Are The Movie Theatres Are Ripping You Off?

I can still remember sitting in a dark theatre as a child waiting for the movie E.T. to start. The year was 1982. The location was Cody, Wyoming. I was nine years old. I remember it like it was yesterday, the smell of popcorn butter in the air, the excited chattering of other kids and parents, the sticky floors, and the red cloth-covered seats. It was family entertainment at its best.

The magic of the movies has not changed much in the past seventeen years. The popcorn is the same, but has gotten ridiculously expensive. The theaters have gotten a little better, with bigger screens, bigger seats and better sound. However, there is one additional change that bothers the hell out of me every time I go to the theatre to experience the latest marvel of American film-making. What I’m talking about is not the price of tickets, although that bothers me somewhat. Eight to ten bucks is a lot to fork over for two hours of mediocrity, as is the case with most movies made these days. I’m talking about the pathetic slide shows that they have somehow slipped into the beginning of the shows. These are advertisements. They are paid for by companies who know that there is a captive audience staring back at the screen. It used to be that theatres showed cartoons before movies began to keep the audience’s minds active and their attention fixed on something. Cartoons are fun and enjoyable. Everybody loves them — parents, adults, kids, teenagers — they are the perfect medium for pre-movie entertainment.

So, why now have we suddenly accepted the fact that we’re actually paying money to sit for 10 minutes in uncomfortable seats to watch advertisements? Come on folks, is this really what you want? Give them an inch and they will take a mile. Pretty soon, we’ll be forced to watch even more slide show advertisements, with theatres pushing the movie’s start time back to accommodate their greed. I’m guessing that within a few years, everyone will be so accustomed to watching advertisements in front of a movie that the theatre conglomerates will start accepting other types of advertising. About a year ago, I actually saw a minute-long Coca-Cola advertisement in front of a movie. I was so pissed off I stormed out and complained (very loudly) to the theatre manager. He gladly refunded my money rather than have me cause more of a scene in their crowded lobby. But, I was the loser on this deal as I missed out on watching a movie I wanted to see.

The consumer is being abused here and nobody seems to care. Going to the theatre should be about entertainment, not advertising. It should be an experience that you can remember and relate back to friends, neighbors, and co-workers, not clogged up with cheesy slide-show ads and prettied-up television commercials on film. I don’t think I’m being unreasonable here. If movie tickets were less expensive I wouldn’t really mind the ads so much, but given the skyrocketing rates and the decline in movie quality (trust me when I say “Dick” really sucks), you’d think that I could be entertained for a few hours without having advertisements pushed into my face. It’s not like I can hit the mute button or change the channel.

I’ve always been an extremely honest person. In meetings at work, I can never keep my mouth shut and am known for stating my opinion and speaking my mind. Sometimes this works against me, but it’s part of my personality, and I’m not willing to change it. But lately, I’ve been going to the movies on Sunday afternoons, catching the matinee for five bucks. I then sneak into a second movie after the first is over. A few years ago, I would not have been able to do this because I know how tight the budgets and profits are at theatres. But now I don’t think much of it as I realize that these theatres are intentionally taking advantage of their patrons by forcing them to watch cheesy slide-show ads prior to the start of a movie. I figure if they’re going to take advantage of me, then I might as well take advantage of their lax security and catch a free show.

I know that some of you are going to write and say, ” Cam, but what about product placement? Isn’t that just as bad as the advertisements?” It’s a good point, but I would disagree. Product placement (using name brands within movies: a Pepsi can on a cop’s desk, an Apple iMac in the room of a teenage hacker) within movies is not obtrusive advertising. Most of the time it’s done without the audience even realizing that it’s been done. Because name brands are such an integrated part of our American culture, product placement in movies is not noticed. In fact, most people will notice it more when a film-maker uses a generic-looking pop can that says “Cola” on it, but has no logo identifiers or identifiable corporate markings on it instead of using a real Coca-Cola or Pepsi pop can. It’s also important to note that product placement is controlled by the director of a movie, not the movie-house owner or theatre manager.

It’s unfortunate that pre-movie advertising has gotten as bad as it has. I have heard very little about this trend from other theatre-goers, and nothing at all from the consumer advocacy groups. The assimilation of obtrusive advertising into the pre-movie experience is disturbing and disgusting, but everyone seems to be accepting it, and this bothers me tremendously. I’m hoping that somebody like Ralph Nader realizes that this is going on and approaches the large theatre chains about it, but I’m not keeping my hopes up.

I fear that the fantastic theatre experiences we all grew up with will be gone forever, being increasingly polluted by advertising and corporate greed. I know that twenty years from now, I’ll be saying to my kids, “You know, I remember a time when they showed cartoons in front of movies, and not these pop advertisements” and they will stare back at me with astonished faces and a look of disbelief.

Posted by Cameron Barrett at August 14, 1999 11:59 PM

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