The Weekly Moviegoer - Paying More for Better Movies
by Christopher Campbell
August 13, 2009
We're all familiar with the phrase "you get what you pay for." But how many times have you come away from a movie thinking you were ripped off? How often do you think you really got what you paid for with the experience? Do you see fewer films because of the ticket cost, and would you go to the movies more often and see more kinds of movies if they weren't so expensive? You don't have to actually answer any of these questions, though, but they're at least ideas to think about. I've been driving my brain crazy lately trying to figure out how the cost of a movie affects our experience with it, especially in relation to critical opinions.
When I look at press screenings and contemplate the objectivity of critical reactions to films, for instance, I get curious about how reviews may be tainted because they're responses to something received for free.
On the one hand, there are critics who see hundreds of movies a year and easily enjoy a majority of them because they are free. There are a lot of so-so movies that I've seen at press screenings where I've wondered afterwards, "as much as there are worthy elements in this, would I have been so satisfied had I paid $12 for it?" There's good reason to be dubious of some overly positive critics, because you must remember they're recommending a product they can't appreciate the value of.
Then there's the reverse situation. The other night I attended a District 9 press screening, and after the movie a blogger sitting behind me began complaining about the most miniscule of problems he had with the film. I believe that he was able to be more negative because he didn't have to pay for it. As much as I can be very disappointed with a bad movie that I've wasted $12 on, I'm also eager to ignore little flaws in a good movie if I've spent money on it. It puts my frugal mind at ease to do so, but I also think some people find it easier to be critical of a film for which they don't have to justify the cost of in their head. I don't understand why, exactly, but when I managed a multiplex and saw everything for free I was a lot more cynical about movies than I have been in the few years in which I've regularly paid to go to the movies.
I'm sure both of these situations equally yet divergently contributed to the fuss last week over G.I. Joe not being screened for the press (see USA Today). For critics to have to pay to see the movie, even if the cost is later reimbursed, screws with their relativity. And I think many of them realize this, while others are subconsciously affected by it.
But I don't mean to focus too much on how ticket prices -- or lack thereof -- influence critics' reactions. I'm more interested in the average, paying moviegoers, like you and me. Time and time again I contemplate the idea of a pay scale for movies. The higher the budget, the higher the ticket price. Or, the more anticipated the movie, the more we pay? Something like that, similar to how concerts are priced. The bigger and more in-demand the act, the more you have to pay to see them. So, let's say the Twilight fans have to pay $30 to see New Moon, while the relatively cheap sci-fi indie Moon could go for $5. Of course, this would only work if the economic incentive really got more people to see the little films, which would be the point. Otherwise, it would surely kill all arthouse cinemas.
Would you see more independent films if their cost was more relative to their budget and size? I certainly would. But I'd also be less likely to see a G.I. Joe or Harry Potter if their ticket prices were more. Then again, such thinking could make Hollywood more wary about spending ridiculous amounts on ridiculous stories. It would also be interesting to see where something like Funny People fits into the pay scale. Hardly an event movie, it did cost a lot of money, but it probably could have been more successful at a lower price.
Or maybe I'm completely wrong to think there's an appeal to low-cost tickets, even during a recession. Maybe moviegoers would walk into a theater and see the indies as "budget" movies and assume they're priced lower because they're not as good. Do movies fall under the same rule as Veblen goods? For me the Veblen effect doesn't work with movies anymore than it does with the overpriced boxes of candy at the concession stand, but how about you? Would you be interested in paying an arm and a leg for some movies while paying just a finger and a toe for others?
Ticket kiosk photo courtesy of Eli Murray Photography on Flickr.