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The Art of Selection--In-Flight Movies

The Art of Selection--In-Flight Movies
By Annie Wu

Listen with RealAudio: Airline movies

Flight attendant: "Ladies and gentlemen, good evening and welcome aboard flight 196 from Los Angeles to Washington Dulles."

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: "You can pretty much gauge how well a movie's gonna do on one of our flights based on how well it did at the box office."

Mark Smith chooses the in-flight movies for American Airlines.

Smith: "It's strictly an entertainment decision. There's no profit incentive here. It's strictly entertainment."

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.

Rob Brookler: "In the 1930's when passenger air travel was in its youth, the earliest in-flight entertainment included live entertainment -- singers, musicians, even fashion shows. And those performances were more to promote airline travel rather than to provide in-flight entertainment per se for the in-flight traveler."

According to Rob Brookler, spokesman for the World Airline Entertainment Association, there's been some controversy over what was the first in-flight movie.

Brookler: "As early as 1948, Pan American World Airways advertised their movies '7000 feet above the Atlantic.' And as a bit of a media stunt surrounding the movie 'Stagecoach,' they had a team of horses pulling a stagecoach actually gallop up to the tarmac at JFK airport to deliver the 16mm print of the 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.

Flight Attendant: On our flight today, we invite you to enjoy our United Entertainment Network. The movie that's featured this evening will be "Air Bud 2."

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: "They don't have the opportunity to turn off the screen in front of them if they don't care for the movie or don't find it appropriate. What happens is that the movie studios actually create an edited version for all of the airlines and that edited version, if you look at it, is actually edited more stringently than what you would see on TV. There's gonna be less foul language than perhaps would be a movie edited for TV and certainly less violence and sexual content."

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.

Jack Valenti: "Widening the audience for a film through the increased attendance that is on airplanes, that's growing rapidly, is very good for our industry."

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.

Smith: "I think it would be just like anything else. The cost of your movie ticket went up. The cost for our exhibition went up as well. It's just part of the cost of doing business."

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: "'Air Force One' would not be an appropriate movie to show on the main screen simply because there are customers that probably would have a real strong dislike for that kind of film while they're on the aircraft in-flight. We won't show a movie with an aircraft disaster in it.

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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