Hunger Games: Catching Fire epitomises the potent draw of cinema for pre-film advertisers.

There was a time when turning up to a film late guaranteed that you would be fumbling in the dark for a seat. These days, you can whack an extra hour on your parking ticket, because pre-film adverts, trailers and infomercials will extend the screening time by at least another thirty minutes.

Blazing dramatically in to cinemas, in the US alone, The Hunger Games grossed over $161 million on its opening weekend, the highest November box office, and the fourth highest of all time [1]. That’s a lot of bums on seats, and an unrivalled captive audience for advertisers. According to Digital Cinema Media (DCM), research shows that 89% of cinemagoers watch cinema on-screen advertising [2] – an unsurprising figure, given that the entire audience is sat gazing at the screen in expectation for their film to start, the same film that, in all probability, they just paid an extortionate entry fee to view.

Last month, a study from Cologne University caused light tremors with its conclusion that “the mundane activity of eating popcorn made participants immune to the pervasive effects of advertising” [3]. I’ll eat my hat if this finding has absolutely any bearing on either popcorn or advertising, because in an age of ad-block and widespread piracy, an imprisoned audience like that of a cinema is priceless. Well, not quite priceless: the cinema advertising industry far exceeds a half-billion dollars with an average 15% annual growth [4], and advertisers are mercilessly milking every minute from the viewers they are exploiting.

DCM claims that 58.4% of cinemagoers are in their seats when the Pre-Reel is played [5], poor chumps reserving their seats, oblivious or resigned to the inexorable ad marathon before their chosen film kicks off. Allegedly, the ‘Ad Reel’ then “runs up to a maximum of 10 minutes” [6], although personal experience tells me that this doesn’t quite add up.

During a recent visit to Gravity, I endured a cocktail of advertising, infomercials and trailers for 31 minutes after the film was actually scheduled to start. Before that, a trip to watch Blue Jasmine racked up 31 minutes, and a viewing of Escape Plan a whopping 38 minutes. These times are discounting the extra ‘pre-reel’ ads showing before the allotted start time, which no doubt accounts for an easy extra quarter of an hour. Tag that on to the 160 minute runtime of the upcoming The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug [7] and you can pretty much rule out your entire evening. Maybe take an empty bottle and some Imodium.

It could be argued that as the length of films increase, and with the new challenges of the digital age, pre-film advertising might be expected to scale accordingly. It could be argued… except the pervasive myth that mainstream films are still getting longer isn’t really demonstrated in practice, at least not to any remarkable extent. An analysis of the top 20 grossing films of the year showed that in 1983, the average run time was 117 minutes, whilst this year was 118 minutes [8]. Hardly a dramatic increase over forty years. In fact, this years average film length is ten minutes shorter than a decade ago in 2003, when the average runtime was 124 mins (though in fairness, that was the year Peter Jackson served up his epic grand finale to the Lord of the Rings series, with a stat-staggering 201 minute runtime). The point is, if pre-film commercials run for 30 minutes, and the average film runtime is 118 minutes, then they account for over one quarter of the cinematic experience. If you apply that to your entry fee, on a £10 ticket you’re paying £2.50 to watch adverts for half an hour. And to think you could have bought another pint!

Sadly, the great irony of all of this is that still the film industry prattles on about battling piracy, about lost revenues, about the moribund future of cinema. But it really boils down to who they want to take the money from – advertisers, or the paying public. To expect both seems a bit much…

SOURCES

1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-25084772
2. http://www.odeon.co.uk/fanatic/in-cinema-advertising
3. http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/oct/13/eating-popcorn-cinema-advertisers
4. http://www.cinemaadcouncil.org/cac_inTheNews.php
5. http://www.dcm.co.uk/plan-your-campaign/on-screen
6. http://www.dcm.co.uk/plan-your-campaign/on-screen/ad-reel
6. http://www.theonering.net/torwp/2013/10/29/81476-uk-cinemas-programming-160-mins-for-the-hobbit-the-desolation-of-smaug-uk-tix-on-sale-from-nov-1/
7. http://www.dcm.co.uk/plan-your-campaign/on-screen
8. My own analysis based on stats from http://boxofficemojo.com/yearly/chart/?yr=2013&p=.htm