degree a link between movies and advertising has always existed. In vaudeville, the predecessor to modern day cinema, advertisements for local businesses would often be featured on the "olio drop," the back curtain of the stage. From the Silent era onwards many theatres would show slides, which often featured ads for local businesses as well as the usual admonitions to be quiet during the feature and not to smoke in the auditorium. Trailers, which are essentially "commercials" for other movies, have existed in some form or another since 1912. But in the Eighties there arose a whole new phenomenon. It was in that decade that theatres started commercials, of the sort one might see on television, before the movies. It was around 1985 that Cineplex Odeon became the first national Canadian cinema chain to start regularly showing commercials before movies. Even then, at Cineplex Odeon only one or two commercials would be shown before any given feature. I'm not sure what the first American theatre chain to start showing pre-movie commercials was, but I know it was probably around the same time.
Since the number of commercials shown before movies has increased dramatically. Where Cineplex Odeon once only allowed one or two commercials to be shown before features, it now allows a whopping four minutes. Things are no better here in the States. At our local theatre we are fortunate in that there are at most only two commercials before any given feature. Sadly, that is not true of theatres in Columbia, where one might be subjected to as many as three or four. Sadly, pre-movie commercials have become so common that in 2003 an organisation was founded to promote such pre-movie ads: the Cinema Advertising Council.
Of course, pre-movie commercials have always had their share of detractors. In 1998 Ralph Nader and the organisation called Commercial Alert started campaigning against commercials, going so far as trying to persuade lawmakers to pass bills in which theatres would have to post the actual start times of movies. There have also sprang up a number of web sites against pre-movie commercials, such as Captive Motion Picture Audience of America. Bad Ads, which keeps an eye on advertisements in general, has a web page dedicated to pre-movie commercials. Some have taken their hatred for pre-movie commercials even farther. In Chicago in 2003 at least two lawsuits were filed, in which it was charged that theatres are engaging in fraud when they do not post the actual start time of movies. There have also been instances of legislation being introduced (in Connecticut and New York City) that would force cinemas to post when movies actually start. I have no idea if any of this legislation actually passed, but it is a mark of how much people hate pre-movie commercials that it was proposed at all.
None of this is surprising to me. While everyone I know appreciates the movie trailers that are shown before features, I know of no one who likes pre-movie commercials. That is why I am a bit puzzled by a recent Arbitron study which claimed that 68% of frequent movie goers (defined by the study as people who have gone to the movies at least five movies in the past three months) found pre-movie commercials "acceptable." Teenagers apparently find pre-movie commercials more acceptable than other age groups--74% of those in the study had no problem with pre-movie commercials. Given the fact that most of my friends tend to be frequent movie goers and that none of us like pre-movie commercials, I have to wonder if Arbitron's study was not somehow flawed.
While most people seem to hate pre-movie commercials, it seems that neither the theatre nor the advertising agency is eager to give up on them. Indeed, many of the major theatre chains will argue that the ads are an important source of revenue for theatres. But the fact is that in 2003 alone, pre-movie commercials accounted for only 3.5% of all box office revenue. I rather suspect that concession stands bring in more. Of course, it is obvious why the advertising industry would favour pre-movie commercials--it is yet another source of income for them.
There was a time when going to the movies was an event (for those interested in what going to the movies was like in the old days, go to A Night at the Movies). One might see a newsreel, a cartoon short, a live action short, and, of course, trailers before the main feature. Sadly, cartoon shorts and live action shorts disappeared from cinemas long ago. Commercials are hardly a replacement. Most movie viewers I know resent having to sit through these commercials even before the trailers are shown--they are not like television commercials where one can mute the TV set, switch channels, and walk out of the room. Furthermore, they make it difficult to know when a movie actually starts. In the old days I could gauge how much time I would have before a movie actually starts by the average number of trailers the local theatres would show before movies. With the advent of pre-movie commercials, it has become a lot more difficult to figure out when movies actually begin. Despite Arbitron's study (which I believe was flawed) and despite their prevalence in cinemas all over the place, I think it is time for pre-movie commercials to end.