MEDIA FORUM: The medium that's riding the wave of box office hits

Admissions to cinemas are at an all-time high. What's going on? And are the media agencies making the most of it? Alasdair Reid reports.

It's appropriate that cinema is currently one of the brightest lights in the media darkness. Appropriate if you're stretching for smartarse analogies with symbolic resonance, that is. At any other level it's rather perplexing. This is the digitally convergent era, remember?

We're all supposed to be locked into uncompromisingly solipsistic mindsets, playing computer games or wandering aimlessly on the internet with the hands-free kit on, listening to an ambient backwash of digital radio via the mobile phone. You certainly don't want to venture out into an unpredictably real world and sit watching flickering images in dark public spaces with people you've never even texted before.

Great theory. Especially in light of the fact that the cinema box office had its best July since 1971, with admissions totalling 15 million, 8 per cent up on July last year. Nor is this a one-off. January to June admissions were up a whopping 22 per cent year on year - and it's all part of a broader growth pattern going back over a decade. Since exhibitors began doing something about the scabby fleapits they laughingly called picture palaces and started investing in flash new mulitplexes, the audiences have been drifting back.

Hit a good patch in terms of product and there's a chance that queues will form. Especially if the distributors are on form when it comes to the marketing side. And they've certainly been prepared to get their cash out. In the first half of 2002, marketing spend by the distributors was up 44 per cent year on year.

Deborah Sheppard, the marketing director of the biggest spender in the UK market, United International Pictures, points out that there have been a lot of good films out there this year - and when the market is so competitive, the pressure is certainly on to keep ahead of the game. But it's certainly not a case of throwing money around recklessly. "There's a lot of vying for position and we all have to be aware of the competitive environment.

When the opening weekend makes or breaks a film you have to make sure that your marketing builds to the right sort of climax, she says.

One of the elements that's continuing to bear fruit is the use of innovative marketing techniques such as SMS texting and internet campaigns, including viral initiatives.

"Especially in the summer, the youth market is not necessarily sitting around watching TV. So it might be relevant to use outdoor plus new media. There are ways to use a ring tone and a logo for instance, and with a film such as The Guru, it helps that the music (used in the film's soundtrack) by the Sugar Babes is at Number One. We're always looking for ways to do the job efficiently, Sheppard says.

There is clearly a buzz about the medium this year. Gerry Boyle, the head of planning at Zenith Media, says this is largely due to great film releases, backed by sophisticated marketing. "It has yielded a reliable succession of must-see box office hits. The industry will have enjoyed somewhere in the region of 15 blockbusters by the end of 2002. It's not surprising that ad revenues have followed rising admissions for many years, particularly in search of those elusive 16- to 34-year-old audiences."

And, he adds, the "experiential power of the medium remains unsurpassed. Catherine Ware, the account director at Pearl & Dean, says that in revenue terms, the medium is at least holding its own year on year. "Admissions growth has been fantastic over the past decade, but especially good over the past two years. With buyers now looking beyond TV-only schedules, cinema is capturing more than just imaginations," Ware says.

And the main story on the advertising side is that the biggest spending category across 2002 is likely to be motors. Simeon Adams, the account director at Mediaedge:cia, says that this is particularly telling. There was a time not so long ago when car manufacturers hardly advertised at all. He explains: "The cinema audience was perceived as a mainly 16- to 24-year-old demographic that didn't spend any money on cars. Now the medium is delivering a broader, more mainstream audience that's highly attractive to car advertisers, and it's now the medium's highest spending category."

That in itself is bringing problems. Some cinema reels have a handful of car ads on there - and the medium is now working with agencies to minimise clutter and category conflict. But that's always going to be a problem in a highly demanded medium.

But how has it managed to improve its audience profile so dramatically?

A combination of good product and good marketing, Adams says. "In the 90s it was all about Stallone and Schwarzenegger blockbusters. Now films that in the past might have been considered niche are regarded as more mainstream and are delivering a broader audience, he adds.

The top ten box offices attractions in the first half of 2002 bear this out. Although Spider-Man and Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones were up there, so was Bend It Like Beckham and Gosford Park. And of course, Lord of the Rings. Some cynics say that the whole market is falsely skewed by the film's ability to lure Rings bores off the street and into the popcorn queues.

We shall see. But the medium clearly continues to exercise a powerful pull on the imaginations of advertisers. Alison Brolls, the head of marketing at Nokia, says: "Nothing beats the sheer scale and drama of sitting in front of the big screen. It's all about entertainment. You have made a major effort to be there so you are a lot more engaged and involved with what you are seeing and hearing. For advertisers the rub-off is exactly the same. In fact, Nokia likes cinema so much it has taken its involvement further. It was one of a number involved in product placement deals with the producers of Minority Report.

Product placement is pretty fashionable these days, and the rationale behind this sort of deal merely underlines the power of the medium.

Brolls adds: "Nokia's involvement with Minority Report and what it was all about - that the future can be 'seen' -really tied in well with major new developments about to take place in our industry at the time of the movie's release, with the advent of multimedia messaging allowing you to see and hear images, sound and text all at the same time using your mobile phone. Nokia helped Spielberg create his unique vision of the future by designing futuristic communication device concepts exclusively for the film. This positions Nokia at the forefront of communications technology. While the movie projects cinema goers into the future, mobile phone users can experience Nokia's leading edge technology today with the new Nokia 7650, Nokia's first imaging phone," she explains.

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