The Economics of a Night at the Movies

April 15, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

What better topic for Tax Day than to discuss how much it costs to take a date to the movies? (Feel free to ignore the following discussion if you routinely go alone and/or surf from theater-to-theater - a tactic that will allow you to see multiple movies for one admission price.)

Most theaters charge between $8 and $10 for a prime-time admission. There's no correlation between price and quality. The best theater I attend charges $8 per person. One of the lousiest charges $10. For the extra $2, you can get a stiff neck and sticky shoe bottoms. I suppose it's worth it to some people, because the theater isn't hurting for attendance. (I'll say it's an AMC theater, but I won't divulge the location.)

Assuming an average $9 admission, that means $18 for two. Since gasoline no longer carries a negligible cost, let's say it takes about a gallon's worth of fuel to go to a theater (about 10 miles each way). Now the price is up to $20. Throw in two popcorns and two sodas (I don't touch the stuff but my wife does, and I'll bet more people partake than don't), and the final price tag is around $34. That's a lot of money to spend, especially when you consider the alternatives. Two tickets plus concessions at a minor league baseball game will run you the same or a little less - and that's for three hours of live entertainment. More importantly, you can buy any DVD for less than $34 (in fact, if you're selective, you can buy two for that price), then watch it in a home theater as many times as you want. Is it any wonder that it's becoming more popular to stay home than visit multiplexes?

Now, back to theater-surfing. This is technically illegal, yet almost everyone I know does it. (I haven't for a long time, because I'm a stick in the mud, but there are instances in my distant past when I engaged in this nefarious activity.) There was a time when it wasn't a problem to stick around for more than one showing, but that was before the era of multiplexes. I can recall lounging through multiple sittings of movies like The Empire Strikes Back and Star Trek II without being kicked out in between. My friends and I occasionally got odd looks from the cleaning crew, but no one told us to leave.

Muliplexes make it easy to see multiple films. They invite violations. You walk out of a movie and see, only 20 feet away, the name of something you haven't seen. The temptation is increased if you feel like you have just been ripped off. If you're satisifed by a movie, you're more likely to leave than if you feel like your cash has been taken. Of course, as long as violators buy concessions (which is where most theaters make their money), there aren't going to be many complaints.

Then there's the question of teens paying to see one movie as a means of sneaking into something else. How many tickets to Guess Who were sold to 15-year old boys wanting to get into Sin City? And this weekend, Sahara will probably benefit by the R-rating given to The Amityville Horror. And that brings me to something else I want to discuss - the decline of the R-rated movie in a PG-13 culture. But that's for tomorrow.