When I was a kid the only “commercials” you’d see at the movies were for concessions and coming attractions. That’s changed in recent years and types of ads that you used to only see on TV are now commonplace in theaters. In 2002 I went to the movies with my best friend Jon to see Minority Report. We had spent the past 20 minutes devouring half a bag of popcorn and playing movie trivia as questions appeared on screen to entertain everyone finding seats. Movie trivia ended, the lights dimmed, coming attractions were about to start and we were hunkered down with our popcorn ready for the show.
Instead of movie previews, I found myself staring at a Hertz Rent-A-Car commercial. Why am I seeing this? What is going on? This is a TV commercial. It droned on for about 2 minutes while an actor pretending to be a business man was escorted to his gleaming Pontiac Aztec rent-a-car. At the time, the commercial felt totally out of place in a movie theater. It took me and Jon by surprise as this was the first time we’d seen such nonsense at the movies.
Today having to sit through a commercial 20 minutes into your start time is all part of the moviegoing experience. (I had been hoping for Jaws 19 this year..) Usually the commercial is for GoDaddy or TurboTax or some mundane thing that you see at home all the time anyway. What was once the “novelty” of seeing a TV commercial at the movies has since given way to the “impatience” of wanting our movie to start.
It surprised me to learn that some of the first battles waged in the console wars were at the movies, and that Atari and Intellivision had both been pioneers of big screen advertising. In the early ’80s both Atari and Mattel had commissioned some of the first advertising for consumer products, produced specifically for movie theaters to show before previews. Both Atari and Intellivision commercials were 2 minutes in length and shot in a widescreen cinematic format on 35mm film.
Intellivision’s commercial is based on the premise of a “Galactic News” broadcast. A Ron Burgundy-esq local TV anchor and his action news crew appear on the big screen, animated in the style of an Intellivision game. The three news broadcasters report on the day’s “events” that took place in the games of Intellivision, and features fictional news segments on games like Space Armada, Night Stalker, Utopia, Tron Deadly Discs, Boxing, Tennis, Skiing, and Star Strike.
The Atari commercial was a true cinematic experience created by Robert Abel and Associates, pioneers in motion graphics and computer animation. The Atari ad was called “The Fly” and tells the story of an Atari game designer (ostensibly a composite of real-life Atari game designers Howard Scott Warshaw, Carla Meninsky, and Brad Stewart) as he sits at his drafting table trying to come up with new game ideas. He finds inspiration in a fly buzzing around his office, and it leads him through a journey of imagination as he dreams up Yars’ Revenge, Asteroids, and Star Raiders, before returning to the real world and wondering aloud “Let’s see what we can come up with next..” The Atari commercial is a real technological achievement for its time as two-dimensional Atari 2600 graphics burst into the third dimension as you become immersed in the world of Atari.
Atari’s theatrical commercial “The Fly” was shown during the previews before the movie Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.
Justin is an avid Atari historian and tech entrepreneur in the video game industry who posts at the Retroist as Atari I/O. You can follow him at his website http://www.atari.io
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