These days, going to the movies can feel a lot like going to the airport. Theaters offer all kinds of “premium” upgrades—3-D, IMAX, reserved seating—and all of them send ticket prices soaring. Moviegoers in urban areas regularly spend up to $20 for a single ticket. In fact, a ticket to see Man of Steel in IMAX 3D at a reserved seating show at AMC’s Lincoln Square theater in New York City ran for $23.50 last weekend. But Paramount wants to know if moviegoers would spend even more than that. Last week, the studio and Regal Cinemas announced a $50 “Mega Ticket” for World War Z, which included early admission to the zombie film starring Brad Pitt, plus a whole grab bag of extras (more on that later).
At this rate, will ticket buyers soon pay $100? George Lucas thinks so. While speaking at a June 12 panel at the University of Southern California that included Steven Spielberg, the Star Wars director predicted that Hollywood’s current obsession with glossy blockbusters over art-house fare would cause an industry “implosion.” “There’s eventually going to be a big meltdown,” Lucas said. “You’re going to end up with fewer theaters…. Going to the movies will cost 50 bucks or 100 or 150 bucks, like what Broadway costs today, or a football game.”
Worse, Spielberg argued that most studios aren’t interested in smaller, more personal projects anymore. He claimed Lincoln was “this close” to ending up on HBO instead of in theaters. But Spielberg laid out a different vision for the future of movie-theater finances: tiered ticket pricing. He believes that in the near future, highly anticipated tentpoles will cost substantially more than small indies and dramas. It’s akin to airlines charging more for a sought-after flight over the holidays—the higher the up-front demand, the higher the price. As Spielberg put it, “You’re gonna have to pay $25 for the next Iron Man, [but] you’re probably only going to have to pay $7 to see Lincoln.”
Just a few days later the directors seemed downright prophetic, with the announcement of the $50 World War Z Mega Ticket. Sold in Atlanta, L.A., Philadelphia, Houston, and San Diego, the experimental ticket not only gave buyers access to an early screening on June 19—two days before its nationwide release—but also included a digital copy of the movie (available upon its home-market release), 3-D glasses, a World War Z poster, and a small popcorn. (But sadly, no soda.)
“This isn’t us trying to sell an individual ticket for 50 bucks,” says Ken Thewes, Regal’s chief marketing officer. “The objective is trying to bring more value to the moviegoing experience for the consumer.” While Thewes admits that not every filmgoer may consider the Mega Ticket a bargain, he believes it does appeal to die-hard fans. “We see a value in being the first to see the movie,” he says. “[And] there’s a number of people who know they’re probably going to want to own it [digitally], so we’re trying to make it easy for them.”
For Paramount, the big draw isn’t boosted up-front box office — it’s the opportunity to presell digital copies of a film while it’s still in theaters and fans are at their peak level of enthusiasm. “Home-video tracking goes down over time,” explains Paramount president of domestic marketing and distribution Megan Colligan, who also oversees the studio’s home-video division. “As you’re waiting for your movie to come out [on DVD and VOD], you’re actually watching the interest and excitement for the movie start to wane.” By getting movie buffs to exit—or in this case, enter—through the virtual gift shop, the studio aims to reverse the recent sharp decline in home-video revenues.
The World War Z Mega Ticket isn’t quite the fulfillment of Spielberg’s and Lucas’ predictions. It’s a one-time experiment in just five theaters involving a package of products, and it’s still unclear how successful it was going in to World War Z‘s opening weekend. Still, it shows that exhibitors are willing to try out new pricing schemes, especially for earlier screenings of movies. Vincent Bruzzese, CEO of Worldwide Motion Picture Group, a research firm, believes theaters may soon charge heftier prices for advance access. “You can value tickets differently in terms of [charging] more for an opening-weekend ticket than for a second-weekend or third-weekend or fourth-weekend ticket,” he says. But pricing based on the perceived anticipation for a film carries big risks. “You start going down the slippery slope of saying the experience of this movie is worth more than the experience of that movie,” he says.
And for every Iron Man 3 that meets its blockbuster expectations at the box office, there’s a hit like The Purge that comes seemingly out of nowhere— and that could mean lost revenues for movies that exceed projections. “You have so many movies that are sleepers that open to huge numbers,” says Warner Bros. president of domestic distribution Dan Fellman. “What [are theaters] going to do, change the price in the middle of the day?”
At this point, Americans don’t seem sold on the idea of paying more for tickets to in-demand flicks. “You know the schmucks who line up two days in advance for a Harry Potter movie or a Twilight movie? They’re going to pay the extra money,” says Phill Kane, a customer at the ArcLight Hollywood theater in L.A. this month. “For me? It depends.” Few expect prices to drop, even for less popular fare, and most say they’ll hold out for additional perks before they dig any deeper into their wallets. “There would have to be a lot more added value than just a seat in a theater,” says Terry Ingram, a film fan of Orlando, “especially in an economy that is suffering.”
Grady on Twitter: @gradywsmith