The Weekly Moviegoer - Paying More for Better Movies

August 13, 2009

Buying Movie Tickets

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.

Find more posts: Discuss, Editorial, Opinions



A very intriguing concept, but I like it. I don't think it would ever happen, but I'd like to see a theater try it, I'd sure support it.

peloquin on Aug 13, 2009


The price of a ticket forces me to be picky. I'll only see a movie that I think, after viewing trailers and hearing interviews, deserves my money. I use to go to the movies all the time on a limb, but now with money being tight and tickets so expensive -- I'll just wait to rent. If the price for a ticket were, as you use Moon as an example, five bucks, I'd take a chance on it.

germs on Aug 13, 2009


I find it ridiculous that most movies cost more to see in the cinema than they are to buy on DVD. I only go to the cinema if it's going to be a real experience, if the film itself demands it. I don't see the point of going to the movies, when I can watch the same film in the comfort of my own home on my own schedule. Eight months isn't a long wait for DVD. That said, if ticket prices were halved, I'd be going to the movies for anything I wanted to see even remotely.

Mark on Aug 13, 2009


I have actually experienced this by way of Netflix. When I paid for each movie that I rented I was extremely picky because I tied an exact dollar figure to every movie. But when I pay for a month of rentals, I am much more forgiving and willing to watch just about anything. It would be interesting to see this play out in the theaters. If you had to actually pay for all the big special effects, would they be as cool? Does the cost of making the movie directly correlate to how good an experience it is? There's a lot to think about here.

Kate on Aug 13, 2009


I used to go to movies at least once a month and sometimes every weekend, but since the prices are indeed up, I simply go for movies I know I´ll enjoy and movies i´ve been waiting for the longest to see. It sucks. But as for your idea, i would like to see that happen, but i would also be less likely to see something like Transformers 1 and 2 (honestly who didn´t go see it), or The Dark Knight last year, since the prices would be incredibly high to just go see one movie or even movies i´ve been waiting for the longest to see, which sucks as well.

Carlos on Aug 13, 2009


HEy, well I live in France, Paris and I pay a monthly 20euros to have a card wich gives me unlimited access to see any amount of movies! I'm amazed that system doesn't exist in the states, because then you're more likly to go and see any sort of movie and even get to go and see a second time a film you really liked! I think that system is much more interesting than the Pay scale....

ellli on Aug 13, 2009


It's an interesting concept but I'm not sure how well it'd work. It'd definately get more people to see the lower budgeted films but the blockbusters might miss out. I've had many customers who pass on 3D movies their kids really wanted to see to see another cheaper kids movie because of the extra 2.50 for glasses Also all the cheap ticket deals would have to change. All our theatres have cheap tuesdays which is any movie for 10 dollars (our normal price is 16 🙁 ) This brings in a lot of customers who see movies they normally wouldn't have seen anyway. It's still an intriguing idea even though none of our distributors would ever give up a cent on a ticket.

twiggs on Aug 13, 2009


I think there's a few reasons why this will never happen: 1. Take Transformers for instance, in your scenario I think the opening weekend take would be about the same but then the following weeks would be disastrous after word-of-mouth. If people told me Transformers or Wolverine or a big blockbuster wasn't that good I am not going to spend 20 bucks on it the next weekend, but I would pay 10 to see it just cause they're summer blockbusters. 2. I think you are right about it potentially killing arthouse cinemas. I mean, even if Indies are great and get good word of mouth they're still not going to take in that much (500 days was awesome but box office #s are bad). Even if you cut the price in half, I don't see it bringing in much more people. 3. I can see your point with the concert analogy, but kind of disagree. Movies come out so quickly to dvd, people pirate them, etc. and with big tvs and speaker systems you can come relatively close to the same experience with a fraction or no cost. You can't mirror a live concert.

Branden on Aug 14, 2009


Ellli...Americans wouldn't make as much money that way, thus, why do it? Still, it's a dumb idea, pricing based on movie. Big hits would make nothing and indie wills would increase in popularity until we tire of those because they'd make money, Hollywood thinks we like them so they make more, prices go up, ideas get old, and then we move to the cheesy B rated horror and action films. It's a cycle based on economic funds. If we did that, the only movie I'd see is D9 as it'd probably be priced relatively cheap. Yeah Twiggs, I've been going more lately because my local crap theater charges $4.50 on Sundays. Now, the theater sucks as the movie is hardly ever in focus, generally hot, and old. But the movie is cheap and I live in walking distance. lol

Tra la la la la di da on Aug 14, 2009


As someone else mentioned, I also used to go to the movies and see just about everything. I don't do that anymore. I only go to see the movies I feel I have to see like Ironman, Pans Labyrinth etc. A couple of factors are certainly the price. When I can buy the movie in a few months on Blu-ray for less than if the wife and I went to see it in the theater, it's a no brainer. The other deciding factor is the ever growing trend of rude people in theaters. That is the main reason that I put a home theater in my house. Fantastic audio/video, furniture, popcorn machine etc with none of the aggravation. I actually figured out once what I spent in a year of going to tons of movies and it came out cheaper to put a nice mid range home theater in. Now I would go to more movies if they would make better movies instead of the churned out crap and remakes. This is why I'm going to see District 9 in the morning, because for a farely miniscule budget they seem to have done what Hollywood can't do with a 200 million dollar budget. It wouldn't really matter to me if I paid 5 bucks or 12 bucks I would still go see certain select movies, but only at certain times when I know the theater won't be swamped. Midnight shows I found are usually the best experience because it's usually hard core fans that are there to see the movie only. That has been my best movie experiences. I would love to see new movies released in theaters with the option to stream it at home for a higher price day and date. Kind of like pay per view. Just my 2 cents.

ObiWop on Aug 14, 2009


I work at a movie theater so I see all the movies for free and trust me, when it's free, even G.I. Joe is entertaining

Alek on Aug 15, 2009

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