Why Commercials Before Movies Is Worse Than Piracy

Being subjected to advertising is just something we’ve come to expect in our daily routines, and for most of us, we’ve become so conditioned to various advertising methods that we don’t even think twice about it. There is nothing wrong with advertising in and of itself. It’s how we learn about products, services and entertainment. Advertising is also the big main source of revenue for things we hold dear like television and The Movie Blog (which is 100% funded by advertising), so I’m certainly never going to rail on the evils of advertising.

However, advertising in movie theaters is a topic that has been brought up here on The Movie Blog more than a few times, and a recent report by the Cinema Advertising Council in the New York Post begs us to once again revisit the issue. We’ve all figured that commercials playing in movie theaters was worth a lot of money… but did you realize its worth almost HALF A BILLION DOLLARS? The IMDB gives us this:

Revenue from in-theater advertising rose more than 15 percent to $456 million from $395 million a year ago… The Post quoted CAC Chairman Cliff Marks as expressing the belief that moviegoers are becoming “more accepting” of screen advertising. A recent Arbitron poll indicated that two-thirds of moviegoers “don’t mind” the ads.

Don’t mind the ads? DON’T MIND THE ADS???

First, I should mention here that I don’t mind the idea of movie theaters making money. It’s a business. They exist to make money, and if they can find new creative ways to generate money then I say more power to them. If they can come up with new ways to get my money while providing me with some new service or product that I’m willing to pay for… then good for them.

Second, there are types of advertising in movie theaters I “don’t mind”. For example, if the movie is supposed to start at 7pm and I get into my seat at 6:45pm, I really don’t mind commercials and ads being shown on the screen until showtime. I’m just sitting there anyway, it’s not taking away from my time since the show isn’t advertised to start for another 15 minutes… so really… showing ads in that vacuum is no skin off my nose, it gives me something to look at while I wait, and it generates some income for the theaters. GREAT! It’s a win/win for everyone.

But you don’t have to have a degree in advertising to know that the bulk of that $456 million in ad money doesn’t come from those “pre-show” commercials. Oh no no no no… most of that money comes from the ads I LOATHE. The commercials (not trailers… I like those) that they start playing at the time they advertised the MOVIE was supposed to start.

I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating.

– When you take my money for popcorn, at least I’m getting a tasty treat

– When you take my cash at the box office, I’m getting to come in to watch the movie

– When you take my time for commercials on TV, I’m getting a “free” TV show out of it

But what are we getting for our time with commercials in movie theaters? When the ad says “Movie starts at 7pm” and I’m in my seat (that I paid admission for) at 7pm, it’s time for you to start giving me what I paid you for… the movie. If you want to show me commercials, fine… give me the movie for free then.

The theater industry is pulling in RECORD amounts of income from those commercials, and unlike TV (where we get a free show), WE GET NOTHING IN RETURN FOR OUR TIME SITTING THERE WHEN THE MOVIE IS SUPPOSED TO START.

Movie theaters have in essence found the PERFECT advertising. Ads that take to audiences time, without giving them anything in return.

I don’t mind theaters making money off me when I get a product, service or entertainment in return… but commercials playing at 7pm when you told me the movie would be starting is doing nothing but STEALING my time. You are taking from me without giving anything in return. HOW IS THIS DIFFERENT FROM ONLINE MOVIE PIRACY!?!?

When we download a movie without giving the movie industry anything in return, they call that a crime (and it is). But when the industry takes our time (sometimes up to 15 or 20 minutes) without giving us anything for that time in return they call it “smart marketing”.

How about I start calling pirating movies “Smart Shopping”. Will piracy be considered ok then?

Remember, YOU ARE GOING TO DIE SOME DAY. That means time has value, and when anything else in life takes your time, you get compensated in one form or another. Let’s think of it this way.


I see approximately 8 films in theater each month. At about 15 minutes of commercials per film (remember, these are ads that begin to play at the movie advertised start time), I end up spending about 2 hours per month watching ads in theaters uncompensated. That’s 24 hours, or a full day of uncompensated ad watching in a year.


I’m not a doctor or lawyer, so let’s say my time is worth a measly $20/hour. Since I spent about 24 hours watching uncompensated ads in theaters last year, I figure the movie industry owes me about $480 out of that Half Billion they made last year off my time. Seems fair.

The principle for piracy and time theft is the same. Taking an asset (a movie, or your time) without providing the due compensation for taking that asset. So where do we start the class action lawsuit?

If you tell me the movie starts at 7pm, then when I PAY YOU to get into the movies, there is an implied contract that you give me what I paid for… a movie at 7pm. When you instead put up 15-20 minutes of commercials at 7pm you are stealing my time, and also stealing MY SHARE OF THAT $456 MILLION you made off my time.

So the next time you’re pirating a movie (which is neither something I do nor endorse), let that ease your conscience, because although you’re stealing the $10 you would have paid in admission… they probably owe you about $150 for stolen ad time anyway.

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  • Carl Phillips

    I agree with you 100%, but…

    I threw the same TV argument at the regional manager of a BIG NAME theater chain, and his reply was most enlightening.

    “Then, perhaps, what we should do is show the opening scene of a movie, then roll the credits for the movie, cut to 4 to 6 minutes of advertising before we return to the feature. Unlike tv advertising, we know the consumer isn’t going to get up and go to the refreshment stand, the way they might go to the refrigerator, so we will be able to charge a higher rate than the tv industry gets; for the patron, they’ll get use to it, the same way they’ve gotten use to the 2 to 3 minutes of credits text that shows up while they are trying to watch the beginning of the episode. You know, in the old days, all those front-end credits played BEFORE the episode began.

    “Or maybe the multiplex that has a feature playing on two screens might adapt the Netflix model: pay $10.50 a ticket for the theater that is showing the movie with commercials, while charging $15.00 a ticket for the screen that is ad-free.”

    I’m 59. These comments disturb me. It like I’m 11 again and I’m walking around my neighborhood with a petition to stop cable companies and “Save Free TV!” When asked why I should PAY for something I could get over the airways for free, the response was, “Well, we have a great number of tv channels that run no advertising, and the company lets you watch those stations for a nominal surcharge.”

    Today? We’ve become so merchandising oriented, we pay a cable fee to watch four or five channels that are nothing but commercials. I’m waiting for the day a theater chain starts charging $4.95 a ticket for a ninty-minute ‘program’ of nothing but exclusive, behind-the-scenes in production footage of next years films that “…you can see here see here, and no where else.” Sorta take all the stuff they bring to the SDCC each year and turn it into a theater event.

  • Joe

    I am officially done with going to the theater because of this. Great article. I wonder how much money they are losing from people like myself. I hope a lot.

  • Cody

    I feel your pain with the commercials. In fact I intentionally show up late to avoid them.
    However, to say that you get nothing in return might be going too far. Please correct me if I’m wrong as you probably have more knowledge on the subject than I. But it seems that what we get in return is a ticket that cost $9 instead of something like $18. Would it be fair/accurate to say that without those ads before the movie ticket prices would be higher? Like you said before, the theater has to make money somewhere. And if it’s not on the movies themselves and they can only raise concession prices so high, it seems the next logical price hike would be ticket prices. If that’s the case, then no, I don’t mind watching a few lame local ads if it helps subsidize the price of admission.

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  • dave

    im just going to repost “duck on the run”s comment because it really sums up out i think about the whole thing.

    “I don’t understand people who actually support the commercial during movies. would you like a 2 minute advertisement before your dinner at a restaurant? how about a page of ad before you get your menu? And before your spleen surgery your nurse can read you a page of info on the new coffee maker that sharper image just put out. restaurants and hospitals need money too. And these movie commercials are forced upon the consumers without choice. think about it. if this is ok with you, then how many other advertisement opportunities are you saying yes to? how about a short message at the stop light before it changes. Surely you don’t mind a couple of seconds of extra waiting, you are stopped at the light anyway. how about every time you turn on your computer there is a short 2 min advertisement for the sponsors or affiliates of dell or hp whatever brand your comp is. Just because it is accepted doesn’t mean its ok.”

    or what about no petrol coming out of the pump until youve finished watching a few short ads. it really stupid that we put up with it

  • Krisys

    20 dollars an hour is measly?!? Jeesh.

  • warmtrooper

    Hi John,
    Early in the article you stated it’s “no skin off your nose” if you are subjected to 15 min of commercials before the movie starts. But then you take a different tack, and complain about the 15 min. Is your main gripe that these 15 min cause the movie to start later than it says?  Personally, I am disgusted by theaters showing ANY commercials to me after I paid $11 to watch a MOVIE.  Paying money should actually EXEMPT us from watching commercials, but the corporations are so slimy they find a way to subject a “captive audience” to a vulgar parade of advertising.  Even cable “on-demand” selections include commercials; it’s unbelievable how powerful these advertisers are, that they can even convince TiVo to make it harder for their customers to simply “skip” the commercials, forcing them to fast-forward through them, even though the technology exists to skip them.

  • ed7020

    You know there are going to be 20 mins of commercials, turn up 20 mins later. If everyone did this then they would not generate as much revenue for the ads as provider would be willing to pay less. Therefore the cinema would stop showing them as it would be more profitable for them to get an extra showing in each day that pack it full of ads. If you are that bothered by something do something about it, explain to people who are about to go in that if they stand outside now then you will be saving their time in the future. Start a movement. Create a solution.
    Personally I enjoy the commercials!

    • warmtrooper

       @ed7020 show up 20 min later? You mean when it’s completely dark and all the seats are taken?