The Art of Selection--In-Flight Movies
One of the perks of flying non-stop across country -- besides getting a warm meal with your peanuts -- is the featured movie. But don't count on watching some artistic independent film, 'cause when you're riding coach on this jumbo jet, it's mainstream blockbusters only.
Mark Smith chooses the in-flight movies for American Airlines.
While the airlines today would say that in-flight entertainment isn't much of an incentive to convince customers to buy a ticket on a particular airline, there was a time when airline entertainment was as exciting as the flight itself.
According to Rob Brookler, spokesman for the World Airline Entertainment Association, there's been some controversy over what was the first in-flight movie.
But "Stagecoach" wasn't the first regularly scheduled in-flight movie. That credit goes to TWA flight 40 from New York to San Francisco in 1961, which showed a sultry Lana Turner in an extramarital affair with Efram Zimbalist, Jr. in "By Love Possessed."
While the movie industry has grown far more risque since the 1960's, the airline industry...hasn't.
You can't really go wrong with a feel-good film about a boy and his dog -- especially if it's a golden retriever that can catch footballs in its mouth. But selecting movies for a captive audience in an airplane can be a challenge, says American Airline's Mark Smith.
Smith says that he's a little less strict in choosing movies for international flights because some European cultures, for example, tend to be less conservative than Americans. So films like "The Full Monty" might run on an international flight to England but not on a domestic one. It's that ability to reach an international as well as an American audience that makes in-flight movies a lucrative business for the film industry says Jack Valenti, chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America.
It's unclear just how good in-flight entertainment is for the movie industry. It's difficult to track the added revenue that airline exhibition adds to a film's gross income because each studio assesses a different fee to the airlines and the cost of foreign language dubs for international flights is yet another expense. But with the domestic and international airline industry spending an estimated 1.75 billion dollars on in-flight programming, equipment, and headphones, it's clearly a growing industry with growing headphone prices. In recent years, US Airways, United, Delta and American all raised their headphone rates from $4 to $5 dollars.
So what movies are selling headphones? In 1997, the number one in-flight movie was the romantic drama "One Fine Day" with Michelle Pfieffer and George Clooney, followed by the romantic comedy "Jerry Maguire" with Tom Cruise and Cuba Gooding, Jr. Big stars, humor and romance work well on airlines, but what about the movies that don't fly?
Smith says American Airlines will sometimes choose to simply edit out a plane crash scene, and still show the rest of the movie. But if you're wondering how Kristen Scott Thomas ends up bruised and near death in a dark cave in "The English Patient," or how Anne Heche and Harrison Ford arrive on an uncharted island in "Six Days, Seven Nights," well, maybe an airplane isn't the best place to watch a movie. But at least you'll feel safe and entertained.
In Washington, this is Annie Wu for The Savvy Traveler.
Annie Wu is a reporter for WAMU in Washington, DC.
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