Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Pay More for a Good Movie? Sure!

By Gina Carbone

Movie studios and theater chains don’t want anyone moving their cheese. Even if you move it to a better spot.

Last weekend I drove more than an hour to catch the nearest showing of the Coen brothers’ new film, “No Country for Old Men.” I gladly got their three hours early to pay $9.25 for a sold-out evening show, plus parking and gas.

At the same theater are films like “Wristcutters: A Love Story” and “The Price of Sugar.” They are not selling out. Not mandating a line. Not requiring weekend planning. And yet tickets cost the same for all.

At my local multiplex, “Bee Movie” is playing every five minutes. It’s selling well. Also at my theater, but not showing quite as often or doing nearly as well, is “Gone Baby Gone.” Guess how much tickets are for both?

A recent Detroit Free Press article by Terry Lawson argued the one-price-fits-all model is outdated. I agree. I would add that the set-showtimes and free-for-all seating models are also outdated.

There’s no need for a sweet PG movie and a torture porn R to be sharing the same basic schedule. Odds are, the 10 p.m. “Bee” and 11 a.m. “Saw IV” are going to be echo chambers.

And when’s the last time you actually enjoyed watching a movie from the front row? It either killed your neck or made you nauseous or both. You could be the first in line for tickets, but if you decide to help sustain your local theater by buying an overpriced popcorn and get to a seat after your cheapskate neighbors, you may be split up from your friends and family. What’s the problem with setting a seat number when you buy a ticket -- like every other major concert or theater venue -- with the first two rows as the true cheap seats?

In the Free Press article, Lawson references Radiohead’s decision to release their album “In Rainbows” online at whatever price fans wanted. (Including nada.) According to the story, the album was downloaded more than a million times with the average buyer paying about $8.

Acknowledging that Radiohead doesn’t have the same corporate responsibilities as movie studios and theater chains, Lawson puts forth a proposal: “Consider the fate of a couple of great movies that no one is seeing, ‘Into the Wild’ and ‘Michael Clayton.’ What if the distributors of those movies advertised reduced ticket prices for these films, say on one Sunday? Or on weekday nights when theaters are empty, anyway? How about cheaper prices for those small, truly independent and foreign films that have been muscled out of the art houses by the studio's boutique divisions? Would that entice audiences and distributors to take a chance?”

This is hardly redefining pi. Most of the world already sets prices by demand. Parents are eating each other alive to get tickets to Hannah Montana’s sold-out shows -- in any unsqueaky clean way possible. A local band’s concert at the local concert hall is not going to go for the same as the Police’s latest reunion tour. Chances are your community theater’s production won’t require the hundreds you could dish out for a high-profile Broadway show.

Granted, you can’t see “Wicked” at any theater across the country; naturally it’s going to cost more when more people are vying for the same seats. But at least on Broadway you know what seat you are going to get. You and your friends can book the orchestra for X amount, if you are treating yourselves, or be content with a restricted view in the back of the balcony for less.

Movie theaters are long overdue to match this common sense price setting. The actual cost could be left to the discretion of the theater owners. If “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” is opening tonight, chances are about 100 percent it’s going to sell out. So you raise the price -- a lot. It’s not like Dad would risk patricide by staging a boycott. Meanwhile, you offer a cheap, art-house sweetie like “Once” next door for less -- a lot.

Spillover audience? Doubt it, but the law of averages would likely leave theaters in the black. They don’t make the bulk of their money from ticket sales anyway. They get you on the humungous popcorns, sodas and overpriced M&Ms. And you should pay, happily, or they’ll just start charging $20 for everything.