How Much Would You Pay for a Movie Ticket?
democratize the big screen
Last week I received an email telling me I could go see Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves by bringing a potato to the theater on opening night. Proof:
I did end up seeing Dungeons and Dragons although not for the cost of a potato; instead I used the Regal Unlimited membership that I pay $23.99 a month for, along with a $.50 fee because I bought the ticket on the app. Dungeons and Dragons was exactly what you’d expect, which is to say, generally unpleasant. The only exciting moment was the appearance of Chris Pine’s character’s unnamed dead Black wife and their mixed race daughter, who is played by the same child actress who played the mixed race daughter of an unnamed Black wife in 65! Oh brave new world that has such people in it! I was born 20 years too early.
Despite my mediocre experience, I can’t begrudge Dungeons and Dragons the cost of the ticket. The theater was nice and I got $.50 worth of entertainment. The week before that, I saw John Wick: Chapter Four also for $.50, plus a $7.00 with taxes and fees ticket for a friend as part of Regal’s Value Day discount. John Wick was way more than $.50 worth of fun, and so I consider my month’s membership fee already earned back. But looking at these prices makes me question how much movie theaters value the experience they offer. What does it mean that a theater will give you a seat in exchange for a potato? How much does a movie ticket cost? And how much should it?
If you don’t mind waiting, you can get a cheap ticket on discount Tuesdays or at second run theaters. Most theaters offer memberships that require an upfront fee or have a rewards program that will give you a discount on tickets purchased within a set window. MoviePass, the controversial disrupter that promised to change ticket buying forever before imploding a few years ago, is now back in beta with pledges of cheap tickets and much of the same customer service issues. The trade-off for these lower prices is the inconvenience the user has to pay.
subscribe for more movie magic
Movie theaters are still recovering from pandemic losses and are adapting slowly to a new culture of moviegoing. The most recent controversial adaptation was AMC’s tiered pricing, which charges higher for prized center-theater seats. Unlike plays, concerts, or airplanes, we don’t think of sticky-floored movie theaters as a luxury experience. Maybe this is why movie theaters have never done a true rush ticket system, the price model used by performing arts theaters to sell remaining empty seats last-minute at discounted prices. We see the movie theater as a democracy, and are resistant to changes that clutter the theater with status symbols.
But amidst these changes, theaters have yet to seriously address the problem that the experience they’re offering isn’t always that great. Aging, broken equipment has made the theatrical experience noticeably worse even to casual theatergoers. I have felt everything Lane Brown’s wrote in his piece on bad projection; the last time I was at the Angelika, which brands itself as the cinema of choice for film lovers and charges $18 for a ticket in New York ($9 on Tuesdays), the screen wasn’t masked correctly and the movie played partly on the wall.
What I love about going to the movies is the spontaneity of moviegoing. You can still pay for a ticket in cash, without downloading an app, and sometimes even pick your seat in the theater, not in advance on a kiosk screen. This casual movie-ticket buying experience is one of the last of its kind. It’s hard to conduct any transactions this simply anymore—even the NYC subway is making it increasingly difficult to ride without a credit card.
Maybe my romanticized yearning for a frictionless moviegoing experience is why I’ve become one of those horrible people who insists on checking out other movies when I’m in a multiplex, peeking in to find an empty seat and watching part of another movie I didn’t pay for and don’t even want to see. I never had this impulse before I moved to New York and had to confront the reality of a $19 movie ticket in a bedbug infested theater. I want my money’s worth, and more than that, I want the feeling of wandering into a theater five minutes before showtime and taking whatever seat is available.
I believe very strongly that the movie theater has to remain democratic. We don’t need to go back to two-hour lines wrapped around the theaters to see the latest IP blockbuster on opening night. And we can keep extra fees for IMAX, memberships for people who go to the theater every week, and discounts offered through the newsletter. But don’t make the walk-in option only available as a marketing gimmick that trades a seat for a functionally useless New World tuber. Let it be possible for someone to buy a movie ticket in a decent theater for less than an hour of minimum wage work, without requiring they maintain a membership, or see the movie four weeks after it comes out, or even download an app.
I dream of the day when theaters make people genuinely want to go to the movies again. Not because they’ll get to see corny pre-roll ads where Oscar winners thank the audience with the sincerity of a dog licking peanut butter off a camera lens, but because they recognize that the urge for the communal experience of movie-watching is sacred. It’s the same urge that convinced us to go to Nickelodeons and movie palaces rather than rely on the single-service Kinetoscope in the early 20th century. Through subpar equipment and absurd pricing, theaters are letting home streaming replace them as the standard for movie watching. There’s still plenty of time to revive the theater. At least, I hope so.