Could Cheaper Ticket Prices Be the Worst Thing For Movie Theaters?

By  · Published on March 26th, 2014

Warner Bros.

Among the many complaints moviegoers (and also those who no longer movie-go) have about the theatrical experience, the expense involved is consistently near the top of the list. Some of that has to do with other ancillary costs like gas and babysitters while the concession racket is also substantial, but the price of tickets, which is the one thing you have to pay to get in the door of the auditorium, is something that people always seem to have a problem with. They’ll pay it, but they’ll let you hear about it if you’re working the box office on a Friday night. Even though I don’t have to pay for most of the movies I see (one of the perks of this job), I have to admit the price is pretty steep considering the gamble these days – not just regarding the quality of the feature but also the quality of your fellow audience members.

I’ve always thought the idea of lowering prices or at least offering discount tickets is a good solution for movie theaters wanting to attract more customers, particularly on weeknights. It’s not an out of nowhere concept. Many chains have deals where you get cheaper tickets by buying them in bulk (often these are in turn sold cheaply to students or employees of large local companies), and others have tried designating a special night of the week (Tuesday is common) to either charge less for admission or do a two-for-one deal. Unfortunately, the discount tickets aren’t usually accepted for the brand new releases, and I saw happen constantly when I managed movie theaters, any time a really hot movie came out (usually one made by Sony or Warner Bros.), those other designated discounts and deals disappeared as dictated by arrangements made with the studio.

I was reminded of that cycle when I saw a report by Deadline from this week’s CinemaCon regarding plans for a nationally adhered to discount ticket night. John Fithian, head of the National Association of Theatre Owners, said during the event that there will be a market test of the idea in an undisclosed state very soon. The lowered price wouldn’t be the same across the board, across the country, across all cinemas, because that’s illegal price-fixing. However, all NATO members would abide by some sort of understanding, and at least the day involved would be uniform. Of course, the studios would also have to be on board unless the idea was that theaters would be forfeiting their own profits while still giving Hollywood its usual percentage. Hopefully it’s the former, partly because it’s annoying seeing NATO always so submissive to the studios and partly because if the scheme worked well enough, increase in attendance might make up the difference in box office grosses anyway.

Even though it isn’t the freshest strategy, I was initially pretty excited by Fithian’s announcement. When I do have to pay for a movie, I definitely like it to be as cheap as possible. Mostly, though, I’m all for anything that will save theaters and get more people to go to the movies. But then I started reading the comments on Deadline’s post. A lot of them make the case that lowering prices is a terrible idea for cinemas, whether for one day of the week or in general. Their reason is that the cheaper the ticket, the cheaper the people are who go to the movies on that day (or in general if an altogether decrease). These “riffraff,” as one person calls them, are the ones most likely to use their phones and talk with each other and otherwise be a nuisance.

Could this be true? Is there a higher standard of behavior that comes the higher the cost? It does sort of make sense that some people would care less about what they’re seeing and whether they’re being conscious of others if they just came in off the street for some low-cost diversion. And maybe there’s a likelihood of more young people and more old people – the two extremes of who tend to be the least conscientious of other moviegoers, both of which may be on tighter budgets. But I don’t know that there’s a certain correlation between the low cost and low courtesy. Most of the reasoning there is generalized and based on anecdotal evidence. And maybe these are all people who would rather see movie theaters go in the other direction, towards higher priced luxury auditoriums and a theatrical experience that’s more a special occasion.

As with most issues with movie theaters, it actually all comes down to management and whether they give a damn about actually presenting a quality experience, not just an affordable one. I see the motive to discount being somewhat lazy on their part, as if lowering a price on a crappy commodity makes that commodity’s value go up. I’d rather see theaters put that money they’re sacrificing on the discount toward better staffing in order to better monitor behavior in the auditoriums, better attend to customers outside the auditoriums and better notice if there’s anything wrong with the exhibition of the movie. I’d be perfectly happy paying the normal cost of a movie ticket for a perfect experience than paying half the price for a mediocre one.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.