Christopher Campbell's The Moviegoer - Lower Prices Now!
by Christopher Campbell
December 15, 2008
There was a time when I found Mike Leigh's films, as much as I love them, worth waiting for. With few exceptions, they're perfectly fine for watching on DVD or on television far after their theatrical debut. But recently I caught Happy-Go-Lucky (seen above) in theaters, partly to see for myself if Sally Hawkins' performance is really as Oscar worthy as everyone is saying, and partly because it only cost me $6.50. That's little more than half the price that movie tickets are usually going for in most of New York City these days, so it's a total bargain. And I'd honestly go to see just about any film for so little if I could.
Wouldn't you? Think of all the movies that you avoid because tickets are so expensive. Now that we're officially in a recession, there's even more of a reason to limit your moviegoing to only the most spectacular blockbusters - those that are completely necessary to see on a big screen - as long as you still have to shell out up to $12 a piece. That $6.50 price wasn't even for a matinee - the theater showing Happy-Go-Lucky always features this discount on Tuesday and Thursday nights (with some exceptions depending on studio-dictated stipulations). I've known some chain-run multiplexes, including my old employer, that occasionally offer similar deals on certain weekdays, but typically such bargains are only available during the slow times of the year, like early fall and late winter, before Hollywood releases its next blockbuster.
How great would it be if Hollywood just ended discounting on its costly blockbusters and allowed the other, smaller films to continue at a lower ticket price? Why should a great film like Happy-Go-Lucky, which clearly didn't cost much to make, have to compete equally against a big budget movie like The Day the Earth Stood Still? Moviegoers are already asked to pay a premium for 3-D (and, as Alex discussed last week, that premium is probably going to increase anyway), so it wouldn't be that ridiculous to charge differentially depending on a film's size and budget. Of course, ticket buyers have passed around this concept for a long time, and the studios and distributors haven't seemed to acknowledge such an idea, let alone consider it. Why would they? So Happy-Go-Lucky can gross even less than its current domestic take of $3 million? That seems unfair and insulting to the worth of great low-budget indie films.
If you had the option, though, to pay either $6.50 for Happy-Go-Lucky (or any other foreign, independent or specialty film) or $12 for The Day the Earth Stood Still (or any other Hollywood sci-fi disaster [flick]), wouldn't you consider the cheaper movie? Certainly a large percentage of moviegoers would still pick the more expensive title, because Americans often think higher prices equal higher quality. However, I believe many people would take the chance on the less-expensive movie simply because it's less expensive. Even if it turns out to be a disappointment to them, they've still saved almost enough to check out another cheap flick, too - perhaps, for example, Let the Right One In, which should be priced less than Twilight, even though it is the better vampire-human love story.
Here's another dream idea that Hollywood would never go for, even though it would solve a lot of issues regarding the quality of studio product: inspired by institutions like New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, cinemas could have a pay-what-you-can policy. Instead of being a way for low-income families to see more movies, though, it would be a sort of large scale rating system, in which box office grosses are based on satisfaction. Exiting moviegoers would pay for the movie they've just watched, and they'd be allowed to choose what that movie deserved. In this fantastical scenario, Fox would probably be less likely to release a less-than-amazing remake like The Day the Earth Stood Still. Maybe the studios would actually try harder to make better movies rather than greater profits.
Although I realize, for such an idea to work, we'd all have to be wired up to polygraph machines and be made to give our honest evaluation of each movie. Otherwise, even some of the biggest fans of a quality blockbuster like The Dark Knight would attempt to get away with paying as little as possible. So the only fair and realistic thing for Hollywood to do right now is to cut ticket prices for all movies, as they're doing in Thailand and India already, in order to ensure that attendance will continue through the recession.
Unfortunately, attendance has actually been quite strong in America in the last month, encouraging the presumption that moviegoing is a recession-proof pastime, and big chains like Regal are celebrating very profitable quarters in spite of the economy. So maybe it's up to us to stop going to the movies for a while, especially to less-than-stellar studio releases like Four Christmases and The Day the Earth Stood Still. If only I thought such a widespread boycott would actually convince Hollywood to give us a bargain…