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Landmark sponsorship move

Times Staff Writer

Advertising in movie theaters: As a sore point among filmgoers, it’s up there with high-priced concessions and formulaic fare. Yet Landmark Theatres, a leading art-house circuit, is braving the critics by signing a deal with a carmaker for a series of projects it bills as “sponsored entertainment.”

Landmark has contracted with the Ford Motor Co.'s Mercury division to sponsor a series of projects and events related to independent film over a two-year period. Starting in October, the theaters will present preshow “making of” featurettes, and interviews with directors, and the carmaker might even arrange to admit patrons for free.

Whether it’s a much-needed infusion of cash into the art-house world or an intrusion into the moviegoing experience remains to be seen. The issue is, unquestionably, a hot one. Advertisers are placing their bets on theaters and movie product placement, now that TV commercials can be zapped by TiVo or muted via remote control. And some patrons are already up in arms over the proliferation of ads.

The website didntialreadypayforthismovie.com is calling for boycotts of products advertised, while Captive Motion Picture Audience of America and BadAds.org provide links with major media outlets, theater chains and the “offending” advertisers.

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A class action suit was filed against Loews Cineplex Entertainment Group, which subsequently announced it would publish the actual times movies begin in addition to the start time of preshow material. Legislators in Connecticut, Illinois and New York have introduced bills to make it mandatory.

That’s good news to Rancho Park resident Lloyd Prell, 76, who recently sat through 20 minutes of commercials at the AMC Century City 14.

“The show started at 5:05 instead of 4:35, which is taking advantage of a captive audience,” he said.

“Still, if Mercury presents material of interest to the public and does it in good taste, I’d be open. That’s not violating my theatrical space.”

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Sean Overland, a Mid-Wilshire resident working for a litigation consulting firm, is skeptical. The independent film audience is discriminating, he says, a “smart, media-savvy group” wedded to the classic moviegoing experience.

“Mercury’s going to have to walk a fine line not to turn off the very people it wants to attract,” said Overland, 32, who frequents Landmark cinemas. “We’re watching with a fatalistic helplessness as culture dies before our eyes. If Mercury wants to send a message to the audience, it should pick up part of the tab. TV is free because advertisers pick up the cost, but, last I looked, no movie tickets are discounted.”

Representatives of the carmaker acknowledged the deal is a “balancing act.” Still, the payoff is worth it, they say. Some people associate the brand with their grandfather’s Mercury Marquis, explains Lincoln Mercury marketing exec Linda Perry-Lube. But the company is seeking a younger, more sophisticated demographic.

“We’re relaunching the Mercury brand for the quirkier customer who’s seeking something different -- the sensibility reflected in independent film,” Perry-Lube said. “And Landmark is in our strongest markets, the Northeast and West. We’re doing a slow dance, making sure that what we do is relevant and engaging rather than off-putting.”

Mark Cuban, whose 2929 Entertainment bought Landmark in 2003, makes no apologies for the arrangement. “We’re providing our customers with more choices, creating exposure for independent filmmakers and, of course, keeping ticket prices down,” said Cuban, who once co-owned Broadcast.com and currently owns the Dallas Mavericks NBA team. “In our eyes, it’s ‘sponsored entertainment’ -- not advertising spots sold on a cost-per-thousand basis to a mall theater playing ‘The Fabulous Four.’

“If we do anything to affront our customers, we’ll all lose more than we gain.”

Todd Wagner, co-owner and CEO of 2929 Entertainment, says the deal had nothing to do with the recent box office slump. It’s always tough being a theater owner, he says -- no more so now than usual.

“This is a business that ebbs and flows, so it’s incumbent to find new revenue streams,” he said. “What we’re doing now, I liken to public TV or radio, bringing sponsors aboard in a dignified way.”

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Though Landmark currently turns down hard-sell ads, it’s not ad-free. Before the show, it runs what it considers public-service announcements for KCRW, as well as commercials for the Los Angeles Times, and Stella Artois, a French beer company sponsoring pre-movie “shorts by emerging film directors.”

Last November, Mercury made its first commitment to independent film with “Meet the Lucky Ones,” a series of Internet-delivered short films about an eccentric, slightly dysfunctional family. The movie screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January, after which the company approached a host of potential partners. After six months of talks, Landmark signed on.

Mercury’s thrust into the independent arena has other prongs, as well. The company sponsors the AOL Moviefone Short Film Festival and Glamour magazine’s “Reel Moments,” films inspired by readers’ essays, featuring up-and-coming female talent. The automaker also plans to create a film every year, when a new vehicle is introduced.

Cuban and Wagner’s 2929 Entertainment is exercising its creative muscles, as well. The company, which owns HDNet Films and Magnolia Pictures, sent out the documentary “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” earlier this year and has three movies in the Toronto Film Festival next month. In April it partnered with director Steven Soderbergh to direct six high-definition films which, like the others, will be delivered simultaneously to theaters and video stores. To defuse exhibitor resistance, the company will give them a cut of home video revenue. DVDs coming out that day would be priced higher than those released after the movie comes out.”

Independent film executives have been asked to contribute material for the “making of” featurettes. And they’re watching the situation with interest. The Landmark chain is a sacred cow to independent filmgoers, they note, and they might feel betrayed.

“No matter how you slice it, ‘sponsored entertainment’ is advertising -- even if it’s tasteful and organic,” said Jack Foley, Focus Features distribution chief. “And people’s fuses might be shorter because they’ve been exposed to more ambitious and aggressive advertising in the big chains. Still, all new things are foreign at first. This may be normal one day.”

If so, the sponsor must be compatible with the message, observes a marketing executive at a studio-affiliated independent film company.

“The audience for these movies isn’t a docile one -- and it’s apt to hiss and boo,” he said. “Still, anything that can create increased visibility for our product shouldn’t be discounted.”

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Ray Price, head of marketing for Landmark Theatres, agrees. Given his limited marketing budgets, he said, getting the word out on 300 movies a year is always an uphill battle.

“Though people complain about what the critics say, the main cause of death in independent films is anonymity,” he said. “Perhaps only 25% of the potential audience is aware of a given title. We need the resources to communicate.”


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