A solitary figure, barely lit and viewed in silhouette, slowly approaches a low table covered with a rectangular sheet of ice. He lights a welding iron, setting the tool ablaze with scorching blue flames. As classical piano music crescendos, the flames hover over and around the ice. But instead of melting into water, the ice is raised and modeled by the fire into a figure gradually taking shape before our eyes. After a full minute, the sculptor steps away and admires his completed creation: the ice has been shaped into the form of a luxury automobile. Words appear on the screen: “The new Porsche Panamera. Thrilling contradictions.”
The custom short film, commissioned by Spotlight Cinema Networks for Porsche, was cited by Spotlight’s president Michael Sakin in a recent interview as a particularly effective advertisement unique to the art-house and upscale-cinema advertising space, a niche in which his company specializes.
“Porsche wanted to create mini films. We reached out to a couple of up-and-coming filmmakers, some we had through contacts, others we found through universities. We gave them a concept and they produced a short film. We then narrowed it down to a few finalists. Those finalists were then given an actual car and told to shoot a movie short. The winner [by Ross Cohen] appeared on our screen with a one-minute movie short,” Sakin recounts. “That’s the most impactful—when you have something that’s completely unique that’s made specifically for your screen. It’s 100 percent original content.”
Spotlight Cinema Networks, which grew out of the Arthouse Marketing Group, was founded in 2010 to serve an untapped segment in the cinema-advertising space: art-house and upscale cinemas. Beginning with about 400 screens at their inception, they have expanded to over 900 and expect to reach or surpass 1,000 nationwide in 2017.
The country’s biggest in-theater advertising company, National CineMedia, reaches 34,000 screens nationwide, but make no mistake: Spotlight is not seeking domination on that scale but rather to revolutionize and expand within their chosen space. And they have, working with more than 100 independent exhibitors—about half of them nonprofit—and in the process almost single-handedly inventing an advertising industry for a category of theater that had gone decades without any advertising whatsoever.
“I had spent the last 30 years in media on the ad sales side. I came up through the cable TV ranks,” Sakin says. “That’s where, back in the ’90s, cable exploded, because there was a need for niches. All of a sudden, you saw all these niches grow: you saw MTV, you saw CNBC. It used to just be general entertainment networks like USA, TBS, and TNT. People realized that it’s not about mass; it’s about a specific demographic. When I got to cinema, I realized that no one had done that yet, so I really felt it was time that cinema took that on.”
The launch was not without its challenges. “A lot of art houses out there did not want to accept advertising. They felt it was a negative to their consumers. It took a company focused solely on them and their business to show them that we can provide revenue but not hurt their business, not alienate their audiences, showing them the type of advertising we can bring on,” Sakin recounts.
Eventually, smaller theaters that needed new revenue streams, and upscale advertisers who found it difficult to access certain hard-to-reach customers, both came around. Companies that had never before advertised in cinema, like Louis Vuitton and Chanel, signed on with memorable results. “Cinema is a great medium because it’s such a captive environment and you can see the ad on this big screen. We run our ads at the advertised show time with the lights down,” Sakin says. “So we give our advertisers the maximum impact, the maximum recall, in an environment where the audience is focused.”
Spotlight serves as a lead sponsor for the annual Art House Convergence conference (taking place this month in Salt Lake City, Utah), the country’s biggest meeting for those involved with art-house cinema and festivals. Sakin explains why: “Spotlight’s been involved since our inception in 2010. The most important thing is that we want to be a resource for the smaller exhibitors that focus on independent film. We are there monetarily to contribute and bring things to the Convergence, help them grow, bring solutions, be counsel for any advice.”
Spotlight will also debut a new annual honor at the 2017 Convergence. The Spotlight Lifetime Achievement Award will recognize an individual who has dedicated his or her career to excellence and service in the independent-film field. The winner is to be selected by the Art House Convergence board.
“Anybody who’s in independent film is there because they’re passionate,” Sakin says. “We believe in independent film so much, and we want to bring revenue to them, so that these art houses grow and don’t get swallowed up by those bigger exhibitors and corporations out there.”