The Wider World of Advertising

Creatives think bigger as commercials invade movie theaters

In New York, they’ll throw their shoes at the screen,” says TBWA\Chiat\Day creative director Joseph Mazzaferro on movie-audience reaction to shoddy commercials. “The expectations are so much higher. The television-commercial tools don’t work anymore in cinema.”

But when spots are entertaining, research shows, audiences are receptive to the commercial prelude. And with more advertisers taking advantage of a captive crowd, agencies are starting to think on a bigger scale, mimicking the quality of sound, special effects and wider aspect ratio of the feature films that follow their work.

In a commercial for Toyota’s new youth-targeted Scion vehicle, running now in theaters, two acrobats leap over bridges, scale the sides of buildings and then jump from staircase to staircase, seemingly racing two cars through a parking garage. Techno-pop music booms through the Dolby digital sound system, building toward the climax, when the athletes finally reach the cars.

“FreeRunners” and a companion Scion spot, “Transformer,” from San Francisco shop Attik, will soon be joined on the movie screen by splashy cinema work from Nike, which will break a commercial directed by David Fincher on Friday, and Levi Strauss, which next week launches a campaign for Type1 jeans with two ads directed by Traktor.

“We certainly made our creative specifically to the fact that we had to add value to a 60-second spot,” says Jim Farley, divisional vp for Toyota Motor Sales. “We couldn’t just do a TV commercial. We wanted the production quality to match what the moviegoing audience expects.”

“Transformer” is an all-digital animated production done at film resolution, which is about three times the quality of a TV commercial, says Dave Skaff, senior broadcast producer for Attik. When a TV spot is projected on a theater screen, the resolution is soft and slightly fuzzy, which turns off audiences, adds Attik creative director Simon Needham.

Scion’s cinema strategy is part of a campaign aimed at young trendsetters (shorter versions of the movie spots will run on TV as well). Syndicated research showed the target spends a lot of time at the movies, Farley says. In the summer, young adults are particularly likely to be found in theaters, watching Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle or 2 Fast 2 Furious, rather than in front of the TV.

“We feel the time is right in this country to begin communicating to people in the theater,” says Hal Curtis, cd at Wieden + Kennedy, Portland, Ore., explaining Nike’s latest foray into theaters. “Moviegoing audiences are [becoming] accustomed to seeing advertising. If we start paying attention to that, you’ll see results. You’ll have an opportunity to connect with them in ways that you can’t anymore with broadcast television.”

When cinema ads hit U.S. screens more than a decade ago with Coke’s polar bears, among others, they were routinely hissed and booed. Nowadays, according to a December Arbitron study, about two-thirds of adults aged 18-54 and seven out of 10 teenagers say they don’t mind pre-movie advertising. Additionally, 62 percent of adults 18-24 and 58 percent of those 25-34 said they found cinema ads to be more interesting than TV spots.

Correspondingly, the spots make a deeper impression: A November 2001 study by Lieberman Research put unaided recall of cinema commercials at 43 percent, vs. about 6 percent for network TV, according to Zenith Media research.

Cinema ads will only grow in acceptance if more agencies produce spots that match the entertainment value of movies, says Curtis. While Nike has previously converted TV spots into cinema ads, the new commercial, featuring a marathon runner, is different in that it is “a piece of film that was crafted and thought about and created and executed for the cinema,” explains Curtis. He notes that image quality—the spot was shot on 70 mm film—and sound design are notably different from TV work.

“It was beautifully lit, and the production values were that of a feature film,” says cd Len Fink of three new spots promoting Fandango, the Internet movie schedule and ticketing service, that are running exclusively on movie screens this summer. The “Fandango Nation” campaign, created by Amoeba in Los Angeles, pairs voices from man-on-the-street interviews with paper-bag puppets. Fink, noting that scenes had to be positioned to take advantage of the screen’s wider aspect ratio, jokes, “These hand puppets were treated like movie stars.”

While TBWA\C\D broke its 15- and 30-second “Jimmy and Jenny” spots for Kmart’s Joe Boxer line on TV in April, a movie campaign that launched this month runs in 60-second and two-minute versions that feel more like a music video than a TV spot. Produced specifically for the wider screen, the longer spots include more of a storyline and choreographed dance numbers set to music by Timbaland.

“There is an eagerness to reach people in a way that they are not expecting,” says Mazzaferro, who worked on the Joe Boxer spots as well as TBWA\C\D’s annual series of 12-minute film shorts for Absolut that run in theaters abroad. The idea was a way to work around laws banning liquor ads on TV and, in some countries, in print. The fifth installment this year is “Mulit,” a witty Bollywood-style melodrama.

Mazzaferro says he would like to see U.S. movie ads approach the attention-grabbing level of spots that run in European and Latin American theaters. “The commercials are treated like artwork. They’re treated with respect,” he says. “The audience enjoys them and looks forward to them.” And for those who might resent the ads, cinema schedules often include two start times, one for the commercials and one for the film itself.

John Hegarty, co-founder of Bartle Bogle Hegarty in London, says the U.K.’s creative reputation has been bolstered by the long-form commercials that have been created for the cinema there and points to one famous example, Saatchi & Saatchi’s 1992 “3-D” campaign for British Airways. In the cinema spot, a couple is shown on vacation, taking a romantic stroll. An actress in the theater then stood up and shouted, “That’s my boyfriend!” The guy on the screen argues with her, and the actress eventually stormed out.

Hegarty’s advice to U.S. creatives: Respect the medium they are creating for and understand it. “If the audience is just seeing another TV commercial, that really pisses people off. They want to get away from the boring world they’re in. If advertising isn’t producing that, then we really have screwed up. Cinema is escapism, and advertising has to remember that.”

The popularity of movie ads among advertisers in the U.S. is slowly catching up to levels abroad. What is estimated to be a $250 million-a-year business—just .01 percent of the total ad market—is growing at a rate of about 20 percent a year, according to the three major cinema media companies, which have formed an alliance called the Cinema Advertising Council.

Business at Regal CineMedia in New York is increasing at triple-digit rates, says Cliff Marks, president of sales and marketing. A division of Regal Cinemas, CineMedia handles marketing for the 6,159 Regal screens nationwide and is currently promoting a 20-minute preshow called “The 2wenty” that features cartoons and music videos as well as advertising. Marks says he’s selling 75-100 percent of the advertising block every month, compared with 40-50 percent a year ago.

About three-quarters of the 36,000 theater screens in the U.S. feature pre-movie ads, mostly two to three minutes of inventory that runs before the previews. The sales pitch, says Chuck Battey, president of cinema media agency National Cinema Network, is that while cinema lacks the reach and frequency of TV, “it’s a great complement to other mainstream media. Just as companies will debut a new product with a 60-second ad and then cut it to 30 or 15 seconds with increased frequency, it’s even more effective when you open it up at the cinema. That first impression is so important.”

And with that first impression, the expectations are that much higher. “You question how actionable the spot will be: Is this the only time the audience is going to see it, as a one-off? And then they’ll be sitting in the theater for another two hours,” says Ron Lawner, chief creative officer at Arnold in Boston, which produced Volkswagen’s award-winning “Bubble Boy” spot for a movie run last year. “It puts a lot of pressure on the spot. It needs to be pretty terrific.”