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May 10 at 8:30am

The Price For (Most) Cinema Should Now Be Zero

By Ted Hope

Ticket prices for movies in the US keep rising.  The LA Times reported that the average cost is now about $8.00.  That’s what I pay for Netflix where I get WatchNow! movies for no additional cost.  I have a typical NYC apartment where the width is about 15 ft wide; that’s enough to have a 8 ft projector screen and a good spread of sound.    As much as I love to watch films with a crowd and great projection it is hard to justify spending more money when I suspect the films are not as good as the ones I get for $0 directed by Godard and Kurosowa.

As filmmakers, the question we need to ask is: what is the added value that we can bring to the live cinema experience that justifies the additional cost for our films over the ones others can easily get for free. The films I get at home offer convenience, comfort, quality sound & image, affordable & personalized refreshments,  and no unpleasantries inflicted via strangers.  The films I get in the theater are new; is that alone really worth the price?  Can any price be justified just so they can get me out of the home and have another opportunity to sell me something?

I go to the movies far more often than most and pay 50% higher than the national average when I do so.  Why do I go?  I go to the movie theater for nostalgia factor and for political reasons (to support my industry and culture) — at least those are the reasons that make the most sense to me.  I go to the movies also because I like to get out of the house, and it’s patterned behavior, but that doesn’t justify the price point.

Is the price point for theatrical exhibition justified by  the distributors’ practice of manufacturing the desire and limiting the access for specific content?  If I can’t get it at home, would I trade an annual subscription to a magazine or a month worth of unlimited access to catalogue titles (via Netflix) for seeing it in a theater?  And since I prefer to see movies with my wife is the event worth two magazines or two months (or three if we want popcorn with those tickets)?  Forget about piracy; sure people can steal it or copy it, but even when you consider the legal alternatives, the price point of cinema these days is not justified when we consider the superior value of other leisure time alternatives.

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  1. James Lantz / May 10 at 8:30am

    For me, indie film is like a church. I go there to commune with the faithful. Yes, I can read the bible at home, but that’s kind of lonely, isn’t it? Give me a fiery sermon in public. If only so I can leave the theater with friends and go to some quiet place where we can drink and plot the apocalypse.

  2. Zach Herrmann / May 10 at 8:30am

    It’s sad, but since I moved to New York in January, it hasn’t been a question of what I want to see in the theaters, but what I can actually afford to see. When you are paying almost $13 (don’t get me started on 3D, that’s a whole other story), you become a much more discerning moviegoer.

    So when the graying cinema-goers of America start on another one of their “this [younger] generation is destroying the theater-going experience”, my response, is “F-ck you.” Because it wasn’t MY generation that kept raising the prices of going to see a movie in the movie theaters. And it’s not just for new releases. My high school film studies teacher used to go on about how he would spend many days at a teenager catching double bills at the Theatre of Living Arts in Philly, catching up on everything from Howard Hawks to Ingmar Bergman.

    Because we have nowhere to catch these classics for $1 per screening (jeez, I’d settle for under $10 at this point), it becomes so much easier to get that film education at home, armed with an HD TV, DVR and Turner Classic Movies.

    I love seeing things in the theater. That same high school teacher I mentioned before, was shocked when I told him that, at age 18, I still had never seen Lawrence of Arabia. He told me to wait until I could see it on the big screen.

    I took his advice (despite the ridicule of many friends who asked why I wouldn’t just watch it on TV or DVD) and waited until I saw it in college, at the AFI Theatre in Silver Spring. It was the single greatest movie-going (“going” being the operative word, not “watching”) experience I’ve ever had. But it’s hard to justify the cost, especially for every movie that clearly isn’t Lawrence of Arabia.

    I’d like to think that things don’t have to be this way. Maybe, as movies start getting broadcasted straight to your home theater more and more, theater chains will respond by dropping prices, bringing people back to the theaters…

    …yeah, that’s what I thought too. Not bloody likely.

  3. Eduardo / May 10 at 8:30am

    You make an interesting point. If theatre chains offered a monthly membership (a la Netflix- offering all the movies they’ve got to offer at a monthly flat rate) what effect would it have on theatrical distribution?

    Could it mean adding to the roster of films curated for theatrical release because of a greater demand for more revolving content? In turn, would it bolster the independent market because of the demand for greater diversity and more output from producers? In this scenario, there is no denying big studio tent-pole productions would still be in demand but the relative infrequency of their release and huge expense would require a greater outsourcing of content creation to smaller independents producing a complete gamut of entertainment (escapist, dramatic, b-movies, animated, family,funky art house, foreign, etc). Selling family memberships, for instance, would land much more attendance but also create a necessity for more diversity in family-appropriate entertainment. To a lesser extent perhaps, there might even be a demand for revived screenings of some classics.

    The tired old exhibition model would get a boost by employing a new proven successful model from dvd/VOD distribution. Audiences hungry to get out of the home for a big, communal theatrical experience would be pleased by the variety of content at their disposal at a relatively low cost. It guarantees them more bang for their buck and increases their likelihood of more frequent return (provided that exhibitors and distributors can deliver more diversity and quality product for them to return to), thus opening the sealed floodgates of tied-up, unsold, unloved, homeless indies dying for an audience.

    A theatrical membership model could even stimulate more interest in the acquisition and catering of content by taking advantage of social networking, granting more interaction to audiences in the distribution process and creating a dialogue between members and theatres. Focusing on the local and regional demands of users online could better serve those markets by giving them the choice of what they’d like to see in upcoming weeks and months (to an extent maybe even what gets produced- a la crowd-sourcing sites). More films would be in circulation overall because, even though every town has a finite number of screens, each market would end up being a little different.

    Plus, if you guarantee the continued return of audiences, distributors wouldn’t have to spend so many untold millions in marketing trying to vie so desperately for their attention to get their butts into seats in the first place. Studio overhead would decrease, leaving room for more profit and more films.

    People want to go to the movies, there’s just a myriad of other new forms of entertainment content to compete with. Distributors and exhibitors are still operating under a model that served them well prior to the content explosion of cable and satellite television and now the internet and other ancillary technologies. These new forms certainly open up opportunities for those of us who produce content but we’re also certain that there is still a demand for feature films in a theatrical setting. Exhibitors and distributors can be doing a much better job of serving this demand by altering the old model to supply better quality and more diversity at a lower cost.

    Naturally, many people would still only find time to go to the movies once in a blue moon and would therefor find purchasing a theatre membership impractical. But if you alter the pricing model to allow them to buy their one-time ticket at a higher price than what members would enjoy and/or maybe allow members to offer their non-member friends a limited amount of vouchers for discounted tickets, this could still work.

    The films produced for theatrical release could still in due course find the non-theatergoing audiences in their other distribution channels of choice (in an ironic way preserving the old model of video after theatrical release). This way we would give the theatres and producers a much better shot at gaining revenue and preserve an integral part of our culture at the same time; that great experience of enjoying cinematic art writ large in a darkened theatre with the community.

  4. Eduardo – I like your idea of a theater chain offering a monthly membership. I”m surprised no one has tried this. I know if there was a local theater that offered this and played even some older films I’d be love to go. For instance to see movies like Lawrence of Arabia it would probably be fairly inexpensive for the theater but offer some value to the consumer. Especially once they get the digital fulfillment so a theater wouldn’t have to actually get a hold of a film print. Plus with the amount of money that theaters make on concessions it seems like this would be a good model to get people in the door as often as possible.

  5. Michael Walker / May 10 at 8:30am

    I’ve done a lot of thinking along these lines and I’ve come to the conclusion that, while movies are over-priced, they aren’t that overpriced. The MPAA doesn’t consider home video to be a serious competitor of films in the theater. They consider their competition to be other activities that involve leaving the house, like dinner or a baseball game or theater. Against the costs of those, even a fifteen dollar ticket is pretty cheap.

    The other side of this argument is the value. As you make films cheap to the point of being free and competing with piracy, you end up devaluing your film. A film has value partly because it costs something.

    Sure, everyone has their complaints about going to the theater: people on cellphones, five dollar popcorn, the ads before, etc. But, come on, Ted. What are the theaters that we are really nostalgic for? Theater80? ThaliaSoho? St. Marks? I loved those theaters, but the sound sucked, the floors were sticky, there was always some creep in the front row eating a bologna sandwich, the seats were uncomfortable. But we loved the movies they showed, and I would still rather see a film in one of those theaters than on my 50 inch plasma, no matter how big the screen is.

    Going to a movie is still special, no matter how many times you’ve done it. The cinema is a temple for those of us who love movies. It has a value, even if the nachos are gross and the people eating them are grosser.

    Here’s some thoughts I had on my blog, if anyone is interested…



  6. Michael Barnard / May 10 at 8:30am

    I think (and I know I do that too frequently but not too sufficiently) there is a bigger analysis that is needed.

    There is a large universe of “movie going” that exists today.

    Today, I saw IRON MAN 2 for $4. Last week, I saw KICK ASS for $3. In a theater. It’s a theater in Los Angeles near my dentist, so I went mid-day (I save that $1 by going on Tuesday). It’s not my neighborhood; it’s slightly sketchy but comfortable.

    I saw AVATAR in 3-D in my neighborhood. At the ARCLIGHT HOLLYWOOD. Tickets cost $18. Happy to have done it.

    In between those two extremes of seeing a first-run movie in a theater, there are several steps. For instance, I belong to the ARCLIGHT MOVIE CLUB, so I get something like 10% off the ticket price. I also belong to the AMC MOVIE CLUB, so every now and then, I get a free popcorn.

    AMC just announced establishment of a “curated” division that will specifically bring indie feature films to a variety of AMC screens.

    Being “in the biz” often gets me into free screenings. But free screenings are possible for many people if they pay attention and seek them out. No, not everyone or everywhere, but my point is: there is a breadth to this thing we call “movie-going.”

    Yes, movie-going can be expensive.I never buy anything at a concession stand (mostly for health reasons, but especially for money reasons). Sadly, I also always go alone, but that’s another matter. And, I’m now broke, so for me to get to a movie is a big deal lately.

    If we as filmmakers look at the universe of movie-going, from the ARCLIGHT and GOLD CIRCLE premium theaters (that do very well, by the way) to the sketchy small neighborhood theater that struggles with $3 mid-day ticket prices, we see that there are a variety of attempts being made to get people into theaters. The questions should be more to the point: what works for MY film? When I get A FATHER AND SON made, it won’t be showing at ARCLIGHT HOLLYWOOD. I’ll be lucky if it’s showing 4-wall at The Vine (or, for you New Yorkers, the PIONEER–if, I hope, it still exists).

    If we assume that movie theaters have indeed been making a variety of attempts to get people into the theaters, then let’s presume we as filmmakers could add on to their efforts in order to bring more value to our films.

    I’m working on developing a concept called MOBILE MOVIEHOUSE that will be a cross between 4-wall and premium theater for a flexible location-based experience. Maybe that will contribute to the value of indie films.

    What about standard marketing efforts? Indie filmmakers could take a page from the studios and create small-scale corporate tie-ins, perhaps. Instead of McDonald’s offering BATMAN Happy Meals, maybe a bodega in the neighborhood of a theater showing our film could offer a $1 off coupon in exchange for a ticket stub. If you’re in 20 cities, that means hitting the streets in each city to try and work a deal near your theater. Hard work. But coupons are successful at driving traffic in any environment.

    But above all, I firmly believe the three steps of indie filmmaking continue to be: WELL MADE + AMAZING STORY + GREAT VISIBILITY.

  7. Michael Barnard / May 10 at 8:30am

    Oh yeah… and by the way, follow Mark Cuban and NewTeeVee.com as they argue the point that NETFLIX AIN’T GONNA BE ABLE TO SUSTAIN THE NEARLY FREE DIGITAL DELIVERY. Part of our worries, this mania of the malaise, is a blip. Things will change. As they always do. Free is not sustainable.

  8. Philip Wood / May 10 at 8:30am

    A couple of comments; first, ticket prices are where they are because the market is sustaining them. It’s why bankers and football players get paid so much because the market is there for it – if one company / team didn’t pay them big bucks, someone else would. (which is one argument for the Tobin bank tax by the way).
    Ticket prices are rising and people are complaining but are people stopping buying tickets? No – cinema admissions are rising, so the cinemas will keep charging high prices until that changes.
    The one section of the market that is being affected by this more than the others though is the repertory exhibition sector, which can’t sustain high ticket prices. Running a cinema is becoming more expensive, requiring high ticket prices if they’re not filling the screenings, but NetFlix etc. seems to be impacting the repertory screenings of classics and unusual films much more than say Avatar, which more people than ever were happy to pay a premium ticket price to see.

    On a positive note – the DVD purchase prices are currently on the way down – I’d estimate most new releases are about 30 / 40% cheaper than they were a few years ago – partly because supermarkets are selling them cheaper, but mostly because of the internet and downloads (both legal and illegal). If this continues (and it seems likely that it will, although Avatar has just smashed DVD sales figures) then with the DVD market traditionally being where studios etc. made their money then the theatrical market may become more important and changes will start to occur.

    And in response to Eduardo’s comment – yeah, it would be great to have a subscription model, but currently this would be impossible because of the terms that distributors require on movies – x% of the box office and x screenings a week for x weeks. This is a very fixed model and it has been hard to change this even with digital distribution (try getting a new release for 1 or 2 screenings a week…). Although I totally agree that it would make sense and that I’m sure there’s some way of figuring out a fair revenue split for the distributors, at the moment I don’t think anyone would touch this. Which is not to say in the future if the theatrical market changes it won’t happen, but old habits and traditions die hard, and the distribution / exhibition model is very fixed – witness the uproar here in the UK when Disney tried to shorten it’s theatrical window of Alice by a couple of weeks… http://verncinema.wordpress.com/2010/04/04/hmvcurzon-multiplexes-and-the-future-of-cinemas/

  9. Filmmaking Stuff / May 10 at 8:30am

    I think there are only so many distractions in life. Going to the movies simply offers an answer to the weekly question: “What are you doing Friday night?” “Dunno. Maybe I'll go to the movies.” What else can people do for entertainment that makes em' feel like they actually did something other than sit on the sofa?

  10. Damian T. Lloyd / May 10 at 8:30am

    I hate going to the movies, and so do most people I know. It's too expensive, and the theatres are all way the hell out in strip malls where the large floorspace a GoogolPlex requires is cheap. I have to either rush through dinner after work or stay up past my bedtime to accommodate the showtimes. I can't bring my own food; I have to take my choice of their unappetizing and over-priced offal — er, I mean offerings. Then I have to endure cramped and uncomfortable seats while they play ads at me, unless I want to compete with 75,000 other people in the weirdly-lit and unsanitary washroom. When the feature finally starts, I have to put up with people talking and cell phones going off randomly while I try to enjoy the movie. That's assuming the projectionist has bothered to focus the picture.

    At home, I can put on a movie any time I want. I can invite my friends over and we can all watch for the price of a single rental or purchase. I can make my own snacks, or watch while I eat a meal. I can pause the movie while I go to the bathroom. I can rewind if I miss something. If I want to, I can watch the movie again without paying again.

    As TV screens get bigger and theatre screens get smaller (so they can cram more theatres into the same space), the movie-going experience is becoming less pleasurable as the home-viewing experience becomes more so.

    So what reason is there to go out to see a movie? The only time I and my friends do so is to catch something like AVATAR or IRON MAN, which we know will have mind-stunning special defects ™ suited for the big screen. Even then, we're easily dissuaded. We heard IRON MAN 2 is kinda bad, so we're waiting for video; that's, like 15 tickets lost and one rental gained.

    And we're people who *love* movies …

  11. Modern Sofas / May 10 at 8:30am

    During this recession times, many people are just waiting the release of copies of these latest movies and some of them just duplicate the original copies.

  12. Sectional Sofas / May 10 at 8:30am

    $8 is quite expensive for just a single movie.

  13. Miles Maker / May 10 at 8:30am

    One thing we're missing here is the subject of access; if the film you REALLY want to see is not available as yet online or on DVD you can either wait for that to happen or visit your local theatre for a limited time only.

    Studio films are almost always guaranteed to be made available most everywhere across multiple platforms but this is not always the case with indies, so in crafting an event out of a local screening opportunity one must also craft demand and a sense of urgency in addition to a communal call to action in support of the filmmaker, the film and its theme.

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