Don’t Need a Law
by G. Kendrick Macdowell
NATO General Counsel &
Director of Government Affairs
Anyone looking for burning
issues in the exhibition industry needn’t hunt for long: digital
cinema, terrorist-sponsored movie theft, budget-strapped
states sniffing for more tax revenue, culture wars erupting
over entertainment product content – and a host of
The one that appears to have generated the
most emotion, however, might perplex that proverbial visitor
planet, struggling to comprehend our species.
I’m talking about those advertisements before the
movie. Honestly, to judge from the magnitude of indignation
and vilification in some circles, you’d think movie
theatres had become local adjuncts of Abu Ghraib. I’m
told they actually boo, as a kind of civic ritual, at the
advertisements in New York City movie theatres. (Though
I’m advised by a journalist in the Big Apple that
New Yorkers treat loud complaints as a municipal art form.)
advertising is not new. In fact, it’s
nearly as old as the motion
picture. Even the
nickelodeon period in the early 1900s featured commercials.
Indeed, in Europe, movie theatre advertising has been
robust and thoroughly entrenched for a long time. Comparatively,
the United States is merely catching up.
It’s a serious issue, but I have to smile. I never
cease to be amazed at the American impulse to redress every
social irritation with a law, or a lawsuit – a phenomenon
witnessed even 170 years ago as Alexis de Tocqueville toured
America and penned his remarkable insights.
This year, in Connecticut, New York (state
and city), Illinois, and Oregon, lawmakers introduced measures
to force theatres
to post start times for the actual movie so that (presumably)
patrons can show up after those pernicious ads. (Forgive
me for feeling obliged to note that these measures are
nearly all sponsored by Democrats. My party has other infirmities,
but zealous determination to micromanage business is not
usually one of them.)
First, let me say, to those irate patrons
and lawmakers, thank you. Sincerely. I may disagree with
solution, but anyone who cares that passionately about
their movie experience certainly deserves my respect and
gratitude. We are, indeed, after the same thing: the best
out-of-home entertainment experience possible.
But really, a new law micromanaging movie
start-time postings? As well-intentioned as these lawmakers
doubtless are, I
have to believe that many more pressing matters warrant
that creative legislative energy. Illinois state representative
Jack Franks – ironically one of the sponsors of start-time
micromanagement legislation – finally said it best: “There
are always market solutions for making changes in policy.”
Amen. Indeed, one circuit recently announced
a voluntary change in policy, which Rep. Franks applauded.
already had the policy, and still others had close variations
on the policy. Variation. That’s a market. Legislated
conformity. That’s not a market. It is odd that Rep.
Franks would celebrate “market solutions” only
after introducing legislation to override the market. But
perhaps he imagined himself participating in that time-honored
partnership between the public and private sectors in which
legislators “cue” business without ultimately
Let me briefly and respectfully examine
the premises of movie start-time legislation, and see if
we can forge a
measure of civil, or even grudging, acknowledgment that
theatre owners are not deliberately abusing their patrons,
and do not deserve mandatory movie start-time micromanagement.
First a bit of history. Movie advertising
is not new. In fact, it’s nearly as old as the motion
picture. Even the nickelodeon period in the early 1900s
Indeed, in Europe, movie theatre advertising has been robust
and thoroughly entrenched for a long time. Comparatively,
the United States is merely catching up.
What has changed? With the explosion of
television in the 1950s, that loud sucking sound you heard
rushing out of theatres and into the new medium. To be
fair to our 21st century patrons, we did all enjoy a kind
of blissful quiet in those dark theatres for a few decades.
In those less stressful times, who could resent dancing
popcorn buckets exhorting us to “get ourselves a
But advertising, let’s face it, is kind of like a
gas that fills any available space. It was inevitable that
advertising would creep back into theatres. Indeed, theatres
became particularly attractive once we all added remote
controls to our television sets. As soon as we could “surf” (or
even simply “mute”) by punching a button from
our rocking chairs, staring at ads with zombie-like suggestibility
Moreover, nearly everyone seems to like – or at least,
not mind – movie trailers. I suppose in the minds
of advertisers, an audience receptive to advertisements
about future movies surely wouldn’t mind a few advertisements
And finally, to the virtue of a captive
audience, theatres add a delightfully segmented audience – courtesy
of movie ratings, which permit advertisers to target age
groups much more effectively. And studies confirm that
people sitting in theatres are significantly more likely
to remember ads and the products they hawk than people
seeing the same ad on television.
Well, we love to hate advertising. We know
that advertising money fuels many industries and subsidizes
that might otherwise be impossible without that advertising
revenue. It is true as well today. Ticket prices would
necessarily be higher without that advertising revenue.
While we hear complaints about the price
of movie tickets, remember that movies are still the most
entertainment experiences. And the rate of ticket price
increase has been less than Broadway plays, music concerts,
and sporting events – all of which are more expensive
than movie tickets.
And now to the crux of the resentment. Is
it really “deceptive” to
post a movie time that actually signals the start of material
other than the actual movie? Of course not. Indeed, it’s
deeply and unfairly misleading to call start-time legislation
a fight against “deceptive” advertising.
Virtually never in the history of movies
have we gone to a movie theatre to see nothing but the
actual movie. Not
too long ago, people went to a theatre to see the latest
installment of short features, a couple of cartoons, a
few commercials, and a few trailers – and only then
the “actual” movie. No one winced at the failure
of theatres to post the “actual” start time
of the “actual” movie. It would have been absurd
to suggest as much.
So why does modern advertising (of products
other than movies) suddenly become something radically
vile and different
from the total package in movie theatres? I think it has
to do with our collective weariness with advertising. Massive
exasperation with Internet spam is only the latest manifestation.
It’s as though we feel saturated and wish, at least,
to be warned that more commercial speech is gushing our
I understand. Really. I make it a habit
never to buy a product if an advertisement for it bothers
me in any way
(generally because it’s a stupid commercial). And
therein lies our real power as consumers. You don’t
like the ad? Punish them.
But exasperation with advertising is a poor
basis for a one-size-fits-all legislative edict, coupled
and even more opportunities for vexatious consumer lawsuits.
The limited resources of our state and local governments
and our courts really need to be devoted to much more important
matters. And once you “cure” one consumer’s
exasperation with sitting through ads, you trigger that
same consumer’s exasperation with arriving at the “actual
movie start time,” only to find the good seats already
Laws can be inept vehicles for solving social
irritation. Movie start time legislation is a bad idea.
But hey, the glass is always half full.
Commercials never interrupt the movie – and that’s an opportunity
for total immersion we ought not take lightly. As we get
used to commercials before movies, we’ll find them
less and less exasperating – and advertisers truly
competing for our attention will find more and more creative
ways to get our attention. I, for one, wouldn’t mind
a bit being subjected to Baz Luhrmann’s Chanel ad
featuring Nicole Kidman.