Before a movie begins in most major theaters nationwide, there is a program—a string of ads, really—called FirstLook. It always concludes with an invitation: "Get here early for FirstLook," implores a cheery female voice, "to go behind the scenes of what’s new in entertainment."
And who actually arrives early for this? Probably nobody. Even the folks who make FirstLook know that.
"We’re somewhat the uninvited guest," says Cliff Marks, president of sales and marketing at NCM Media Networks, which produces the program. "No one comes to the movies and says, ‘I wonder what’s going to be in the pre-show.’ But since we’ve created this show, you wouldn’t believe how great the consumer response is."
When it launched in 2002, he says, people booed and threw stuff at the screen. Today, in surveys, 95% of viewers say they like it. The company’s program is on 19,800 screens, and, combined with revenue it earns by placing ads in movie theater lobbies and popcorn bags, NCM takes in nearly $500 million annually.
Now NCM may just have a truly innovative vision—not just by sticking ads somewhere else, but by expanding what a big-screen ad can be. NCM recently announced a partnership with the popular YouTube network Maker Studios, and other partnerships are likely to follow. It’s the first step toward what Marks hopes will be the creation of short-form, big-screen entertainment such as films or documentaries. These productions will still include a healthy dose of branding, but of a less-overt sort. "These things are not easy to sell," Marks says. "Madison Avenue has a very distinct way of working, and creating change sure isn’t easy. But the vision is there."
Marks is hoping to debut the new content in movie theaters by early next year.
NCM isn’t inventing a concept here, of course. Many brands already fancy themselves "content makers," and sharp agencies like Funny or Die create successful videos that feel like entertainment first and promotions second. But most of this type of work is too long for a traditional TV commercial slot, and can have trouble cutting through the noise online. Maker Studios, too, already produces some branded content, though on YouTube channels that are reaching a pre-existing subscriber audience. But how to cast a wider net? That’s what makes NCM’s new quest noteworthy: It has a captive audience of millions and a gigantic screen, and if it gets this right, it can be an important showcase for ads that don’t feel like ads.
NCM won’t be making brilliant branded content itself: It’s only a distribution network. When it shows, say, a "behind-the-scenes look" of a new TNT show, typically interspersing clips with short interviews with the cast, it's showing something that was created by TNT and just sent to NCM to insert into FirstLook. But Marks says he’s actively meeting with ad agencies and independent content producers, and signing partnerships with groups like Maker Studios, all to spur on the kind of ambitious content that NCM can fast-track to a movie theater screen.
Marks's company has taken a long time to get here. It began life as a joint venture between theater chain giants AMC, Regal, and Cinemark. It launched its first pre-show advertising fest in 2002 under the name The 2wenty, which meant . . . that it showed 20 commercials, maybe? "That’s the funny thing about it: No one really knew what the name referred to," Marks says. (The answer: It was playing off of old CB and police radio slang for "location"—say, "What’s your 20?" meaning "Where are you?") The name FirstLook came along in 2007, the same year NCM went public. A competitor called Screenvision emerged, but in early May NCM announced it is buying Screenvision for $375 million.
NCM’s FirstLook now reaches 710 million people annually, and NCM claims that it is the "#1 weekend network in America." That is, it reaches more individual people in a weekend than any of the television networks do, making it a potent advertising force.
But operating in the movie theater has restrictions. For one, the pre-show can only go on so long: There’s a movie to be shown, after all. And because movie theaters have spent years telling people to put away their phones (and, lately, so have special Geico commercials during FirstLook), NCM hasn’t been able to participate in all the social media and second-screen tie-ins that other advertising platforms use.
"We debated this for pushing two years," Marks says. The conclusion: "We understand that we live in a world where people are continually engaged with their mobile phone. Fifty percent of our audience is millennials. If you tell them to put away their phone, they’d be fidgeting." So this May, NCM also announced a partnership with Shazam of the type already seen on TV commercials: Viewers can now Shazam FirstLook spots to learn more.
And after the movie, NCM has another way for moviegoers to go social: It’s installing kiosks it calls "FirstLookYou" in theaters nationwide. Inside them, people can record a 20-second review of a movie they just saw, then blast it to their social media followers—creating, technically, their very own branded entertainment.