With 170 Thais for every movie screen, cinema operators have a big thirst to quench - and that's good news for advertisers
In the world of advertising, cinema used to be something of an ugly duckling. The spotlights have always been on television commercials and print advertisements, where the majority of clients' money pours in. Advertising awards have even been stacked in their favour.
But recently, cinema - once under-appreciated as an advertising channel - has been undergoing a facelift. In the first four months of the year, cinema advertising experienced an incredible 418-per-cent growth, at a time when advertising generally was suffering as much, if not more, than other industries in the present economic doldrums.
In April, general ad spending slumped by 6.6 per cent from the first quarter, and although the figures were still 4.4 per cent higher year on year, spending on magazine, radio and newspaper ads slipped at the start of the current quarter by 8.6 per cent, 7.2 per cent and 10.2 per cent, respectively.
TV spending grew in the first quarter, by a mere 3.2 per cent. But it tumbled by 7.23 per cent in April - the first time that spending on television advertising has gone down since the financial crisis a decade ago, according to Advertising Association of Thailand president Witawat Jayapani, who is also chief executive of Creative Juice/G1. And while television spending was dwindling, cinema spending swelled in the month of April by 343 per cent.
The unprecedented trend can be attributed to three factors: mainly to improvements in the cinema-going experience, from more screens to show times, then there's cinema's uninterrupted viewing environment, and finally the proliferation of blockbusters.
At last count, there were 570 screens around the country, 300 of them in Greater Bangkok. Forty-seven new screens are expected to be added this year, 37 of them in Bangkok, making a grand total of 617 by year's end.
Major Cineplex, having merged with EGV, now dominates the market with a share of about 70 per cent, followed by SF Cinema with 25 per cent.
All the new screens are still not enough to quench the thirst for out-of-home entertainment, says Major CineAd president Panithan Sethabutra. He believes Thai audiences are underserved. Currently there are, on average, 170 Thais per movie screen, although in Bangkok the ratio comes closer to 30. In the United States, there are 10 Americans per screen. Even the Philippines, which has a lower gross domestic product per capita than Thailand, has 90 Filipinos per screen.
In Thailand there is clearly an urban-rural divide. But stand-alone cinemas are gradually being replaced upcountry by complexes with restaurants and shops attached to theatres.
On a consumer level, the environment of these new cinema complexes and multiplexes has also been improving, says Carat Media Services Thailand chief executive Vichai Suphasomboon. The seats are plusher and there is more leg-room. Wine and other high-end delicacies are served for exclusive customers. Tickets can be booked online or on the phone to avoid long queues and the timetable is more generous, with major films screening every other 15 minutes or so.
These amenities have become a standard. The atmosphere is a far cry from the mostly single-screen, stand-alone theatres of a few decades ago. In addition, an evening out at the cinema in Thailand is far cheaper than, for instance, in Hong Kong or the United Kingdom.
In an era where the remote control symbolises domestic power, giving home TV viewers the power to zap out undesired narrative, cinema has become an advertiser's dream come true.
For a start, the audience actually pays to be there. And the theatre's environment - be it the atmospheric lighting, the comfortable seats or even the temperature - gives advertisers more control over the conditions in which their messages are delivered. One is unlikely, for instance, to be interrupted by bickering children, such as might happen in the living room during the evening soaps, or to be distracted by motorcyclists while listening to the news on the car radio.
The larger screen and superior sound system also maximise audience reception, Major CineAd's Panithan says. Some advertisers experiment with the format, especially in the much-coveted sound-check slot right before the King's anthem, when most viewers are seated and ready for the main feature. Despite this being the most expensive slot, according to Carat's chief Vichai, it is still much cheaper than prime-time television.
The larger and longer format offers more room for creativity, and the chairman of ad agency TBWA Thailand, Chaipranin Visudhipol, says he will not be surprised if the 10-minute short film, common in his youth, makes a comeback as sponsored content.
With its very specific appeal - 42 per cent of Thai movie-goers are aged 15 to 24 - cinema advertising is better at reaching the right target groups, thereby cutting any mass-media waste, Chaipranin says.
Shell has recently launched a ten-minute short film to promote the fuel company's "creative ability". Directed by BAFTA award-winner Kevin McDonald, the film will be screened across 450 screens in Britain before the controversial film Fast Food Nation. This marks the first time in advertising history that a campaign comprises solely of cinema ad.
Creative ideas are not confined within the theatre's four walls. Ads can appear, for instance, on video walls, plasma TVs and ticket stubs. Cinema operators are keen to promote in-house events, where advertisers can set up product booths and carry out various activities, such as product sampling.
There are also possibilities of product tie-ins. Chaipranin cites Honda's Spider-Man-inspired limited-edition motorcycles as an example.
One final factor contributing to the growth in cinema advertising, lifting it from one per cent to 5 per cent of total advertising spending, is the torrent of blockbusters, starting with two instalments of the "King Naresuan" trilogy, "The Bodyguard" and "Spider-man 3".
With the momentum still going strong, and the arrival of summer blockbusters, such as "Transformers" and the latest instalment of Harry Potter, it looks like nobody will yell "cut" anytime soon.
Ki Nan Tsui