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LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Wondering why the coming attractions keep coming and coming these days?
Simple: For the first time, theater operators routinely are being paid to play movie trailers.
The placement of a half dozen or more trailers, often after seven or eight consumer-product commercials, raises the question of whether such "pre-show" presentations poison moviegoers' mood. The conundrum keeps movie producers awake at night, for the same producers would have to nag studio marketing executives if their films failed to open well.
Which leads to the further question: When will the industry as a whole decide enough is enough?
"I admit it bothers even me," a top film distribution executive acknowledged recently. "Then again, I know I want my own trailer to be played. So I don't know the answer, because everybody is going to feel the same way."
Trailer numbers have surged in the past decade from two to four per film to a current five to seven on screens operated by larger circuits, with an additional number of 30-second "teaser" trailers often tossed in as well.
The National Association of Theater Owners doesn't dictate rules to its members on trailer numbers, but NATO president John Fithian said the trade group frowns on anything hurting the theatrical experience.
"We're seeing an increased pressure to play trailers, but there is a limit to what the patron can take in and retain," Fithian said. "Playing trailers does help both distribution and exhibition, so it's important to get it right."
Indeed, research shows that trailers can be enormously helpful to movie campaigns, and the resulting trailer mania can take many forms. For instance, a studio normally attaches one trailer for an upcoming release to film reels of pictures playing in theaters, but Paramount has been asking exhibitors opening "Iron Man 2" on Friday to play three trailers for the studio's movies. That's one more than the standard in recent years of two per "tentpole," or high-profile event movie. But Par on occasion has sought to place as many as four trailers with its biggest releases.
Motion Picture Association of America guidelines on trailers set a maximum length but don't address the number presented by individual studios or in aggregate. The studio group simply stipulates a maximum length of 2-1/2 minutes per trailer, with one NATO-approved "exception" allowed per year so studios can send out the occasional four-minute promo for event movies.
In the meantime, it has become common for theater operators to seek concessions from distributors in film-rental negotiations in exchange for agreeing to play a set number of trailers for a studio on a regular basis.
Certain studios have begun offering substantial compensation to big theater chains for placing one or more extra trailers per showtime. For years, international distributors have included trailer payments in marketing budgets, especially in territories where other media buys are difficult, but pay-for-play trailers is a relatively new phenomenon in the U.S.
In the case of so-called 100 percent deals, studios secure a guarantee that circuits will continuously run at least one trailer on every screen for an entire year. A distribution insider suggested that annual payments of one form or another total as much as $30 million.
In 2002, Sony marketing and distribution chief Jeff Blake paid a reported $100,000 to get wider play for the trailer for the Rob Schneider comedy "The Animal." Yet rumors of even heftier payments continue to circulate.
"Whether or not the exhibitor gets the money in a check or it comes off the film rentals, the studios can just include it in the prints-and-advertising costs," a well-placed industryite explained. "So $50 million in P&A becomes $52 million on a picture, and nobody's ever going to know."
Sony domestic distribution president Rory Bruer wouldn't discuss the subject of exhibitor compensation in any form but was unhesitant to endorse the spread of film trailers.
"The proliferation of trailers is a good thing, and I don't think they play too many at all," Bruer said. "Everybody I know thinks of the playing of trailers as entertainment, not marketing. But it is also the best way to get your message across to an audience."
Those still opposed to paying for trailer placements stress that such materials need to be tied to similarly targeted films. But they appear to be rowing against the marketing tide.
Some smaller exhibitors set limits on the number of trailers played, but larger chains show little inclination for halting the surge anytime soon. (Pacific ArcLight cinemas limit trailers to three per picture and nix ads.)
In fact, theater owners' desire to tap new revenue streams soon may spread to theater lobbies.
Studios are eager to place movie posters and cardboard standees in theaters to promote upcoming releases, and theater operators always have been happy to display the materials. But in the current context, the matter soon may become yet another topic swept up into the parties' film and marketing negotiations.