Thursday, May 25, 2006

Theatre People Thinking Like Businessmen, Or
Businessmen Thinking Like Theatre People

Scott Walters is back on his blog with vengeneance, and I hope he sticks with it.

The current discussion going is in regards to pre-show Ads being incorporated into live theatre performances. Scott, to his credit, is not necessarily saying it is a good or bad thing, what he is asking is, "why not?"

There is ample discussion on his site and others, (like Superfluities,) about how the art is impacted with commercial decisions like these, so I am going to take it from more of business angle.

First of all, the idea is obviously a carryover from the film business. Of course, pre-show trailers for coming attractions have always been around. But, we first started to see television type advertisements on video tape releases of studio films in the eighties, with one of the most notorious ones being Top Gun's soft drink ads. Slowly, the practice moved into the theatrical releases. Now, we have car commercials, soft drink/pop videos, and Will Rogers Foundation charity ads.

The main question is: Is it effective? Advertising is incredibly hard to calculate without a specific call to action that can measure response. My guess is that most of these types of ads are going after general Branding.

More and more companies are advertising in the theatres, but how is that impacting the movie business? Quite frankly, it is hard to tell. It is obvious that there is a huge core of people that are enraged by the practice. For Example: Captive Audience is an organization and website extremely dedicated to stopping the practice. Roger Ebert has spoken out about it as well.

Scott Walters wants us to think more business-like, and so taking a page from the book Good To Great by Jim Collins, I have to say we need to look hard at the data.

As much as we want to think that declining movie attendance or box office is because commercials are ruining the theatrical experience, we have to confront data that is available.

A research firm, OTX, released a study last fall that examined declining motion picture attendance. You can read more about the study at this post on Big Picture, but basically the studies main findings pointed to a lack of quality related to cost:

"The perception among young male moviegoers that there wasn't
much to see this year was a difficult barrier to overcome, regardless of price," said Vincent Bruzzese, Senior Vice President, Entertainment Research of OTX. "But this demographic, more acutely than any other, is weighing the value of the in-theater movie experience compared to many other lower cost, more immediate and convenient entertainment options. And increasingly, young males
are deciding to grab a DVD or video game to watch or play at home."

Of course, there are a combination of reasons why there is a decline, but I did not detect "commercials in front of movies" as one of them.

As Big Picture sums up: "Its not the Revenge of thge Flop; As we mentioned back in July, its the overpriced, mediocre experience that is increasingly keeping movie goers away; males teens in particular are emblematic of this trend."

Strangely enough though, it would appear that Radio is a completely different experience regarding commercials. Big Picture, once again, looking at the case of the Clear Channel consolidation finds:

"Lost in this charming PR hype was a simple fact -- Clear
Channel’s fastest growth is behind it. When they were early in the process of consolidating and homogenizing U.S. radio, they a huge growth curve ahead of them. At an earlier point in their growth cycle, Clear Channel was able to wring out massive cost savings as they consolidated their network. That phase is now over.
This efficiency, cost cutting, and uniformity came at a cost: Clear
Channel wracked up big margins with their streamlined McMusic programming, but they ended up driving away listeners, also."

People started leaving or "flipping channels" when they were frustrated with too many commercials. Obviously, this is a different model than pre-show advertising. Commercials in radio can frequently interrupt programming.

At this point, you are probably wondering, What is his point? Well, to be honest, I think that the OTX study of movies shows that really, people will take the pre-show commercials as long as they feel they are getting to see a good film for the money. Would theatre be the same way? I believe so. Now, we can get into the arguments of what value means. (Does it mean giving them what they want? Or does it mean a truly great film?, etc.) Ben Cameron of TCG often gets slammed a bit with regards to his statements about value. However, rather than seeing his statements as a call to change what you do in regards to the audience, I have always understood him to mean this: Find the audience that appreciates what you do, what your visions are, what your aesthetics are, etc. Then, Mr. Cameron would advise, market the hell out of them.

In other words, if you want to create avante garde theatre, great! Your responsibility then is to find a way to get every possible person who likes avante-garde theatre into your show. What about those who don't like avante-garde theatre? They will, once and while, come in on their own, but you best not spend a single moment worrying about them or chasing them.

My best example of this is the ART in Cambridge, they have a thriving subscriber base, and critical accolades. There are many, myself included, who believe this is ridiculous, we believe that it is an incredible travesty. The ART, in response to me, would smile, take my higher priced-single-ticket-buyer money, and kindly suggest that I drop my comment card in a waste barrell on Brattle Street. And they are damn right to do so.

The next question I see is: If the ART started pre-show advertisements, would all of those who rabidly enjoy their productions stop going? Probably not. Especially if the practice was presented to the audience as necessary to cover the costs of say, the stunning effect of continuous snow during their Production of Snow In June.

Of course, there is always the spectre of corporate influence. How many steps away does corporate sponsorship put us towards being used as tool of the corporations.

Placement advertisement is becoming increasingly common in the television industry. In fact, writers are now starting to get the union involved in navigating this growing phenomenon. An article from the Chicago Tribune:

On the scripted show "7th Heaven" last month, there was an extended story line in which the Camden family went on about their love for Oreos, including whether they preferred to dunk them in milk or screw the cookie apart. An anchorman in "Pepper Dennis" was recently shown receiving a case of teeth whiteners, and using one on the air."What happens is that storytelling can come to a screeching halt under an order to tout products on television," Baer said.Cherry said he wrote one scene at a mall parking lot in cooperation with a
car manufacturer that worked because Gabrielle made a joke out of it. But he was recently approached by another auto company that wanted to be featured but wasn't happy with the characters Cherry made available -- including Bree's sociopathic son. The deal fell through

The real interesting thing we should look at is not so much how we should look to business to show us what to do, instead, we should look at how much business is emulating us.

Think that couple on the train last night who were listening to their new I-pod with two cords were just being cute and loud, singing along to that catchy new pop song? Think that woman who asked you to take her picture with that weird, but interesting, video camera was just looking to get a shot for her scrapbook? Think that strange arrangement of boxes, all from the same company, sitting on the street by the doors to an apartment building are going to delivered to a bunch of tenants?

Well, if you have thought that, you can consider yourself the victim of Stealth Marketing, which is the corporate colonization of our beloved Street Theatre.

So much more to talk about with regards to this, I hope the discussion continues.


Scott Walters said...

Excellent post! Stealth Marketing is fascinating -- Boal's "Invisible Theatre" techniques in the market place.

An additional thought: if ART did a brief commercial for a prodction at another theatre, one that wasn't bought by the other theatre but provided as an endorsement by ART, do you think some of the subscribers might give the other show a look-see?

P'tit Boo said...

are you on the clue train ?

Also... you might like . Interesting stuff.