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U.S. Theater Owners Officially Enact Guidelines to Limit Film Marketing Lead Time & Trailer Length

Last month, Harris Interactive released results of a poll which revealed, among others things, that Americans regard concession prices (62%) and rude moviegoers (56%) as being the two worst parts of seeing a movie in a theater.  Fortunately for U.S. theater owners, they’ve been working on improving the viewing experience since this past May.  Unfortunately for them, they’re not really doing anything about concession prices or rude moviegoers.  They’re focusing on gaining a better control of the ways in which films are marketed.  Yay?

Back in Maythe National Association of Theater Owners (don’t pretend you knew that was a thing that existed) proposed new guidelines which would restrict the length and release window for all film trailers and advertising meant to be displayed in theater lobbies.  Why?  If a trailer is too long or gives away too much of the plot or fails to indicate a release date, those are complaints which are directed on site at theater owners and employees who bear no direct responsibility for the perceived errors in the marketing.  As such, their proposed guidelines were informed by mounting customer complaints.

However, Hollywood film distributors and studios begged to differ.  They were not pleased with the proposed guidelines.  So, NATO backed down, tabled their guidelines, and engaged in months of discussions with the Hollywood studios.  Some might have thought they would just go away, shouted down by industry opposition.  You’d be wrong.  As per The Hollywood Reporter, NATO’s guidelines have been slightly revised, ratified, and enacted:

  • The current standard trailer length of 2 minutes, 30 seconds (which is based upon a voluntary MPAA regulation) is now cut down to a new standard of 2 minutes.  This provisions remains the same from the guidelines proposed in May.
  • Trailers for film can only be shown within 5 months of intended release.  The prior guidelines sought to limit film trailers to a 4-month window meaning that extra month is something studios fought for in negotiating with NATO.
  • Marketing of a film at theaters in the form of displayed posters can only be used within 4 months of the film’s intended release.  This provisions remains the same from the guidelines proposed in May.
  • Film studios will be granted two exceptions per year on the guidelines governing trailer length and marketing lead time. The prior guidelines only allowed 1 exception per year.
  • There is no longer any mention made of mandating that all marketing material, trailer or otherwise, identity a specific release date for the film.  This was a provision of the proposed May guidelines

These official guidelines will not take effect until later this year, applying to any titles opening on or after October 1.

Theoretically, shorter trailers could limit the amount of plot spoiled, and tightening everything to a shorter marketing window will ease confusion as to potential release dates.  However, unless they sought an exception something like premiering the teaser for Interstellar with copies of The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug wouldn’t be allowed to happen anymore since it was advertising a movie which wasn’t due to come out for another 12 months:

Under these guidelines, that type of hype would transfer even more to the online arena than it already has.  The studios don’t want that since their marketing research still indicates the primary points of exposure for new films to prospective audiences are TV ads and theatrical trailers attached to similar films.  Then again, shouldn’t the theaters owners be allowed to exert a little more control over the marketing performed in their theaters?   

Here’s where the studios have called bullshit on the theater owners: these proposed guidelines limit the actions of the film studios but impose nothing upon the actual theater owners who could easily offset the intended benefit of the guidelines by squeezing in more trailers or commercials and thus earn more advertising revenue.   First off, most studios (apparently, Disney doesn’t) actually pay exhibitors to play those trailers.  So, this just could be the theater owners way of squeezing in even more trailers thus more exhibition fees from the studios.  Furthermore, the theaters might simply want to free up more time for local advertising.

That would be very not good.  In that Harris Poll, respondents listed not the trailers as one of the worst thing about going to the movies but the “advertisements that run before the previews,” which was the third-leading worst thing with 17% of the vote.  In such situations, we are a captive audience being cruelly reminded of the otherwise long forgotten experience of watching something we can’t simply fast-forward through as we would on a DVR.  Not all of us are lucky enough to live in markets which feature theaters which do not need to feature extensive pre-trailer local advertising for revenue.  The Hollywood studios and distributors still argue that the 2 minute trailer is simply too short, and the four-five month release window especially problematic if there is no ideal film to which the trailer can be attached to help launch it during the marketing stage.

As another example, under the new guidelines recent theatrical trailers for summer 2014 blockbuster Jupiter Ascending would not be allowed to air in theaters since it’s still outside the 5-month window:

However, there is a huge caveat here: NATO’s guidelines, though now made official, are still only voluntary.  It is up to the discretion of individual theater circuits to adopt the guidelines or not.  Studios could keep right on doing what they darn well please and NATO couldn’t stop them. Then again, the studios probably don’t want to piss off the people upon whom they are dependent to show their movies.  It’s not like they can just buy the theaters and force their will upon them. The last time they did that kind of thing they got in a lot of trouble.  Oh, wait.  It turns out they’ve actually been able to do that again if they want since the 1980s.

What do you think?  Let me know in the comments.

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