Commentary

Why Cut Down Movie Trailers?

Not many retailers advocate less marketing by their product suppliers, but that’s just what movie theaters are doing. New guidelines by the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) call for Hollywood film distributors to trim movie marketing, including shorter trailers, and I find that perplexing for many reasons.

First and foremost, the theatrical release window is squeezed as video-on-demand/DVD moves closer, yet today’s theatrical marketing keeps box office revenue steady and ticket sales—headcount—eroding only slightly. What’s holding back the wolf at cinema’s door is existing theatrical marketing that works pretty darn well, given moviegoers know films in theaters today will quickly be available elsewhere.

NATO just issued guidelines that cut 30 seconds off the current industry-agreed maximum for trailers (bringing them down to 2 minutes) and also calls for distributors not start dribbling out film marketing materials until 150 days before theatrical release (that’s five months and most movies now start at 12 months). There are other points, too. All the recommendations allow some exceptions and go into effect Oct. 1. The guidelines are voluntary, but they are also becoming the industry benchmark.

Let me count the ways I see truncating trailers and the start of marketing from today’s norm as misguided:

  • If theaters are worried about offending patrons with trailer clutter, they ought to announce the actual start time of a movie, instead of only posting the start of the pre-movie trailer barrage, as they do now. This is entirely within their power.
  • If trailers are cut down by 30 seconds, there’s nothing preventing theaters from running more of them. If annoying audiences with in-theater clutter is an issue, nothing is being done about in-cinema, on-screen advertising.
  • I don’t hear any new gripes from moviegoers about trailer clutter being a problem. There’s always been a segment that doesn’t like trailers, and others that actually watch with gusto. In the pre-broadband era, moviegoers would actually buy tickets for movies they didn’t want to see simply to see the trailers. Famously in 1998, across the country many moviegoers walked out before the start of “Meet Joe Black” starring Brad Pitt after seeing the trailer for the next “Star Wars” film, which is the only reason they bought tickets.
  • Do theaters realize this can boomerang? The same trailers shown in movie theaters are available online. Movie theaters risk pushing the best marketing creative materials for their upcoming movies outside their cinemas by demanding nips and tucks.
  • Anybody who’s watched old movie trailers (“Garbo speaks!” and “It’s an orgy of terror”) knows they ran almost twice as decades ago as common running time of 2 minutes 30 seconds today. Film trailers used to be really long.
  • Trailers are viewed by many as almost works-of-art. Awards are bestowed for excellence in creativity, of which there is plenty. 
  • Major studios spend $1-3 million per film to fashion creative materials, so why ask film distributors to curb marketing that will be an excuse for them to spend less on creative.
  • Most importantly, why advocate for less marketing? It’s a competitive media marketing out there and aiming for a light touch comes with plenty of risk of not being heard.
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