Jan. 29th, 2014

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Have you become annoyed by the abundance of lengthy movie trailers that seem to spoil all the good stuff and marketing campaigns pushing movies so far ahead of their release dates that you lose track of when they're actually going to show up in theaters? Well, your complaints have not fallen on deaf ears. Well, sort of.

This week the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), a trade organization for movie theater owners, released a series of guidelines for the marketing materials for upcoming movies. The voluntary standards specify that trailers run no longer than two minutes, and run no more than 150 days before a movie actually opens, and other advertising such as aposters and standees displayed no more than 120 days prior. Potential loopholes involving third parties advertisers are also addressed. There would be some exceptions for special content such as behind-the-scenes featurettes, and each distributor gets two films a year that wouldn't be subject to these restrictions.

This would mean some drastic changes in the way marketing campaigns are run, which often release their earliest teasers over a year in advance of a film's release date. The date restrictions would mean that a summer tentpole opening on Memorial Day would have to wait until Christmas to start campaigning. Remember that great teaser for the upcoming Christopher Nolan movie "Interstellar" that was released back in December? Under the new rules, it would have to be kept under wraps until June. The "X-men: Days of Future Past" standees that have been in the front window of my local theater since mid-December would have had to be kept under wraps for another month at least.

Teasers are usually two minutes or less, but the later full-length trailers usually run at least two and a half minutes. Most of the reports I've seen about the guidelines make the assumption that the shorter length is meant to discourage spoilers, which there have been increased complaints about recently. However, I don't think that's the case. Thirty second television commercials are often the most spoiler-laden bits of advertising, and it would be as easy to divulge third act secrets in two minutes as it is in two-and-a-half. And while everyone seems to agree that the spoilers are annoying, they haven't really been affecting the theaters' bottom lines. However, shorter trailers mean that theaters can play more trailers or more pre-show advertisements, which they've become increasingly reliant on for revenue.

A year ago, we were getting reports that larger exhibitors were regularly charging studios to play certain trailers, because the advertising space in front of the features was becoming more and more valuable. Most theaters now run one or two trailers attached to a film for free, but the rest have to be paid for. And because more trailers bring in more revenue, over the past decade we've seen a steady rise in the number of trailers that play in front of a film. You'll notice that the new NATO guidelines don't address a common complaint of moviegoers these days, which is that there are too many ads and coming attractions in front of a film. It's not rare to find films that actually start twenty minutes after they've been scheduled because of all the previews.

The new guidelines would go into effect for movies opening after October 1st. They're voluntary, remember, but it's the theaters that decide which trailers play in front of which movies, and where to place the posters and standees, so if they're all onboard with the new rules, the studios may be out of luck. Sure, print, television, and online advertising are major alternatives to consider, but the trailers that play in theaters are special. It's an audience that the studios know will be the most receptive, that is paying attention, and can't change the channel. Trailers are considered part of the normal moviegoing experience, and some viewers still take pains to arrive early so they won't miss any.

And lest you think the theaters are being too stingy about this, remember that the studios have been the ones who have been cutting into theater owners' ticket revenues by shortening the amount of time that movies play in theaters exclusively. It's not uncommon to find new studio movies on disc a mere 90 days after their initial release dates, and there was talk recently of premium VOD cutting that number in half. The way that the theaters and studios split ticket sales, the longer the run of a film, the more money goes to the theaters. So you can hardly blame the theaters for pushing back and exercising their leverage over the studios' marketing campaigns.

As for us consumers, nothing much changes. Even if we get shorter trailers, we'll probably sit through more of them, and longer versions will still be released online. They'll be easier to avoid, at least. The fight is really between the theaters and the studios over money, and the preferences of the viewers make for good P.R., but they're really a secondary concern for both sides.
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