Features and Columns · Movies

The Pros and Cons of a Flexible Movie Ticket Pricing System

By  · Published on March 21st, 2011

Over the weekend, discounted tickets through Groupon helped The Lincoln Lawyer’s box office numbers, which once again draws the question of ticket prices back into the forefront.

It’s no secret that ticket prices are a cause for concern for both movie fans (like us) who feel hoodwinked by inflated prices of admission and movie studios who, despite record-breaking years recently, still want to make more money.

Since lowering prices wholesale is apparently not an option, another solution has to be found, and Steve Zeitchik over at the LA Times gives about as smart and in-depth an exploration of flexible ticket pricing as you could hope for.

Just like hotels and airfare, the movies that aren’t popular become cheaper while the huge hype of blockbusters comes with a bigger price tag. While a movie like Limitless starts to sell out, the prices go up, but as ticket sales for Paul stay low, the price drops. It’s almost as simple as that.

First, let’s take a look at the pros:

And the cons:

What Zeitchik’s article doesn’t cover is the question of how realistic standard economics can be applied here. Movies aren’t airplane tickets or hotel reservations, and it seems unlikely that someone would go see the under-advertised, low-budget dramedy simply because the more-popular explosive action flick is more expensive. “Movies” aren’t a singular product that can be toggled between based on pricing alone.

That scenario seems more like it would cause smaller films to be punished for not being advertised more. Unless it’s reasonable to assume large amounts of people will discover a smaller movie simply because it’s cheaper, the model here injures non-blockbuster filmmaking considerably.

If the assumption that pricing alone drives people to the theater is correct, though, there’s also the question of whether non-studio pictures would be affected by this. If smaller distribution arms don’t negotiate variable ticket pricing, the ultra indie at $10 could lose even more of its audience to the smaller studio film that just dropped down to $7.

What really matters, of course, is how it will affect moviegoers. The trade off here seems like it will end up costing consumers more instead of less. For example, say that you’re a serious fan that sees at least one movie a week. Ticket prices will likely fluctuate between $5 and $15 so that you end up breaking basically even – until the giant Summer movies hit, and you’re shelling out $30 for a ticket to The Avengers.

If the base ticket price is $10, and it can go down to $1 or up to $30, the math just isn’t on the side of the customer. The studio will maintain similar numbers for the average movie and then gouge customers for the biggest movies of the year. It will undoubtedly lower the audience numbers for those films, but the ones who still really want to see Batman kick someone’s ass on the big screen will be paying for it.

I don’t have a solution to the ticket problem (except lowering ticket prices across the board), but this seems like a pricing system that punishes movie fans more than rewards them, and it’s something that absolutely shouldn’t be implemented. It creates a false cost based on how well the marketing for a particular film works, and it would use the airfare/hotel fare model for a product that’s nothing like those purchases.

Unlike a plane cabin or a room count, there’s no real bar on getting into a theater. If a movie is sold out, there’s another screening in half an hour to catch. There’s far more flexibility there than with travel. Also unlike hotels and air fare, if a person is turned off by the insane price of The Dark Knight tickets, it doesn’t mean he or she will automatically go watch another movie. They’ll probably just stay home.

If the studios seriously think about implementing a plan like this, staying home will seem like a great idea.

What do you think?

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.