IN THE BEGINNING THERE WAS NATIONAL SCREEN SERVICE
Long before the Studios formed their Exhibitor Relations departments, there was a company called National Screen Service (NSS). Formed in 1920, NSS was contracted by the major Studios to produce and distribute movie trailers to the theatres across the country. NSS expanded their services soon after to include production and distribution of paper movie advertising materials. By 1940, NSS had signed exclusive contracts with all the major Studios to also produce and distribute paper movie advertising materials (ie one sheets, three sheets, lobby cards, 8″x10″ stills, etc.) Theatres would order the materials directly from NSS. So there was no direct dealings between the Studios and the exhibitors for in-theatre marketing materials. NSS also hosted periodic seminars for exhibitors where Studio executives did presentations on their upcoming releases. Other than these periodic seminars, there were no direct interaction between the Studios and the exhibitors on a daily basis.
Since there was no direct daily interaction between the Studio and the exhibitors, the most valuable tool NSS could give the exhibitor was the pressbook for the movie. The pressbook was like a thin magazine which contained the tools exhibitors could use to promote the movie in their local areas. There were ad slicks, publicity stories that could be locally planted by the exhibitor, promotional ideas and images of the various posters, lobby cards, etc. that the exhibitor could order from NSS. The pressbook was eliminated when the Studios formed their own Exhibitor Relations departments.
THE STUDIOS TAKE OVER
The NSS system underwent a dramatic change during the 1980’s when the theatre landscape was morphing from single screen theatres to multiplex theatres. This meant that the lobby space had to support several playdate movies…not just one AND coming attractions. This caused the Studios to revise their paper advertising inventory to what could be most used in these multiplex lobbies. There was basically room for a one sheet for each playdate film and a few coming attractions. By eliminating the now non-essential accessories like half-sheets, three-sheets , 30″x40″ posters, 40″x60″ posters, lobby cards, 8″x10″ stills, 22″x28″ posters, etc. by the Studios, the purpose of NSS’s existence became unnecessary. By the year 2000, NSS faded away as the Studios took control of the printing and distribution of all their paper advertising materials and trailers. The Studios had their own fulfillment facilities to handle the distribution of their materials.
THE BIRTH OF EXHIBITOR RELATIONS
By the mid 1980’s all the major Studios had formed what is called the Exhibitor Relations Department. The main purpose of this department was to deal directly one-on-one with the exhibitors on the marketing of the Studios’ movie releases. Chief among the duties of the Exhibitor Relations Department was proper trailer placement on the theatre screens and placements of the one sheet posters and other special display materials (ie standees, banners, etc) in theatre lobbies. These fledgling departments, however, were headquartered at the Studios’ home office and there were no regional representatives. But by the year 2000, however, all Studios had regional representatives in the key markets to further enforce the one-on-one interaction with exhibitors. These interactions included more periodic marketing presentations to the exhibitors and much more frequent day-to-day communications to help the exhibitor properly promote the Studios’ product in the theatre.
The key to a good relationship with the exhibitors is to treat them as full partners in the in-theatre marketing of the Studios’ releases. This is accomplished by frequent communications (including physical visits to the actual theatres) with exhibitors about materials for their lobbies and brainstorm about special promotions, contests, displays, etc. to draw attention to the Studios’ releases. Many Exhibitor Relations departments will fabricate “special” display materials (ie photo boards, banners, displays, etc.) specifically for a particular theatre. One of the methods used in the past by the Studios’ Exhibitor Relations departments was The Project Picture. A Studio would designate a specific movie as The Project Picture. It was a program where exhibitors would compete amongst themselves for major prizes awarded by the Studio for doing the best job in in-theatre marketing of the Studio’s movie. Lately, this program has all but vanished for one reason or another. But in its heyday, The Project Picture proved quite successful for the Studios. Now, the Exhibitor Relations departments are including modern marketing tools such as the internet (ie Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to reach out to exhibitors.
The multiplex theatre has become a blessing and a challenge for the Exhibitor Relations departments today because of the amount of movies it shows in the complex which has limited lobby space. The Studios have had to become very creative in dealing with the “space wars” waged to get prime spots in the limited theatre lobbies. Competition is a good thing because it forces the Studios to be innovative in promoting their releases with unique and groundbreaking methods of in-theatre marketing. This is, more than ever, the challenge facing the Exhibitor Relations departments of today. But Hollywood is famous for its innovations and I’m confident that the Studios’ Exhibitor Relations departments will find new ways to meet this challenge.
A PERSONAL NOTE…
When I started my career as the Warner Bros. Theatrical Marketing Field Publicist for Southern California in 1988, half of my job was exhibitor relations and the other half was doing promotions (ie publicity stunts, premieres, merchant tie-ins, etc). The Warner Bros. Exhibitor Services Department was formed in 1981 and only had two people at the Home Office in Burbank whose primary job was trailer and one sheet placement nationally. Later, Warner Bros. Exhibitor Services regional representatives were hired to cover the various key markets across the country.
Having started in theatres before landing at Warner Bros., I loved visiting the key Southern California theatres to partner with them in promoting Warner Bros. releases via special displays and in-theatre promotions. I considered every theatre manager as my friend and I always took great pleasure in telling the theatre managers that “visiting your theatre is like visiting a friend’s home…only your home has a much bigger living room!”