A matter of policy: Trailers teach, welcome, brand and market movie theatres

During a recent visit to the AMC Empire on New York City’s 42nd Street, this author’s good friend Clip somehow vanished. Rather than watch Clip magically wave his filmstrip arms around the crystal ball of “Coming Attractions”, people were now headed towards a fabulous marquee promising what’s “Coming Soon” in sparkling lights. Before my sadness could kick in (though, Clip, you are not forgotten!), the palatial view of the all-new and restored AMC Main Street in Kansas City, Missouri, which is featured in August’s concession section, had already ramped up my excitement.

Even more so did the equally redesigned “Feature Attraction” piece, which “shows three young, diverse friends enjoying a moviegoing escape.” Zach Baze, VP of marketing for AMC Entertainment, continues the story: “With the sip of a Coke, the walls fall away and the auditorium is transformed into the totally immersive entertainment environment that only AMC can provide.” The borders between time and place and screen and stadium seats evaporate as our friends literally become part of the world of movies. Explains Baze, “The piece is designed to not only build excitement for the feature, but to differentiate the AMC experience and build excitement about it.”

Technically speaking, it’s a production worthy of a movie too. On those latest trailers, the circuit worked with The Coca-Cola Company and contracted Atlanta-based Fitzgerald and Company to conceive and produce the package. “AMC’s feature presentation spot will have almost 2.5 times the viewership of a Super Bowl ad this year,” Baze attests, “so using world-class partners to bring a world-class concept to life is vital. The spot was shot on the back lot at Warner Bros., with a green-screen day at Sony Studios. AMC, Fitzgerald and Company and post-production house Radium finished the piece.”

For their “Opener” and “Coming Attractions,” which the circuit uses “as a stopgap essentially between commercials and movie trailers and to introduce the feature,” Wehrenberg Theatres contracted local designer Peter Barg. “We try to use local talent whenever we can,” assures Kelly Hoskins, director of marketing for the St. Louis, Missouri-based circuit. Given the company’s storied history (Film Journal International’s 100th Anniversary profiles appeared in the April 2006 issue), “to everyone’s knowledge here,” these trailers have been around for at least 40 years. “As long as there have been projectors flashing on the screen and it wasn’t cost-prohibitive,” Hoskins adds. Going policy, “Wehrenberg didn’t set a budget. It was really more a matter of exploring the different options available to us. We settled on a look and went with the budget for the look and feel of the piece.”

Although he won’t discuss his budget either, Arnold Gorlick of Madison Art Cinemas (FJI, May 2009) proudly enthuses, “I’m probably the only freestanding single location that has its own custom policy trailer instead of something generic.

It is an important part of the identity of the theatre. It is astonishing how many people over the years have remarked about it. When people arrive just with the opening credits on the screen, so many of them lament, ‘We’ve missed it!!’” The theatre owner and consummate showman gives credit to its makers—Stewart Harnell, his chief designer John Prince and team—at Atlanta, Georgia-based Cinema Concepts (www.cinemaconcepts.com/09%20Reel.html). “Without doubt,” Gorlick insists, “not only are they the best-equipped, but also the most creative designers of anything that goes on screens in the entire country.”

As for the reasons, he finds “among the things that distinguish Cinema Concepts from other companies is that they outsource nothing. All steps of the creative process are done in-house. This means that they are heavily invested in the most up-to-date technology to meet the needs of modern cinemas and our recent technological changes… They even composed the music that goes on my preview snipe.”

Revealing his East Coast roots in the business with the word “snipe,” Gorlick explains the difference between the “Preview” clip that is meant to intro the trailers at Madison Art Cinemas and the “Feature Presentation” roll, which “heralds the start of the film while outlining the rules, etiquette and policy of the theatre.” Back in 1970, when he started in exhibition, “The snipes had stock soundtracks and tended to be static. If there was movement, it might have been nothing more than lights chasing around a border much like the old marquees used to have.”

Style and production have changed “drastically” indeed, concurs AMC’s Baze about the two decades or so in which American Multi-Cinemas has been using its announcements. “From a production standpoint, our most recent spots are full 4K digital with full digital audio. Industry research by Edison Media Research indicates that moviegoers find AMC has the best presentation in the business, and we designed that spot to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ our story of superior presentation.” Although the classic and trademarked “Silence is Golden” do-not-disturb-the-show message is still up there on the screen, “our creative approach has evolved as well,” he insists. “Historically, the feature presentation piece has been used to build excitement for what is coming next—the feature. [But] that focus on the feature downplays the role that exhibitors play in the moviegoing experience. To that end, AMC uses the ‘Feature Presentation’ to reinforce the AMC brand of moviegoing—using our technology to ‘show’ our presentation capabilities, and using the narrative to demonstrate why seeing a movie at AMC is unique.”

At Wehrenberg, it is all about tradition, Hoskins details. “The style hasn’t changed much; things simply became more modern in the presentation. We still use the primary colors with an ‘Old Hollywood’-type feel from when the policy trailer started.” As for where the ideas take origin, “Marketing handles messaging, design and all other creative production and scheduling aspects of the trailers. However, the concepts themselves could come from most any of our departments when they think there is a need to communicate with our moviegoers,” Hoskins assures. At AMC as well, “our internal marketing and creative teams conceive the spots,” Baze confirms, “and identify world-class vendors to help bring their vision to life.”

In addition to vision, there is also sound, of course. Alongside those Addy award-winning Wehrenberg images, for example, the accompanying soundtrack provides a possibly even more distinctive element. Ever since the first jingle “was created for Wehrenberg by some of the original singers from the famous jazz quartet The Hi-Lo’s in 1969,” Hoskins says, moviegoers have enjoyed the company theme song.  “The jingles have become very well-known.” Designed as “a curtain-opener and for advertising purposes,” the tunes were updated in 1994 and for the 2006 anniversary. “Although it is more stylized, that version is just as creative as the original,” she assures, “because it ‘whispers’ in the song.”

On a similar note, Loews Theatres created a bouncing-ball sing-along version of that catchy jingle, “Thank you for coming to Loews. Sit back, relax and enjoy the show!”

The 1980s version:

Another undisputed personal favorite, however, was created by Chicago-based Filmack Productions. Who wouldn’t want to get up and dance or snack to the tantalizing tune of “Let’s all go to the lobby and get ourselves a treat”? (www.filmack.com/products/ClassicLobbyA.htm) Guided by Robert ‘Robbie’ Mack today, three generations of Macks have led the trailer company since first exposing nitrate film in 1919 and employing a young Walt Disney as an animation artist. The work is still about “fresh, visually exciting images that create interest and curiosity,” Mack assures about his products, which also include those from Pike Productions.

“Initially, policy trailers started out as a series of don’t dos, mostly, but then theatres started to mix in their welcome messages and the do-come-to-the-concession-stands,” Mack observes. “Over the years, these trailers have become their means of circuit-branding, which also cover policy issues.”

In addition to regionally mandated notices regarding exits and smoking, for instance, theatres also use trailers to drum up sales and send off “Season’s Greetings.” “Oftentimes, these types of announcements are included in the policy piece, but usually they are covered in standalone versions,” Mack explains. “Why would you run a gift certificate trailer for Christmas in the middle of August? This gives more flexibility to the operator and also makes it more exciting if you can add something new and rotate them around.”

While larger chains and circuits most always have their own sets of designs and films, Mack says, his company produces a vast selection of generic trailers that any and all exhibitors can use. Among the favorites are “Coming Soon” and “Our Feature Attraction,” of course, along with the obligatory cell-phone courtesy. (One of the best warnings ever on that bad habit came from Pepsi and Landmark Theatres a few years back. I can still hear the sizzling noise when one of the boy dolls in the “Barbie, Ken and Friends”-style spot got zapped for talking during the show. If you find it on the Internet, please e-mail the link to info@creativecinema.net.)

Back at Filmack, such movie manners are all about what “Good Ol’ Mom Says” (www.filmack.com/qttrailers/hi-Mom.htm). Mack also offers “standalone trailers that can be modified with extra length. A small circuit can get the design animation and soundtrack for free and we modify the back end with whatever they need. We elongate a 13-second trailer to 25 seconds for customization. That way, they don’t have to pay for the initial design and execution.” Equally practical for independent use is that different messages come individually trailered, but as part of a coordinated series. Although the majority of trailers are available in digital formats now—Mack credits computers for “making possible visual effects that you couldn’t even dream of when making art with cells by hand”—Filmack takes particular pride in protecting their customers’ 35mm prints. “Coating the base and emulsion with Scotch Guard fluid keeps them from scratching. We’re the only manufacturer to offer that added value.”

As a closing reward to our readers, Mack advises that the best way to keep things fresh and exciting in your movie theatre is “to rotate your styles.” After all, there is a fine line between creating a brand and driving home a message repetitively to the point of boredom. “There are all sorts of different trailers,” he concludes, “and people still clap when they see the dancing hot dog.”.

FJI Extra: What Makes a Good Policy Trailer?

Zach Baze, AMC Entertainment: “A policy trailer should clearly communicate its message in an entertaining, guest-focused way. Our guests are in our theatre to relax and escape. So it is important to present the policy in a way that shows we are ensuring their two hours with us is time well-spent. Part of what makes moviegoing so special is its communal nature—the shared experience of seeing a great film. To do everything we can to protect that communal experience, we use policy trailers as that ‘gentle reminder’ about some common courtesies and to ensure that everyone in the auditorium has a great experience.”

Arnold Gorlick, Madison Art Cinemas:
“Assuming that one has developed a loyal clientele, it is important that there be enough imagery and content where the moviegoer can find something new with each viewing. That is the case with our policy trailer. I think the standards for commercial houses and art houses differ in some ways. A trailer for an art-house audience must be more subdued, probably, while a mainstream venue might have more pop in the soundtrack and more energetic visuals.”

Kelly Hoskins, Wehrenberg Theatres: “Being positive, addressing issues that are relevant to moviegoers at the same time as the trailer brands the theatre complex they are seeing their movie in.”