Before seeing Clash of the Titans in 3-D, filmgoers at AMC theaters must sit through previews for the Nightmare on Elm Street remake, Salt, and Step Up 3-D, among others. These films have little in common and seem intended for vastly different audiences. How do movie theaters decide which trailers to show?
The "quadrant" system. As many as six trailers play before features at major chains, like AMC and Regal. The studio releasing a given film typically has automatic rights to two of these slots, and theater executives (in consultation with higher-ups from various studios) select the remaining four. Though theoretically studios and theaters could attach any trailer to any movie, they usually decide which releases to promote by using the "quadrant" system, which divides potential audiences into four different categories: men under 25, women under 25, men over 25, and women over 25. Before chick flicks, theaters play previews for romantic dramas as well as romantic comedies, because they figure that's what young women will eventually want to see. Regal Cinemas also began matching red band trailers, which include profanity and sexually explicit scenes, with R, NC-17, and unrated movies in 2008. And sometimes theaters disregard quadrants altogether if something else ties the movies together—say, if they're all in 3-D. (It's impossible to show a 3-D trailer before a 2-D movie, since those audiences aren't wearing special glasses.)
Of course, since there are often more than four possible previews available in a given quadrant, negotiating which trailers make the cut can be tricky. The young men going to see Clash of the Titans might enjoy learning about any number of upcoming movies—Kick-Ass, The Losers, Iron Man 2—in addition to the films already being advertised before the feature. Theaters further narrow the field by trying to treat all major studios more or less equally. They might play Warner Bros. trailers on 20 percent of all screens and Disney trailers on 30 percent, for example. The same trailers don't always play before the same movie at every branch of a large chain, so it's possible to spread the wealth around.
Sometimes distributors don't want to settle for equal treatment. Every studio wants its own films to piggyback on surefire hits, regardless of quadrants.As TiVo, the cable renaissance, and the Internet have eaten away at television audiences, theatrical trailers have become more and more important as marketing tools. Moviegoers are a captive audience, after all—and studios will do whatever they can to take advantage. Though such behavior is frowned upon, executives have on occasion paid exorbitant amounts to ensure that their trailers will be well-placed, as when Sony's Jeff Blake gave a theater chain $100,000 to ensure that the trailer for The Animal, a Rob Schneider vehicle, would be shown before Universal's The Mummy Returns in 2002.
The trailer placement system at independent theaters is much simpler: They only show trailers for movies that will soon be playing on one of their screens. For these exhibitors, the calendar is the only factor at play—and sometimes, their coming attractions don't even have trailers, which simplifies things even further.
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Explainer thanks Brendon Bouzard, Samuel Craig of NYU's Stern School of Business, and Adam Walker of Film Forum.