Could Variable Ticket Pricing Save the Movies?

By  · Published on February 1st, 2016


If the cost of a ticket is what keeps you from seeing more movies in the theater, Hollywood may have a solution. Specifically, three studios, Disney, Lionsgate and Fox, are investing in a new ticketing service and app that could wind up lowering the price you pay for some titles. The catch? You need to be popular.

Atom Tickets would determine when a sizable group of friends wants to see the same movie and then figure out when all those friends can be coordinated into seeing it together. The larger the group, the better the discount through a package deal. The savings of that deal will then be spread through the group.

That may not actually sound like a new idea. Universities and businesses employing a large staff have been buying special discount tickets to their local cinemas in bulk for decades, then directly selling them to their students or workers. But those cheaper “passes” have always come with the disadvantage of not being redeemable for movies in their first two weeks of release.

The irony is that it’s the studios’ fault that such discount tickets can’t be used for new movies. It’s also by their demand when a theater chain discontinues a designated night of the week when all movies are discounted – typically the order comes when the big tentpole releases drop, but that’s more often now than it used to be.

Hollywood is finally seeing the potential benefits of lowering ticket costs, at least in some cases. Another idea at Atom Tickets is that movies performing poorly could drop in price. That’s definitely showing an assumption that the biggest reason a certain movie isn’t doing well is because people don’t want to spend so much for it. Would Steve Jobs have been more popular for less?

So, we may get second-run rates for some movies still in first-run theaters. That still doesn’t seem too weird. But perhaps price dropping could lead to actual variable pricing. While some of the movies quickly discounted may be expensive flops like Jupiter Ascending, others could be smaller movies that already deserve to be cheaper to see than, say, Jurassic World.

This is something I (and others) have been considering the pros and cons of since theaters began charging more for IMAX and 3D shows, an indication that those formats had greater value to moviegoers (mostly the 3D surcharges were just for the production and cleaning of the glasses). It does sound logical in theory to price movies based on their budgets.

There are problems with doing that. One is that a little character-driven indie made for a hundred-thousand dollars and a $200m special effects spectacle still cost roughly the same to distribute and exhibit and advertise. Also, in rare cases where an indie becomes a huge hit, that success makes up for other great films that unfortunately underperformed at the box office.


Atom is currently testing in a few markets around the country, but so far it doesn’t seem as focused on the potential savings for moviegoers as it does on the potential for communal moviegoing experiences. As if we need another niche social media app. They’ll need to really revolutionize the business or they’ll be forgotten soon after the novelty wears off.

A lot of the perks outlined on its webpage aren’t any different from online ticketing outlets that have been around for years (ooh, skip the lines!). The app’s distinct aim is to make moviegoing planning easier among a lot of friends. But is that even appealing to most people? Atom looks specifically geared toward younger moviegoers, who still hang out in droves.

I don’t think Atom itself will be that successful, but if it sparks the idea in Hollywood to think differently about ticket pricing, now on the studios’ terms rather than on the theaters’ (the way they like it), then this is an interesting development for the industry. Just imagine the marquee of the future that does something like this:

Anything in IMAX 3D D-Box, etc. – $18
The Avengers vs. Justice League vs. Star Wars vs. Dinosaurs (2D) – $15
Animated Family Movie Part 5 (2D) – $14
YA or Superhero Movie Sequel – $13
New Attempt at a YA or Superhero Franchise – $12
Kevin Hart Comedy – $11
Cheap Thrills Horror Flick – $10
Oscar-nominated Prestige Drama – $9
Original Sci-Fi of Any Budget – $8
Talky Sundance Sensation or Woody Allen’s Latest – $7
Documentary – $6
Robert Downey Jr. Not Playing Iron Man Drama – $5

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.