Media: Behind the hype - Schoonmaker prepares a cinema ads revolution

Tim Schoonmaker is eager to shake up the cinema ad model.

Tim Schoonmaker had ruffled feathers in the cinema business just days after the recent announcement that he was the new chief executive of Odeon Cinemas. He's already talking up the digital future, as well as hinting that the company could strike out on its own with direct ad sales, bypassing the traditional use of a sales house.

One of his qualifications for the Odeon job must be his experience at Emap. Described as an "Emap wunderkind", he spent 20 years at the media owner, starting Emap Radio in the early 90s and playing a significant role in pushing for the digital platform. Cinema advertising could, so the theory goes, be transformed by the introduction of high-quality digital projectors.

Schoonmaker is known as a creative thinker, and digital transmission would certainly allow for a new episode in cinema advertising. Ads are still distributed on reels, which have to be made up regularly and sent out to every screen in the country. With digital, ads could be sent directly and scheduling could be more like that of television.

The only snag is that, so far, no-one has been able to balance the books in favour of installing the necessary expensive digital projectors. National advertisers, especially in the UK, are looking for quality. The technology costs $200,000 or so and, even if Odeon dug deep into its pockets, that would only cover its own 604 screens. Other cinema groups might remain in the dark ages.

At Carlton Screen Advertising, which handles the majority of cinema advertising in the UK, including the ads for Odeon cinemas, the chief executive, Debbie Chalet, is sceptical about digital. But she is happy to be enlightened by Schoonmaker, "if he's got a business model that works".

Schoonmaker's vision for cinema as part of a larger entertainment offering could justify investment in technology. He's already talking about buying rights for sporting events to show on the big screen. However, this would require a major change in viewing habits.

But he's not just stargazing. The new chief executive is also thinking about cost control. His other suggestion, that Odeon might consider selling advertising direct, is more straightforward and more controversial.

The sales structure for cinema in the UK is arguably a little archaic, with two sales houses, Pearl & Dean and Carlton Screen Advertising, splitting all the business between them. This system has been going pretty much since the advent of cinemas as we know them.

Bruce McGowan, the head of cinema at ZenithOptimedia, is circumspect about the possibility of direct sales. While respecting the experience of the people at Carlton Screen Advertising, he is not entirely opposed to the idea: "From an advertiser's point of view, it could be a good thing. But that remains to be seen."

Any change in sales structure isn't going to happen overnight. Odeon has a contract with Carlton Screen Advertising and Chalet is naturally confident about the operation and the relationships built up with advertisers and agencies. "As a specialist sales team, we can offer expert people with expert equipment," she says.

Schoonmaker's high-profile arrival in the cinema business is timely.

There has been new investment in the media in the light of healthy growth over the past few years. This year, cinema's share of display adspend across all media is projected to be 1.8 per cent.

Schoonmaker believes the business is evolving and clearly wants to be a catalyst. His arrival is generally welcomed. As McGowan says: "Cinema advertising has been stuck in its ways for a very long time ... It's got to be a good thing."

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