Later this week, Cliff Marks is retiring from National CineMedia. His long tenure there dovetails precisely with the adoption of digital cinema technology and he had a hand in many, if not most, of the innovations the new technology has made possible. Marks joined NCM in 2002 as an original member of the company’s leadership team, when it was then the Regal Entertainment Group media subsidiary known as Regal CineMedia Corporation. He was named president of sales and marketing when Regal CineMedia became National CineMedia in 2005 with the addition of AMC and later Cinemark as founding member theatre circuits and was named president of NCM in 2016. Marks was the visionary behind the creation and evolution of NCM’s groundbreaking movie pre-show — the first to combine entertainment content and advertising — turning cinema into not only a powerful sight-sound-and-motion medium, but a key premium video option in today’s fragmented media landscape. Today NCM’s Noovie pre-show is seen by more than 750 million moviegoers a year. Before joining NCM, Marks was a 14-year veteran of ESPN/ABC Sports overseeing its $2 billion sales organization. He currently serves as a director on the executive board of the Screen Advertising World Association and serves on the marketing committee of the International 3D Society. He has also served several terms as president and chairman of the Cinema Advertising Council. I recently interviewed Marks via email about his time at NCM, his plans for the future, and his thoughts on the state of the cinema business. Our conversation started with the earliest days of digital cinema.
Digital Cinema Report: You came to National CineMedia, which was then the Regal CineMedia Corporation, from ESPN in 2002. What was your mandate at the time and how, if at all, did it evolve over time?
Cliff Marks: The mandate was to build a new revenue stream for Regal’s theatrical exhibition business by creating a network ad sales model similar to ABC, CBS, NBC and ESPN. The goal was to find new ways to monetize this highly valued Millennial audience who loved movies and would be sitting in those seats waiting for their movie to start. Of course, Regal was the first to invest in digital projection and in creating a satellite distribution network to distribute advertising and other content like concerts and educational events across the country simultaneously, and we could also use this new technology to send a specific show to each auditorium, making it ratings and title appropriate.
DCR: Those were the earliest days of digital cinema and the Hollywood studios wanted nothing to do with what they called alternative content. They had other less flattering names as well. Today we call it event cinema and it’s a significant source of revenue for exhibitors. What are some of your memories of those early days?
CM: Back in the early days, we experimented with all kinds of alternative content to find new ways to monetize theatres during non-peak moviegoing times, which were Mondays through Thursdays. We had live and pre-recorded Big Screen Concerts from groundbreaking artists like Prince, Bon Jovi, and Phish (theatres sold a lot of concessions during that one!), live Big Screen Classroom events for school kids like Ghosts of the Abyss with a look at the Titanic from director James Cameron with Q&A hosted by Katie Couric, and even in-auditorium video gaming tournaments, which was a great idea that was a little ahead of its time then but is now making a resurgence with the advent of eSports. The business ultimately grew into Fathom Events and was built and nurtured by NCM specifically to source and bring new forms of entertainment to the big screen, including the Peabody and Emmy Award–winning The Met: Live In HD opera series. So many other great events, from music to comedy to Broadway shows, have come to the big screen as a result of the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit of the folks on the Fathom team.
DCR: In my mind, the deal you made to bring the Metropolitan Opera to movie theatres was, perhaps, the first step in legitimizing event cinema. How did that deal come about?
CM: We had two key Fathom executives who brought the Met Opera deal to reality; Shelly Maxwell and Dan Diamond, who developed the relationship with Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. Peter was looking for ways to use technology to create a new generation of opera fans, and the Fathom team believed in the unique aspects of the content and thought that consumer demand and other key elements were there. The Met series was also important in establishing new and vastly improved visual techniques for the way live theatrical performances were filmed to create a better on-screen viewing experience, incorporating a set-up of multiple cameras throughout the theatre and mixing it all live to really capture the close-up emotion of the performances in addition to the spectacle of the wide shots. The series has sold more than 24 million tickets since its inception in December 2006 and is currently seen on more than 2,200 screens in over 70 countries across six continents. It also inspired other arts institutions throughout the world to harness the power of cinema.
DCR: What were some of the early challenges – both in business terms and technology – in creating NCM’s national advertising network?
CM: There were many early challenges, not least of which was ensuring that the technology actually worked, as the kind of infrastructure needed for sending a digital signal via satellite from a network operations center to a client computer sitting inside of a theatre to delivering different content to each auditorium had never been done before. The ad sales challenges were also plentiful. Cinema had a very low profile in the U.S. media community and was primarily thought of on a local market basis with those old slide carousels and had no central voice or advocacy to raise its profile and compete for national video money. When there was a rare national ad, it was bought as a niche out-of-home medium by a select few clients who had special/unique creative. Nobody thought about the cinema medium as a true sight-sound-and-motion medium able to compete with television and other video-centric mediums when we began. Cinema in the early days was not rated by Nielsen and was not in any media planning or buying systems. Brands were also intimidated by the largess and captivity of the theatre environment and felt like every spot had to be of Superbowl quality. Regal CineMedia and National CineMedia changed all that.
DCR: How did early advertisers react to the idea of advertising in cinemas?
CM: Most did not understand the real benefits of the cinema medium: national scale, the world’s best entertainment content, sight, sound and motion, a captive and engaged audience, recall which was three-to-five times that of television, primarily weekend delivery (which is the opposite of TV’s strength) and that consumers actually enjoyed it, especially once it was presented and packaged into an entertainment-based pre-show. And cinema had no make-it-go-away device, to skip ads; we had a 40-foot screen with no remote control. By the mid 2000’s, around 2007, we saw more agencies and more brands use the medium, test the results, and then return with even stronger investments. And we’ve continued to grow ever since.
DCR: How did the reactions of advertisers change over time?
CM: In the early days (2002-2005), selling cinema ads was very challenging as the medium was in its infancy and agencies and brands really did not think about cinema as a mainstream, sight, sound and motion video medium. Cinema was exclusively relegated to out-of-home groups who primarily thought about the medium as a local extension of the OOH medium. When we started RCM, our specific goal was to try to make the cinema medium more akin to the television medium given the similar characteristics of sight, sound and motion, national scale, and the world’s best content. It took a long time to convince brands and agencies to think about the cinema outside the OOH box, but ultimately many agencies chose to shift cinema to their national TV buying teams. In the early days, I relied on many of my personal relationships to fuel our business but over time, with a lot of meetings and great selling by both NCM and Screenvision, more brands tried the cinema medium and became ardent supporters as they were able to measure their successes. Deal after deal, client after client, brands had good experiences and saw great recall and strong business results. Ultimately, the business results created repeat business and bigger budgets when they returned the next time. The cinema industry built this business the right way, with great content, accountability and attributable results which helped brands grow their business.
Today, cinema is a part of most television buys that target 18-49 or younger demos like teens or 12-34. Today, cinema is commonly bought out of national TV groups, but is also still planned and bought by several out-of-home groups and both are important supporters of the medium. We don’t get caught-up on the philosophical debate… are we video or are we OOH? The answer is unequivocally yes to both. We are very confident that in the new post pandemic world, cinema will be a part of many key video buys as well as many key OOH buys.
DCR: When did you know that cinema advertising was going to be a successful venture?
CM: Coming from ESPN I had many strong agency and brand relationships, and I was able to use those very real friendships and trust to gain entry and consideration for the up-and-coming medium of cinema. The great news was that any brand that used it and tested, realized that it was very effective! By 2005, three years after launching Regal CineMedia, I knew that we hit on something big and that this industry could someday be a $1 billion industry in North America if the movie industry continued to grow and if we managed it properly.
DCR: First there was the 2wenty, then came First Look followed by today’s Noovie pre-show, which includes interactive games with the in-theatre audience. Talk about the evolution of the pre-show.
CM: I am really proud of our NCM pre-show and its evolution to today’s modern day Noovie show. From the very beginning, I felt like the consumer experience prior to the movie was horrible. How many word puzzles could one solve? Why did I have to see upside down slides on the big screen? Why was Peter O’Toole always the answer to every trivia question? Why couldn’t that theatre think of something more entertaining? The 2wenty was my idea to bring in blocks of real entertainment from some of the best entertainment producers in the world. Our original partners included NBC, Universal, Turner and a since defunct company called Lid Rock. These four companies were truly pioneers who shared my belief that we could create a much better customer experience using their content to entertain our customers while also promoting their shows. I coined the term “promotainment,” the ability to entertain and promote concurrently on the big screen; after all, that’s essentially what a movie trailer does, I just took the concept and inverted it to TV and other kinds of entertainment. Our show has evolved over the years to include a live host (Maria Menounos) interactive engagement with our Noovie Arcade app, and other more modern elements, but fundamentally, it’s the same idea now as it was when we launched in 2002 — to create a better and more engaging pre-show to give consumers something great to watch before their movie starts. We know that nobody comes to the movies for the pre-show, but hey, if they like it and are entertained, we’ve created a better consumer experience [and have] also created an amazing vessel for brands to run ads and reach a highly engaged and hard to find young, valuable moviegoing audience.
DCR: What do you think cinema advertising and event cinema will look like in 2025?
CM: The cinema medium is now a highly trusted and valued part of so many national and local brands’ media mix because it has been proven to be very effective and consistent over time. As linear television continues to struggle to deliver mass ratings and as more audiences migrate to streaming services with lower ad loads, the cinema medium is going to be an even more important part of the mainstream premium video marketplace, especially as we continue to innovate and integrate ads with movie trailers right before the movie starts, as we do with our new Platinum inventory, which I believe is one of the best places to run an ad that you can find anywhere in any medium. I also think that cinema media companies will continue to pivot and diversify utilizing their strength and expertise to enter other complementary venues, as we did with our new NCM Digital-Out-Of-Home offerings, but at the core, the unique content, engagement and delivery of the cinema will continue to make it a very valuable media asset for brands.
DCR: While you’re stepping down from NCM on July 1, you aren’t leaving completely. You plan to consult with the company and have launched your own new strategic media and marketing firm, CMarksCo. What will you be doing in your new venture?
CM: CMarksCo, LLC is my company, which will enable me to remain engaged in the media business because I still love the business and I still want to do some great things. It will allow me to pick and choose who I work with and enable me to diversify beyond cinema. And, of course, I’m thrilled that NCM is my first client, and I can continue to be involved and work on strategic projects to continue to help the company I love grow. My background prior to NCM was sports, and I may want to dabble there again as well as get involved in other areas of the industry which fascinate me. At this point, I only want to work with people who I choose to work with and only engage in projects where I can make a difference. My favorite part of CMarksCo is that I like the boss, I like the terms and conditions, and the benefits, like freedom and flexibility, are great.