Labor Day weekend brought the reopening of thousands of movie theaters nationwide, giving advertisers a chance to reach audiences that had been starved of the movie-going experience for almost six months during pandemic lockdowns.

For National CineMedia, which sells commercials that appear before the beginning of feature films, the reopenings of about 80% of U.S. theaters marked a breakthrough moment that sets the stage for future growth.

The highly anticipated sci-fi action film “Tenet” finally opened after several delays, grossing a respectable $20 million during its opening week at about 2,800 theaters, according to data compiled by Box Office Mojo. The numbers would be considered disappointing for a summer blockbuster in the pre-COVID-19 era, but they did indicate pent-up demand for movies.

“We had a really good opening,” Cliff Marks, president of National CineMedia (NCM), said in this interview with Beet.TV. “We feel really good about the research we’ve seen from people who came out of the movie, that they had a great experience and they missed the movies and that they’ll be back.”

He said the major theater chains have taken steps to protect moviegoers, including reserved seating that ensures social distancing and contactless payments to avoid physical contact at ticket booths and concessions. A tracking survey by researcher Morning Consult found that people are concerned about personal safety at theaters, but those concerns may be alleviated as people resume their former habits.

Supportive Brands

Marks said he was encouraged by the supportive remarks he’s heard from people in the advertising and marketing communities, including the more than 200 customers who buy media placements from NCM.

“The empathy from the client community and the brand community has been awesome. We didn’t see anybody abandon us,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of brands approaching us about upfronts for 2021. We feel really good.”

Amazon Prime, AT&T, Ford, Heineken, Mars Wrigley, Progressive and Unilever were among the mass marketers to place ads with NCM during the reopening period. Marks said those brands appreciate the opportunity to reach audiences that can be targeted with contextual and location-based ads — and to present their ad creative on the big screen with a great sound system.

“Our business is really predicated on the fact that we reach a great, young 18-to-34, 18-to-49 audience in a really captive and highly engaging environment that brands tend to really like,” Marks said. “We are an interesting part of the sight, sound and media environment.”

Only about 5% to 7% of brands create ads specifically for in-theater environments, with most marketers running ads that appear in other media like television or digital video.

“If you have a great piece of creative and it looks good on the 40-inch set at home, it’s going to look great on our 40-foot screen,” Marks said.