The Meridian 16 movie theater, on the corner of Seventh and Pike, is getting a makeover. Heading up the theater's escalators, moviegoers are now greeted with bright orange product booths for Cingular Wireless, giant digital TV screens blasting Mountain Dew and Volkswagen commercials, and huge banners advertising And now, before the movie, in addition to the numerous movie previews, theaters play TV-style commercials.

During a recent showing of Spy Game at the Meridian, one annoyed couple chanted at the top of their lungs, "No commercials, no commercials," while onscreen, a woman flew through the air advertising Microsoft XP. But it's not just Meridian 16 that's increasing the in-house advertising--many local movie theaters are doing it.

The reason? Most theater chains are broke. General Cinema, which owns Meridian 16, filed Chapter 11 in October 2000, and most of the top management resigned. Other theater chains, like Regal, United Artists, and Loews Cineplex Entertainment, which owns Pacific Place and manages the Cinerama, soon followed. Many of the chains collapsed because they built too many giant, 27-screen "megaplex" theaters too fast. It turns out they couldn't bring in enough people to fill the new space. So to help defer the costs of bankruptcy, theater companies are now looking to advertising dollars.

Many theaters, like Pacific Place, have been testing commercials on and off all year, but this practice is increasingly becoming the norm. According to Greg Lednicky, general manager for Pacific Place, the average time that moviegoers now wait before the movie starts is up to 16 minutes. Recent commercials include ads for Microsoft XP, Coke, Pepsi (starring Britney Spears), and--no surprise here--the Marines. (In Europe, they've been showing pre-movie commercials for years. However, the European theater listings post separate times for the commercials and previews, and for the actual start of the movie.)

Local theater companies are also letting advertisers come in to hand out free promotional samples. "It's to the benefit of our customers," jokes Loews Cineplex Director of Film Marketing Brian Callaghan. "They get free stuff." In the last few months, Loews Cineplex theaters have handed out free CD singles, hand tissues, and samples of car cleaner. Advertisers obviously love the opportunity, especially during the holidays. "We have definitely been getting more interest from the advertisers," says Callaghan. "We can offer them key demographics--you know, 14- to 35-year-olds who shop, spend money, and set trends." And they are "a captive audience," says Lednicky.

The Pacific Place and Cinerama theaters may start running commercials on outside video monitors as well, says Callaghan. In addition to the pre-movie commercials, some theaters, like Meridian 16, are leasing floor space to companies like Cingular Wireless to set up shop. The theaters would not disclose how much money the new deals generate.

The local smaller and independent theaters, like the Egyptian, Broadway Market, and Varsity--all owned by the Landmark Theater corporation--have also had financial difficulties, but they have no plans to increase advertising. "We get asked all the time by advertisers to run commercials or whatever, and we just think it is annoying to our customers," says Ruth Hayler, Landmark employee and movie booker for the Varsity.

Over at Pacific Place, general manager Greg Lednicky says he received customer complaints earlier this year when the commercials first started, but now, he says, moviegoers are used to it.