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Trailers: How a small time slot adds up to big industry headache
Los Angeles Times
HOLLYWOOD — Ken Foreman, director of distributor relations for the nation's largest theater chain, has 30 movie executives on his speed dial. Most days, he has those same 30 executives on his back.
Foreman is Regal Cinemas' czar of coming attractions. He decides which trailers will be placed before a runaway hit and which won't run at all. In his office in Knoxville, Tenn., where a map pinpoints Regal's 560 theaters nationwide, Foreman's computer chimes constantly, announcing the arrival of as many as 80 e-mails a day from people who want their soon-to-be-released films promoted on his company's 6,263 screens.
Five minutes don't pass without a nudging phone call from another anxious studio executive in Los Angeles or New York. Some beg. Some plead. Some threaten.
"It goes with the territory," said Foreman, who is on the front line of an ongoing, high-stakes battle over those two-minute snippets that can help make or break a film. Week in, week out, theater owners and movie studios square off to determine whose trailers go where. Distrust is so rampant that studios hire spies to make sure theaters make good on promises.
"Captured audience"Movie marketers will tell you that the only place where their ads are guaranteed to reach proven moviegoers is not on television or in newspapers, but inside a darkened theater — preferably one where the weekend's hottest movie is reaching the most pairs of eyes. Woe to the trailer that runs first, when many people are buying their popcorn and Milk Duds. The coveted spot is right before the feature, when the theater is full.
At certain times, such as the lucrative holiday season, studios are under even more pressure to get the right trailers in the right spots before the right movies.
"You become nuts," said Tom Sherak, a partner at Revolution Studios, who for years was a top executive at 20th Century Fox. At Fox, he was known to excoriate exhibitors who didn't run his trailers. "It didn't make me angry. It made me crazy. I would make up words I never heard before. There's a lot of screaming."
When it comes to reaching what's known as a "captured audience," said Century Theatres President David Shesgreen, "the studios have gone from being very passive, to becoming interested, to becoming manic."
Paying for placementThree years ago, Jeff Blake, vice chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, did what in Hollywood amounted to the unthinkable: He admitted to paying a theater chain about $100,000 to make sure that a trailer for Sony's "The Animal" would precede Universal Studios' "The Mummy Returns." Blake, who declined to comment, was roundly criticized by other studios that feared he had set a costly precedent. But, in fact, industry sources confirm that many studios find back-door ways to reward theater chains, diverting hundreds of thousands of dollars of supposed "marketing costs" into a theater's coffers, picking up the cost of newspaper ads, forgiving the cost of replacing broken film reels or giving an exhibitor a bigger slice of gross ticket sales.
"You can see when a [theater] circuit and a studio have a deal," said one top executive who asked not to be named, "because there is an unusually high level of play" of that studio's trailers.
Given the loosey-goosey nature of the system, keeping track of that level of play is a daunting task. So the studios hire private companies — call them truth squads — to audit trailer traffic.
Each weekend, outfits such as Los Angeles-based Theatrical Entertainment Services and New York's Certified Reports dispatch armies of so-called mystery shoppers to theaters. Each studio spends about $3,000 a week to learn what trailers ran in the nation's top 200 theaters. Even more valuable, some executives say, is when the tally reveals what trailer got cut. For example, last fall, Walt Disney Co. attached a trailer for its animated film "Cars" to all prints of "The Incredibles."
On opening day, the "Cars" trailer was missing from several of Pacific Theatres' screens in the Los Angeles area. When Disney executives demanded to know why, Pacific's top brass blamed the theater manager — a feint, because everyone knows trailer decisions are made at the front office, not at the theater level.
Pacific was eager to make amends, knowing that Disney, like other studios, could punish the company later by refusing to provide prints of future movies, giving them to competitors instead. When Disney's mystery shoppers went out the following weekend, the "Cars" trailer was back.
Stars, directors taking noteMystery shoppers aren't the only ones tracking trailers. Some marketing-savvy movie stars and directors have been known to try to chart where their trailers are running, usually prompting what's known as a "panic call."
Last summer, for example, DreamWorks SKG learned that Tom Cruise would be paying a visit to a local theater to watch the trailer for his thriller "Collateral." But there was a problem. The theater hadn't planned to run the trailer on the day of Cruise's visit. DreamWorks' exhibitor-relations staff placed a panic call, begging the theater to yank a competing studio's trailer and replace it with "Collateral."
The theater owner agreed, then placed an apologetic call to the studio whose trailer had been pulled. Notably, the losing studio didn't balk.
"The majority of the time, [studios] will work with us," said one exhibitor, "because they know they may have to be making that call someday."
How many is too many?Theater owners try to walk a fine line between meeting studios' needs and testing moviegoers' patience. Most everyone agrees that 20 minutes of trailers and ads is the upper limit.
"People generally like trailers — to a point," Century's Shesgreen said. "It's like I like steak — to a point." So during the holiday crunch period, when more than 40 minutes' worth of trailers routinely vie for screen time, the desperation is akin to a life-or-death game of musical chairs.
"It's unfortunate," sighed John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, which represents 75 percent of the nation's theater chains. Many, he said, "spend more time booking trailers than booking movies. There is tremendous pressure to play more and more trailers."
A trailer in the can has a better chance of getting played than one delivered by itself. But even when an oral pact has been struck to run Trailer A with Movie B, everyone knows that theater companies have the last word.
How do they make the call? Regal's Foreman says his primary goal is "making sure everybody is happy" — or at least equally sad. To maintain good relationships with every studio, he works hard to spread the favors around. To keep track of who gets what, Foreman uses spreadsheets to chart the location of every trailer played on every Regal screen.
Another key consideration for trailer wranglers is the concept of "fit." A trailer for an R-rated movie usually doesn't go with a PG- or G-rated film, for example. But fit is about more than ratings. Theater owners and studio executives spend a lot of time trying to pair trailers with movies that appeal to the same type of audience.
For example, last fall, Universal Pictures executives wanted a trailer for "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason" to run with two films they thought would hook female moviegoers: the woman-in-peril thriller "Cellular" and the John Travolta firefighting adventure "Ladder 49."
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company