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At the Movies

IndieWire recently featured an article asking if movie tickets should cost less for independent films than they do for high-profile blockbusters. You know the type of movies we're taking about: a low-budget flick that may or may or not feature big name talent, often made outside one of the major studios, featuring careful pacing, lots of scenes where characters talk with one another, a discernible plot, and not very many (if any) things getting blowed-up real good. In other words, a movie that requires thought and careful viewing by the cinema-goer, which is probably why such films don't often rake-in the dough.

A lot of people seem to want a movie-going experience to be some sort of escapism. Indeed, much of cinema is exactly that. Documentaries aside, a majority of films take us to the fictional lives of others, allowing us a window into their goings-on, glimpsing -- if only for a couple of hours -- the situations they encounter and how they grapple with them. And that's just the indie/art-house films. The blockbusters take us on an entirely different journey altogether, though similar enough at their core. A vast majority of movies share the common theme of allowing us an escape from our own lives. On that level, they are the same.

But IndieWire's article brings up an interesting notion. Why does every movie cost the same to see? Actually, it's not IndieWire's question so much as it is their response to the question posed by director Chad Hartigan. If anything, David Ehrlich, writing for the publication, vehemently opposes the implementation of a stratified ticket pricing system. He writes:

For one thing, theaters couldn’t bear the burden. It’s true that moviegoers can’t afford for tickets to get any more expensive, but it’s also true that movie theaters can’t afford for tickets to get any less expensive. Even if most of the money is made from concessions, it’s hard to imagine theaters subscribing to an idea that would force them to take the only hit. Of course, more tickets means more popcorn, but the negative ramifications would only ripple out from there. As Hartigan himself observed, it would be tricky to figure out what price category should apply to each film, or who gets to make that call. Would theater owners make that judgement call on a case-by-case basis? Would they be factoring reviews, social media buzz, or audience demographics? How long would it take before the whole thing somehow turned super racist? (It’s hard to imagine exactly how it would, but so much harder to imagine that it wouldn’t).

I'll probably have my liberal/filmgoer card revoked for this, but I'm just not seeing why this is such a difficult concept to grasp, or why it should be so staunchly opposed. We do this in pretty much every other realm of commerce (and, make no mistake, the world of cinema is commerce -- artistic, creative commerce, but commerce nevertheless). I'm sure some kind of system could be worked out that would arrange a pricing scheme that would reflect a film's cost, along with demand to see it. That's how it works with almost everything else.

Cheap food is cheap because it costs (comparatively) little to make. No one would pay $10 for a McDonald's burger. And they'd be right. The ingredients aren't high quality enough, and the production process has been so streamlined that overall costs are low. You would expect to pay more for a gourmet burger at a fancy restaurant, or a place that specializes in burgers, simply because the experience is likely to be better. The ingredients are of higher quality, more care is put into the making of the burger, etc.

Sometimes people are willing to pay more simply for a brand name. For example, Apple doesn't really pay all that much more to make its phones than the company that sells their phones for $100 - $200. But Apple can charge $500 - $900 for their phones because their brand is perceived as desirable and durable (whether that is the reality or not). Same goes for brand names in pretty much every other line of product (hand bags, cars, etc). None of this is rocket science, but it bears keeping in mind when someone acts like such a stratification in price is some sort of anomalous notion that could somehow never be implemented when it comes to ticket sales.

Ehrlich sees some possible solutions to the issue of lower attendance for art-house flicks, along with an overall lack of enthusiasm for people going to see them at the rate they go see something like Spider-Man: Homecoming, but he eschews potential monetary and Video-On-Demand fixes and instead wants to focus on tackling the enthusiasm angle. He continues:

Of course, a lot of these conclusions depend on the assumption that lowering ticket prices wouldn’t result in a major surge in viewers, and that’s because it wouldn’t. Yes, cost is a major barrier to entry, but enthusiasm is the more immediate obstacle. If you just want to get out of the house, enjoy some industrial-strength air-conditioning, and see something… congratulations, you’re the target demographic for “The Emoji Movie.” But people go to see “The Beguiled” or “The Big Sick” because they’re interested in something specific. At a time when people can stream a million bad movies on your couch for $8.99 a month, movie theaters are asking consumers to spend twice that in order to see just one. And people do it because it’s the one they want to see.
Rather than making movie tickets cheaper for indies, we need to focus on making people more enthusiastic about paying for the pleasure. The theatrical experience will only survive if we get people excited to go the movies — conceding that the medium is dying, highlighting its desperation, and insisting that creativity is worth less is a recipe for disaster in an age when the television medium is throwing money at premium cable shows that affirm the value of its visionaries.

To be clear, I am somewhat playing a bit of Devil's Advocate with this post. I would, personally, be fine with ticket prices remaining the same across the board, for all movies, regardless of how much it costs to make them. I really don't think that lowering the cost to go see something like Frances Ha would have meant juggernaut ticket sales for it. Heck, Moonlight was nominated for a ton of Academy Awards (up to an including winning Best Picture), and its box office take was about 8% of how well this year's Beauty and the Beast performed.

It's obvious that building better box office for smaller, more intimate films is going to take more than critical acclaim, wide release and multiple award nominations. Those things help, certainly, but are they really transformative? That's another question that needs to be asked. What are we thinking would be a desirable box office take for an indie/art-house film? Maybe I have it wrong. Perhaps, for those in the industry (or who watch it closely), the boost that films such as Moonlight get from awards season and film critic praise is enough? That is something else that needs to be defined better. In order measure success, you first have to define what success is.

Earlier I mentioned how I've been playing Devil's Advocate a bit with this post, and that is, for the most part, correct. Having said that, I still haven't heard or read a truly solid reason why ticket prices are somehow in a different realm than every other part of the economy, and can not have a cost/price ratio implemented that also takes into account demand. It's a very intriguing question that has been raised, one that I, admittedly, had never thought about before reading the IndieWire article. Perhaps it's one of those 'it's always been this way, so why give it thought?' type of things? Regardless, it is now a question in search of an answer.


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