It's not about the church. It's about the congregation
A view from Maisie McCabe

It's not about the church. It's about the congregation

When Sir John Hegarty planned his speech for the Digital Cinema Media Upfronts at Bafta on Monday morning, he couldn't have known quite how topical a subject the church would turn out to be.

As it was, DCM had spent the weekend ahead of its annual preview event for media agencies firefighting a story about it banning an ad for the Church of England.

The ad shows the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, walking through a park. He then starts a voiceover of the Lord’s Prayer before handing over to an assortment of people, from bodybuilders to gospel choirs. It concludes by encouraging viewers to visit a website about praying called Just Pray. The Church of England wanted to run the spot before the latest Star Wars film, which is released on 17 December, to reach people in the run-up to Christmas. 

DCM declined to take the church’s money, saying in the summer that it did not air ads "connected to personal beliefs". Fast forward a couple of months and The Mail on Sunday splashed the row all over its front page. The story built into one of the major segments on the ten o’clock news that evening. And, on Monday, the prime minister pulled himself away from managing the terror threat and the impending vote on Syria to tell his spokesman that he thought DCM’s move was "ridiculous".

The Mail on Sunday, and its sister daily, has accused DCM of making up its policy on religious advertising on the hoof and attempted to support that claim by saying the rule was only added to DCM’s website on Friday. But there is a precedent for cinemas being choosy over what advertising they carry. DCM’s predecessor Carlton Screen Advertising didn’t take political advertising because cinemas were worried about people being offended in the personal environment of a movie theatre.

I understand that DCM trialled political ads around the Scottish referendum last year but had to ban them again after receiving so many complaints. Quite aside from the amount of money people have paid to watch a film at the cinema, the fact that it is such an intimate environment means both the people selling the ads and the brands advertising in them are right to be careful about what runs.

Back at Bafta, Hegarty was in no doubt about cinema’s value, saying he used to beg the media department to put the medium on to plans. He said he spends all his time "creating work that is going to capture undivided attention" but, if he’s in the cinema, "part of that job has been done". 

Maybe the lesson we should take from the row over the Church of England ads is that, even with competition and fragmentation, cinema is still "the mother of all screens".