Before the Trailers Begin: Today's cinema pre-show is much more than mere advertising

Cinemas Features

Not long ago, the theatrical pre-show meant a dusty and reliable slide projector cycling its way through 81 images at ten seconds each—a thirteen-and-a-half-minute show for an auditorium slowly filling with people. Slides were occasionally upside down or backwards; some advertised events that had long passed. The show was a miscellaneous collection of trivia questions and ads for mostly local companies who wanted to be part of the magic of the movies.

Slowly at first, and then completely, digital brought sweeping changes. Today, the pre-show is polished and professional, a blend of sight, sound and motion designed to inform and promote—and entertain. For audiences, advertisers and many exhibitors, it’s become an integral part of the theatrical experience. Here, those who create pre-shows and provide analytical support talk about cinema advertising from their points of view.

John McCauley (Chief Strategic Development Officer, Screenvision Media): The pre-show plays a nice role in the moviegoing experience; it allows people to settle in their seat, enjoy some entertainment, and build up their anticipation. It helps to put them in a receptive frame of mind to enjoy the movie.

Matthew Liebmann (Senior Vice-President, the Americas, Movio): It’s one of the few forms of advertising that you can’t skip through once it starts. It’s on a dark screen, so it’s immersive; it’s on a big screen, so it’s impressive.

Cliff Marks (President, National CineMedia LLC): Nobody comes to the theatre just to see the pre-show, but most people like it because it gives them something fun to watch while they wait for the movie to start. “FirstLook” is the granddaddy of all pre-shows. NCM pioneered the concept of entertaining audiences while concurrently monetizing it through ads.

Michael Sakin (President, Spotlight Cinema Networks): Cinema advertising has changed from just putting ads on the screen to providing an entertaining pre-show. Spotlight is a national cinema-advertising vehicle that represents iconic art houses and upscale cinemas. We connect advertisers to highly educated, upscale, adult cinema audiences. That’s been a demographic that’s hard to reach and we deliver it.   

McCauley: Screenvision Media is in the premium video space. We work with exhibitors to understand what drives their business and how we can be helpful. We work with local advertisers to help them shine and make it easier for them to access our screens.  And on a national level, we help brands to better target their ads using our creative assets and our unique ability to reach audiences.

Liebmann: At Movio, we see ourselves as the collector and facilitator of moviegoer data on behalf of the entertainment industry. We enable our clients to better understand the industry and their audiences and to make cinema as vibrant and as healthy as possible.

Marks: Approximately 70 percent of our revenue comes from national advertisers and approximately 30 percent comes from regional and local advertisers and beverage. In terms of volume, probably 80 to 90 percent of the advertisers using cinema are local and 10 to 20 percent are national. But some local advertisers may buy one spot for one local theatre; when a national advertiser buys one spot, it may be for the whole country.

Sakin: If you advertise in the correct, classy way—minimal advertising but in the most effective environment—it will achieve what everyone wants. The exhibitor doesn’t upset the audience, the advertiser gets maximum impact from the ads, and the consumer is shown some really beautiful creative ads with products they care about.

McCauley: Many of these ads are shot for television, and when they’re shown on the big screen, it increases their attention, engagement and even likeability. But it’s important that the ads feel as if they’re a natural part of the entertainment package.

Marks: I think a good pre-show entertains, informs, engages—and disappears on time, at the advertised show time. Over 90 percent of audiences tell us they like the “FirstLook” pre-show. We’re creating a targeted and specific program around America’s favorite pastime—going to the movies. 

Sakin: Many of our advertisers run long-form ads, but there are also plenty of advertisers who have impactful 30-second spots that make sense in the cinema. They tell a story and they’re informative—rather than being a sales pitch.

Marks: FirstLook is roughly twenty to twenty-five minutes, but it depends on the number of ads that are sold, the amount of content we have. Individual content runs anywhere from ninety seconds to two minutes—and then you see commercials; then you see more content and more commercials.

McCauley: “Front and Center” is a 22-minute show that “goes from Main Street to Hollywood.” In the earlier parts of the show, we focus on the community; then, as we progress, we introduce a more local-regional mix; as we get closer to showtime, we have more of a regional-national mix. We’ve found that’s a nice way to program the show, because it allows everyone to shine in their element.

Sakin: Our typical “Spotlight” show is fifteen minutes, but we can go up to twenty. And if exhibitors want it a little shorter, we can do ten. In terms of structure, we run at least two movie shorts or content segments. In between, we have trivia or movie facts; we also give exhibitors a chance to inform audiences about events and activities at their theatres. At the end, we have a three- or four-minute block of videos geared for local advertisers. It ebbs and flows.

McCauley: In terms of content length, “snackable” is better. It’s best to provide little snacks—60- to 90-second content is ideal. We’re also finding opportunities to create some engagement with the pre-show—moments to invite interaction, provide some rewards, and change the pace in unexpected ways. There’s an art to the programming and we continue to get better at it all the time. 

Liebmann: Screen advertising is now an end-to-end show. There’s entertainment woven into it—including television and other previews. And, especially because of those previews, some people feel they haven’t gotten the entire cinema experience if they miss out on the pre-show.

Marks: There are several reasons why exhibitors are attracted to the pre-show. The first is, it provides something entertaining for their audiences to watch before the movie begins. The people are there; give them something to do, something to see. 

Sakin: If there’s something on the screen that’s compelling and entertaining, they’ll put down their phones and enjoy it.

McCauley: It can help draw people a little earlier to their theatres. If you just asked someone if they wanted to see an ad or not—they’d probably say not. That’s why we take our role very seriously in creating an entertaining pre-show for the audience that also works for the exhibitors and the local and national advertisers.

Sakin: It’s about “smart revenue” for the exhibitor. It’s about revenue that makes maximum impact for the advertisers. It’s about keeping the exhibitor happy with a nice revenue stream but without over-commercialization of their movie theatre.

Liebmann: That revenue goes a long way to helping with the cost of operating a cinema circuit. And, because it does that, it helps to keep the ticket prices affordable. Anything that makes the cinema-going experience more affordable is a win-win situation.

Marks: It’s an integrated pre-show that combines what we call “promo-tainment”—content that’s promotional but entertaining—and advertising to create an engaging package that gives audiences something to watch while they wait for their movie experience.

Sakin: Ads are getting more sophisticated; they’re more like movie shorts—and clients are looking to get these longer-form ads in front of adult audiences. If you have a two-minute ad, where else are you going to run it that provides the impact of cinema?

McCauley: Cinema advertising provides unrivaled impact. Part of that can be measured by ad recall, which we’ve seen at about 59 percent. That’s driven by the audience being in a distraction-free environment with a forty-foot screen, lights down, and in an emotionally receptive frame of mind. 

Marks: Some of our clients just want to be on the big screen, but we’ve become very data-centric. At NCM, we’ve built a Data Management Platform that allows us to use data and our logistical capabilities in our sales efforts. Movio is one of our partners that helps fuel our DMP.

Liebmann: Over the past few years, cinema marketers have become far more sophisticated, far more analytical, far more results-driven. The cinema industry has woken up to the value of data—and the necessity, really—of being able to do more targeted campaigns. That’s where we can help.

Sakin: There are two measures that advertisers use across all media—impressions, which in the cinema world we call admissions—and cost, which gets translated into CPMs, cost-per-thousand. But with cinema, there’s also an intangible—the impact that comes from the lack of clutter, the inability to be DVR’d, and the fact that the audience is captive in front of a large screen and in the mood to be entertained. 

McCauley: Ads that are shown in cinema—versus television—have a fourteen-to-one ratio of likeability. People like them better than when they see the same ads on television. We’ve found that cinema ads—in terms of recall and intent to purchase or use—are more effective than ads on the Super Bowl. 

Marks: Let me put that in perspective: On any given weekend, NCM is the highest-rated network in America for adults 18 to 49. That includes NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, ESPN, Discovery Channel and every other network. And our competitor would also be the third or fourth highest-rated network in America for the same age group. So when you put that together, I feel confident saying that “cinema” is the highest-rated medium on any given weekend. 

Sakin: We work with some advertisers—like Louis Vuitton, Porsche and Cartier—that have beautiful content. More and more advertisers create interesting content—and with “Spotlight” they can get great distribution and great effectiveness with a captive audience—which is what cinema is all about.

Liebmann: But advertisers want comfort over who the composition of their audience is. We’re able to look at an upcoming film and, based on comp titles, provide a really robust understanding of what the likely audience will be. And then we can provide data on who actually saw the advertising. Advertisers are used to receiving granularity when they buy other media and now we can provide it for the cinema.

McCauley: Advertisers today are looking for big scale and high engagement. They want a coveted audience or demo—and we can provide a plan that skews toward the audience the advertiser wants to reach.

Marks: Digital allows us to target by theatre, by market, by rating. If P&G wants to make a buy and put Pampers in front of family movies, Gillette in front of male films and Olay for female-skewing flicks, we can do that.

McCauley: The industry is also moving towards a behavioral overlay—not just who the audience is demographically, but how they behave. It’s a further level of refinement, a further layer of value—beyond targeting by film or genre. There are a lot of different inputs that come into a data proposition like that. Movio is one source we use in addition to other planning tools and first-person data.

Liebmann: We don’t care if it’s a ninety-year-old woman seeing Monster Trucks and a fifteen-year-old boy seeing Philomena; how they spend their time and money is more important. That data can be useful to cinema advertisers; they can better know who they’re reaching in their cinema ad buys.

Sakin: So, yes, there are some metrics, but not everything is measurable and marketers are finding that the uniqueness and impact of cinema provides a nice piece of the overall media plan. If an advertiser has a compelling story to tell—and tells it in a cinema environment—it can lead to a very favorable return on investment.

McCauley: Cinema is seen as the big stage. When there’s a major launch, advertisers use cinema—and it makes the ad onscreen seem spectacular because it’s often the first time it’s seen.

Marks: But I still think that too many brands rely on the cinema as only a launch platform. The studios have embraced a release schedule that spreads tentpole films throughout the year, so we believe that cinema advertising should be used as an ongoing communications platform all year round—not just when a new product is introduced.

McCauley: There are plenty of companies that buy national advertising that don’t buy cinema. Television and video advertising is a $70 billion business; cinema advertising is a $700 million business. That’s a big pond for us to fish in. 

Sakin: In terms of growth opportunities, I think that our onscreen show is always going to be the exhibitor’s bread and butter. But as times change and as advertisers are looking for different opportunities, we need to be nimble and grow with their changing expectations. 

McCauley: But if we take another step back and just look at the number of local advertisers—and the money they’re spending on other forms of advertising—there’s a lot there also. We’ve really elevated our ability to create content and original programming—for them and all our advertising partners. Over the last 18 months or so, we’ve made nearly 30 pieces of content.

Marks: We also will be introducing some very unique intellectual property—some “strategic smarts”—to bring brands into the cinema to do some interesting things that will provide new revenue opportunities for our exhibitors and help them differentiate their theatres from others.

Sakin: There’s upside working with specific content partners; for us, there’s upside working with film festivals where we help them attract sponsors, and there’s upside working with our exhibitors to help them more fully derive additional revenue from their facilities. All of that provides new opportunities for us.

Marks: In the future, I think you will see a pre-show that has more two-way interactivity and in which major brands and branded entertainment have a much bigger role.

Liebmann: If you can engage with an ad, if you can immerse yourself in it and “play with the brand”—be it on a cellphone or some other motion-based device—I think you have a much better recall of that when your leave the theatre. And I think we’re likely to see advertisers and the theatres and cinema-advertising companies embrace new technology on that front.

McCauley: As digital platforms continue to evolve, I think you’ll also see opportunities to bring real-time content to the screens. I think there will be greater localization of the content, which will enhance the show for the audience. And for national advertisers, the digital platform and expanding analytics capabilities will enable better targeting and even greater message tailoring and flexibility. 

Liebmann: With the use of technology—and an understanding of who’s seeing the movie—brands have an opportunity to also communicate with audience members once they leave the cinema. And so in the future, I think the advertising might extend beyond the pre-show and that could really open things up. It all starts in the cinema, but then it becomes more powerful as it’s reinforced on their mobile phones, watches or other devices once they leave the theatre and go back into the broader world.

McCauley: So, there’s a lot there. I think we’re just on the cusp of enjoying significant growth, because the marketplace has awakened to the fact that cinema is a legitimate replacement for ads on television and cable. It’s definitely cinema’s time.

Sakin: And that’s what we do. We maximize revenue for the exhibitor, we create entertainment for audiences, and we understand how to make ads impactful so our advertisers get their money’s worth. 

Marks: We’ve come a long, long way in creating a polished pre-show and in collecting, understanding and using hard facts and data to help clients use cinema advertising effectively…but we’re just rounding second base. We have a long way to go.