by Marty Demarest

I used to be irritated with the commercials that theaters screened before movies. After all, hadn't I paid already? Why was the theater selling my time - with me, held captive in a comfy seat in a dark room, weighed down with tubs of soda and shopping bags of popcorn? What had I done wrong, other than choose to see a schlocky Hollywood movie?

Television sells ads to subsidize our laziness: We want our millions of channels for one monthly fee, and the only way to pay for that is to tolerate a few commercials. Plus we need an opportunity to go to our refrigerators and eat the food that we're being instructed by the ads to eat. Television exacts a reasonable price.

But with movies, we've already hauled ourselves to the theater and paid for parking, tickets and food. And still, the commercials come, selling us products. And then we're sold previews, which are advertisements for other movies. And then the movies themselves usually contain a fair amount of product placements. There are so many sales pitches being made in movie theaters these days that they need to work out a rewards system for enduring more of them. Maybe those of us who are willing to watch the ads should be let in early for free, and then the paying customers can come in and find seats when the movie is about to start.

Regal Cinemas recently announced a new "feature" they're calling "The 2wenty," which is nothing more than twenty minutes of commercials screened right before the movie. Understandably, some people resent this, and are demanding a solution. In Europe, most film listings contain a warning that the movie itself begins twenty minutes after the posted time, or they simply play the ads and previews twenty minutes before showtime. In America, however, we unknowingly give theaters our time, and they sell it to the highest bidders.

Still, there's hope. Consider Nintendo's new "Who Are You?" ad. The first thing that you'll notice about the ad is its unique visual style. It's shot like some old '70s hard-boiled action film, grainy and urban. But it features scores of Japanese schoolchildren getting out of class. Slowly, they begin to amass in the streets, running toward some unknown destination. And then, we're suddenly in a real-life video game, with kids bouncing off buildings and running atop walls. It's mysterious, exhilarating, and when all the kids finally gather in a square outside of a video game shop, and put on enormous Mario and Luigi heads, there's a sense of payoff that many feature films fail to deliver.

And that's what, to my dismay, makes these movie ads tolerable: Half of them are better than the movies they precede. A few of them are even better than the previews, which for years have been better than most films. The ads, by their very nature, work to engage our attention. The advertiser needs to make an impression strong enough that we'll remember it past Russell Crowe's thighs, J Lo's cleavage, and Elijah Wood's hairy toes. The ads rely on tricks that mainstream filmmakers seem to have forgotten: Don't give everything away at once; respect the intelligence of your audience; give them something interesting to focus on. Present-day ads, at their best, are well-made short films, and some of these ads are bringing about a renaissance of the short film before a feature.

Of course, there are bad ads, too. A current Master Card commercial features the Cat in the Hat (I assume, since we only see his hands), grabbing all sorts of whoosits and whatsits for holiday gifts. This ad is poor because it makes one very foolish assumption: that we actually care about The Cat in the Hat. But audiences who haven't endured the film aren't likely to be engaged by the Seussian trappings; and audiences who have already endured the film probably want to forget it. If anything, they'll resent Master Card.

Some ads resemble music videos more than commercials. HP has an ad for printer and photo paper that superimposes life-size moving photos onto real backdrops, creating a windows-within-windows look that's intriguing. The bad thing about abstract ads like this is that in movie theaters they tend to run on too long. A gimmick works best in short doses. And somebody should tell video game companies that, while the graphics for their games might be impressive on a television set, they just look cheap when blown up to the size of a movie screen.

Yet I'm willing to declare the newest Levi's ad a classic. A buff, rugged young man sheathed in denim lassoes a passing car, gets dragged behind it into an arena, then climbs atop it, riding it until it slows down. I like the ad because it combines Indiana Jones-style action with a gritty, sexy feel. And the ad doesn't bother to tell you what it's advertising. You just keep watching this guy try to dominate the car, marveling at how well his clothes protect him. This simple, wordless narrative is pure movie fantasy, and when they tell you that he's wearing Levi's, it's like trading one fantasy for another. "Oh...that's how he did it. He wore Levi's." It's a cheap trick, but it's also the kind of cheap trick that we expect from the movies - sort of like sitting down to a quarter-hour of commercials.

Publication date: 12/18/03

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