National CineMedia Sees the Future of Advertising at the Movies

Moviegoers can't skip ads

National CineMedia (NCM) had a message for brands and media agencies attending its upfront event at AMC's Lincoln Square Theater in New York today: TV is dead.

Specifically, the audience for live television is dwindling while the film industry remains as healthy as ever—or almost as healthy. More importantly, viewers watching all sorts of content on all sorts of devices at their leisure would much rather move past all paid ads as soon as the "skip now" button pops up.

At the movies, they can't.

Cliff Marks, NCM's president of sales and marketing, called 2015 "the single biggest year in the history of the movies," casting the in-theater cinematic experience as the one thing on which all Americans can agree. Unlike other forms of media, the movies have largely been "insulated from the massive fragmentation" that still challenges advertisers' ability to ensure audiences will actually see the ads they pay to run.

After a merger with rival Screenvision fell through earlier this year, NCM has rebranded itself as "America's Movie Network." Marks argued that its "ratings" rival that of the very biggest live TV events like the Super Bowl, Oscar night or March Madness.

NCM announced several updated offerings: a partnership with Nielsen will allow the company to make "audience guarantees" that empower buyers to more accurately compare the reach of in-theater ads to those airing on live TV, and thereby better gauge the value of their ad buys. NCM also plans to roll out a "Cinematic Audience Targeting Optimizer system" later this year that focuses on reaching specific demographic groups like Latinos, African Americans and "High Income" individuals. It's the same sort of targeting tool now dominating the digital ad market.

In order to further illustrate the urgency of this industry sea change, a second short screened during the presentation featured a hodge-podge of young people explaining why they decided to join advertisers' least favorite group: cord-cutters. As one put it, "TV as a thing is done." Movies, on the other hand…

NCM also aims to make its name more visible to the general public this year by hiring Maria Menounos as host of a pre-show program called FirstLook. During the presentation, the company's newest face displayed her pop culture knowledge by reciting lines from Ice Cube classic Friday (she claims to know the film by heart) and promising more interviews with stars in the year to come.

Disney VP of Cinema Partnerships and NCM fan David Sieden then took the stage to reinforce the enormity of the opportunities by listing the many, many properties scheduled to draw audiences worldwide over the next two years. As he put it, "people are still going to the movies"—and advertisers now have a chance to reach the millions who will fill the seats for Disney studio blockbusters like Pixar's Inside Out, Marvel's Ant-Man, and live action versions of The Jungle Book and Alice Through the Looking Glass in 2015 and 2016.

NCM's point was very clear: if you truly want millions of people to watch and absorb your clients' ads, the best time and place in the world to air them is in the theater right before the new Star Wars movie.

Of course, this was all before the Stormtroopers took the stage.

Sieden referred to The Force Awakens trailer as the very definition of "premium content." In other words, audiences will gladly sit through any number of ads for a fleeting glimpse at JJ Abrams' coming reboot set in a galaxy far, far away.

No one in the audience disagreed.