World: Media Analysis - America prepares itself for a cinema advertising revolution

The US is finally waking up to the potential of cinema advertising.

While the UK's market for cinema advertising has been thriving for decades, audiences in the US have been more likely to hiss rather than coo at pre-show spots. Public dislike, studio disapproval, the ubiquitous use of slides and the strength of TV have all resulted in a very different scenario. In the US, screen advertising accounts for barely 0.1 per cent of all display advertising, a market less than a tenth of the size of that in the UK.

But all that is about to change, thanks to a number of recent initiatives.

The most publicised is the launch of CinemaCume, the new ratings system inaugurated by Nielsen, which combines box-office results with surveys of cinemagoers to measure reach and frequency of audiences. This sits alongside the recent creation of the Cinema Advertising Council (CAC), a trade group representing 95 per cent of the 25,000 US cinema screens; and Arbitron studies showing audiences are now more amenable to cinema ads. All this, and the launch of a $200,000 trade campaign promoting cinema, has prompted media buyers and clients to think again about cinema advertising.

Revlon recently created its first two-minute cinema ad, starring Halle Berry, Julianne Moore, Eva Mendes and Jaime King.

"It's a pretty dramatic spot and, given the kind of mini-movie we were making, cinema was the perfect medium," Peter Gardiner, a partner and the chief media officer for Deutsch Inc, the agency that created the ad, says.

Other companies are following suit: Nissan Altima planted actors in the audience to respond "spontaneously"to its commercial when it appeared on the screen.

Zenith Media New York used cinema as part of a cross-media campaign to launch Scion, a Toyota division. "Before, we used to buy cinema on instinct. Now, we are able to quantify demographics. Cinema is really effective if you have a younger target audience that's hard to reach on TV. But for other audiences, the value is still not as great as if you were to run the exact same spot on TV," Neil Ascher, the executive vice-president and director of communications services at Zenith, says.

Much of the cinema push comes from Screenvision, which, with with 14,000 screens, is the biggest of three companies that dominate US cinema advertising.

Two chains also sell space for their own cinemas: Regal Cinema (the biggest in the world and with approximately 6,000 US screens), and National Cinema Network, a unit of AMC, with around 5,000 screens. But the industry is finally starting to ask why such a large market - 1.6 billion tickets sold across 36,000 US screens last year - is performing way below its UK counterpart.

The reasons for the disparity are historical, Matthew Kearney, the chief executive of Screenvision and the head of the CAC, says.

"Cinema advertising declined with the arrival of television in the 60s," he says. It reinvented itself in the 70s as local advertising using still images on slides.

National advertisers started to reconsider cinema in the 90s. Then, mid-decade, the UK's Carlton Screen Advertising acquired Screenvision and brought in professional sales skills from the TV industry, as it had in the UK.

The recent CAC report reveals council members as collecting $315 million in 2003, an increase of 48 per cent on 2002, with similar growth forecasts for 2004.

"The Nielsen CinemaCume is just one of a series of initiatives revolutionising cinema advertising," Kearney says. The amount of advertising in US cinemas looks set to rise. In the US, there is an average of only four minutes of commercial content before the main feature; in the UK it is ten minutes.

Also helping the medium's case is the gradual replacement of the old slide carousels with digital projection equipment. "Cinemagoers like the new digitally projected commercials that are rapidly replacing old-fashioned slide projected ads," Kearney says.

Could Screenvision's market share be threatened if increasing digitisation leads to the creation of more independent sales operations? Not according to Debbie Chalet, the chief executive of Carlton Screen Advertising in the UK, who says established cinema chains in the US are already doing their own in-house selling.

"Screenvision offers expertise - people dedicated to selling cinema and coming up with innovations," she says. "Screenvision can pick up contracts with other cinemas, whereas Regal and ANA cannot because they're not independent."

With advertisers increasingly looking for a one-to-one dialogue with consumers, there are hopes that cinema could benefit - at the cost of TV. According to Nielsen, the recall rate of cinema advertising is 80 per cent, compared with 22 per cent for TV.

Brad Adgate, the senior vice-president and director of research at Horizon Media, an independent media shop, says: "Cinema advertising here is in its infancy. I see it being used to complement, rather than replace, TV. When TV viewing rates fall during the summer, that is when people flock to the cinema. There is no doubt more ad dollars will go its way."

Not everyone agrees, though. Gardiner points out: "I'm not sure I agree it's in resurgence. Cinema's been pretty mainstream for a while. This new Nielsen research is an add-on. The figures have been pretty trackable for a while."

But Kearney says: "The revolution is already happening. If 2003's revenue growth was enjoyed by everyone in the cinema industry, we'd be the fastest-growing medium in the US."

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