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Cineplex and TimePlay will expand to 725 theatres across Canada this year.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Since the advent of mobile phones, movie theatres have mostly spent their energy convincing customers to turn off those disruptive devices. But Cineplex Inc. is actually encouraging its visitors to use their phones – at least, until the movie starts. It's all in the service of advertising.

On Tuesday, the cinema chain will announce the expansion of its deal with TimePlay Inc., a Toronto-based company that makes an application for smartphones that allows users to interact with ads on-screen. It began testing its technology in Cineplex movie theatres in the Greater Toronto Area in 2011, and expanded to Vancouver the next year. The latest deal will take TimePlay from 231 Cineplex screens to 725 in urban centres across the country by the end of this year.

It is an indication of just how important mobile phones are to advertisers who are trying to reach consumers on the devices they keep closest to them. Roughly 55 per cent of Canadians now own a smartphone, according to research released last week by Catalyst Canada and GroupM Next. And advertisers are clamouring to respond to the shift.

TimePlay attempts to turn ads into a game of sorts – asking app users to answer movie trivia questions to win a coupon for a free pizza, for example. As smartphone ownership has grown, and as people have become more accustomed to the TimePlay ads at Cineplex theatres, those games have evolved from attracting only a handful of participants – or none at all – to 20 to 25 per cent of audiences. Roughly 1.5 million people have downloaded the app to date.

That is important for advertisers because when people interact with an ad, they are more likely to remember that they have seen it. The company's research shows that participants' "brand recall" of TimePlay ads is significantly higher than others. It is important for those who sell advertising, such as Cineplex, because advertisers pay a premium for those interactive commercials.

"Sometimes people would comment in a less positive way about the advertising before the movies," Cineplex's vice-president of communications and investor relations, Pat Marshall said. "Now, people are actually coming earlier to the movies to be able to participate … that's a big paradigm shift."

TimePlay charges a licensing fee for its technology, and shares in some of the revenue from the ads they sell. Now that it has had some success, the company's next goal is to expand to other movie theatres around the world, as well as bars and restaurants, and live event venues such as sports stadiums.

In November, TimePlay announced a deal with Real Sports Bar & Grill, the sports bar owned by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. In its test phases, the Toronto location has begun broadcasting ads on its multiple television screens during pauses in hockey and basketball games. Often, that means replacing the TV networks' commercials, which did not make the bar any money, with a revenue opportunity.

If it seems improbable that people would actually want to interact with an ad, that's because it is. The campaigns work best when advertisers offer a prize as an incentive for people to play a branded game. Redemption rates on discount coupons and other prizes averages about 35 per cent.

But they also work by taking advantage of a captive audience: a crowd looking for distractions while they wait for a movie to start, for example, or sports fans killing time between plays.

Mazda Canada Inc. launched a campaign in November allowing cinema audiences to play a simulated driving game. In the app, the campaign included a button users could click to request a test drive. According to Cineplex, more than 9,000 requests came in over a four-week period.

"Mobile is tricky; you have to make sure that both advertiser and consumer are benefiting from the experience," TimePlay chief executive Jon Hussman said. "In our research [at Cineplex] it's come out that the consumer feels like the entertainment value during the pre-show has gone up considerably. But advertisers are still speaking to them. That's incredibly important."


Where you can see them

Markets where mobile-interactive Timeplay ads will soon be playing in Cineplex theatres, in addition to current theatres in Toronto and Vancouver:






London, Ont.








St. John

St. John's