Culture Warrior: The Cost of Seeing a Movie

Culture Warrior

In a recent article from The Atlantic, business journalist Derek Thompson poses several compelling questions about the business model of contemporary theatrical distribution. Why, he asks, must we pay the same for Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol as we do for Young Adult at our local multiplex? Wouldn’t it make more sense if the comparably underperforming film, Young Adult, were distributed with lower ticket prices in order to cultivate greater competition against wintertime blockbusters, and thereby (perhaps) gain a slightly greater audience for a film whose appeal is limited by comparison? After all, movie studios don’t so much “give audiences what they want” as much as they calculate degrees success (if you don’t believe me, go ask your local AMC to bring A Separation or Carnage to your theater), so why don’t ticket prices reflect this already-transcribed fate?

It’s an interesting scenario to imagine, but one that becomes more difficult to envision once one parses through the details. As the author points out in his #4 reason why we have “uniform pricing,” varied pricing would likely create an unwarranted stigma against less expensive films, much like straight-to-DVD films have. That said, two other assumptions informing Thompson’s provocative question warrant further exploration: 1) we as consumers already have varied pricing, and we have developed patterns of determining a film’s “worth” in our choosing of where and in what conditions we see a film, and 2) movies would largely benefit if the perceived value of the opening weekend lessened significantly.

The Post-Theatrical

The uniquely American capitalist-democratic notion that we all “vote with our dollar” in our freedom to choose amongst a competing variety of options is simply not the case when it comes to the average local movie screen. On the sixteen or so screens offered at your typical multiplex, a small fraction of the 100-plus movies in current theatrical distribution are actually made available, and most of these are the biggest of studio films. The top-20 performing films at the box office each weekend, then, debut with the stench of pre-determination.

Fortunately, the movie theater isn’t the only place to go to see a movie. On December 28, the start of the weekend before Thompson’s analysis, the most-watched movie of the day from the titles available via Netflix’s Instant Streaming library was Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, a movie whose widest release was a mere 57 theaters. A film’s weekly theatrical performance may provide the most visible means of understanding a movie’s competition and performance, but it’s only the first chapter in an ongoing story of that film’s exhibition. Streaming options and home video delivery systems have actually given consumers a freedom of choice largely independent of their regional locale, or a chain theater’s pre-determination of what’s most profitable.

I’d say we now vote with our dollar through such alternatives, but that dollar is incredibly variant: less than two dollars on Redbox, $3.99 or so to rent on iTunes, and monthly fees on Netflix and other services. With all of these post-theatrical options, and with audiences’ continued preference to them since the end of the last decade, why do we still hold theatrical box office as the ultimate signpost of a film’s worth? Well, because it’s the most visible indicator, one that studios have poised as the stock exchange of Hollywood (there’s no Box Office Mojo for streaming, or pirating for that matter). But to apply so much worth to the weekend box office so unquestioningly is to falsely assume that movies die once they’re out of theaters.

Furthermore, Thompson’s analysis largely ignores or overlooks the fact that audiences have developed skills, rituals, and routines in which they apply different dollars to different films based on their assumed worth. That is to say, theatrical moviegoing doesn’t exactly involve uniform pricing as is. Thompson mentions matinees and parenthetically references “added value” screening modes like 3D – and, as his main object of study is MI4, I would add IMAX – but these viewing patterns are essential in not only predetermining a movie’s performance (you can’t pay $14 to see Young Adult in IMAX 3D), but also provide consumers several more ways of deciding how much to spend on a movie besides $12 for this or $12 for that. Even before the large web of post-theatrical exhibition developed, whether to see a movie at night or during the day, at a smaller theater a few weeks later, renting it from a local video store, or deciding which movie to use that coupon on was motivated by the worth assumed in association with a film that one had not yet seen.

Venue matters, and non-uniform pricing does exist. It’s one of the theatrical movie customer’s few avenues of choice.

Beyond the Opening Weekend

One of the great mistakes in placing undue importance on a movie’s box office is the assumption that this is the central, or primary means to determine a movie’s worth or success. The relationship between films and individual consumers is as close of a return to the solitary, pre-theatrical experience of the nickelodeon as a post-theatrical cinematic landscape can be. And even since the initial consolidation of film studios and established prominence of the theatrical experience since the nickelodeon, going to a movie theater in America has hardly been a uniform experience throughout 20th century history. It wasn’t until 1960, with Alfred Hitchcock’s desire to not spoil the first-act surprise death in Psycho, that a standard developed requiring patrons to actually enter a movie theater when it starts and leave when it ends. That means, within the parameters of the program chosen by the theater, until 1960 it was up to consumers to decide the exact worth of their dollar based on the time they decided to spend between an array of cartoons, newsreels, and occasional second bills.

Thompson cites the release of The Godfather as the moment in which uniform prices were dictated, thus creating a common, “fair” ground by which a film’s financial performance can be compared and judged. Yet The Godfather, not unlike a certain Han Solo-starring late-70s feature that would come to define the modern blockbuster, was a word-of-mouth success. Today, one might even call it a “sleeper” hit. It was a film that the studio felt, at best, uncertain about. It was not a movie whose success could be predicted by its opening weekend.

Thompson states his #2 reason theaters and studios don’t switch from uniform pricing thusly:

“You can’t consistently cut prices after a successful opening weekend. If people knew that ticket prices would fall after a big opening, many more would wait until the second or third weekend to see it, which would, ironically, destroy the meaning of opening weekends.”

Thompson’s right. Non-uniform pricing would completely mess up the way we evaluate a movie’s initial performance. Young Adult would no doubt still make less money than Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol if non-uniform pricing existed, but, if the proposed benefit of non-uniform pricing actually worked, their attendance numbers would be closer together. The assumed relationship between enthusiasm, attendance, and monetary performance would be broken.

That is, if such an assumption weren’t false in the first place.

One of the examples for comparison Thompson uses is The Iron Lady, a film that, as of the author’s writing, played on 4 screens in opposition to, say, MI4’s 3,448. That weekend, The Iron Lady’s per-screen average was $86,074, while MI4’s was $13,521 the same weekend. How can Thompson say that The Iron Lady should be the “cheaper” option when it receives such an exclusive platform release? Uniform pricing would never work, then, because there is no uniform term for a film’s success. The same currency is used, but it means radically different things for different films. And it’s in the realm of the per screen average (where the totals don’t matter as much, and where context is essential) in which the presumed ultimate arbiter of a film’s fate, the opening weekend, is having its only significant battle.

Thompson historically situates 1972 as somehow irreparably forming what we understand today as the weekend-by-weekend box-office battle. But the alleged importance of the opening weekend is actually a pretty recent phenomena. Look at any weekend-by-weekend charts of the early 1990s, and you’ll see more-consistent week-to-week grosses and a competitive field in which various films can make their way up and down on the chart, rather than predominantly “trickling down” after the last weekend. The studios’ placement of such immense importance on the opening weekend is, historically-speaking, a post-home-video phenomenon. It’s hardly something set in stone, or essential to the theatrical distribution model. Around the time of The Godfather (and before and for a short time after), seeing a movie in theaters was the only way to see it – thus, films had a longer theatrical lifespan. Now, as Certified Copy shows, many movies have a longer total lifespan.

It’s ironic that, in an information era in which the movie theater only represents the first chapter in a long life of exhibition and distribution, the furthest into the future that studios can see for their films numbers no more than three days. If non-uniform pricing would destroy the false importance placed on the opening weekend (and theatrical box-office in general), then bring it on – that is, if non-uniform pricing didn’t already exist.

Lucky for you, it’s free to read more Culture Warrior

Landon is a PhD candidate currently finishing a dissertation on rock 'n' roll movies at Indiana University's department of Communication and Culture.

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