If you go to see a film in the theater, whatever film you pick will cost the same as any other. It doesn’t matter how much a film cost to make, or how many people are expected to go see it, it will cost the same as any other film. I doesn’t matter how good it is, or how prestigious or high brow it is, it will cost the same as all the others.
While there’s a certain democratic quality to this that I like, it seems fundamentally wrong in a free market economy. What happened to the supply and demand curve? What happened to the cost of making something having some bearing on the cost of buying it? And while it’s always hard to measure prestige or quality, we have no problem choosing restaurants based on some measure like that – at least the intentions of a restaurant can be deduced from the items on the menu and the prices they charge.
Now, as far as supply and demand, the studios do their best to control supply. They flood the theaters, and keep our choices down, or, if they think a film will attract less people, they might open it in fewer theaters. So, in that sense, they control supply to keep in line with that price point.
But I can think of no other industry where the price is fixed, across the board, for whatever product line you are offering. In fact, in most industries, I’m pretty sure this would be called price fixing. It’s been like this for my entire life, and, as far as I know, for the history of movies in America, from the days when five cents bought you a feature, a b-picture, a few shorts and a news reel. Popcorn stays uniformly and unrealistically high-priced, no matter where you see a film. And this policy continues, basically, into the world of DVD, where DVD’s all cost about 15- 20 bucks. (The internet is changing this a little, but that’s the price the studios have picked and are reluctant to lower, despite the fact that a DVD costs them about a buck fifty to manufacture.)
Now, I’m not sure what benefits could be brought by charging different prices for different films, but I do know that films in theaters are, by and large, not worth the price of admission. For all the industry talk of movies still being a good deal, I don’t see it. It costs a lot to see a movie these days. I definitely think that films should be cheaper (especially as they are competing with ‘free’).
Let’s just do a quick thought experiment, using food as our guide.
A film that costs 200 million dollars had better appeal to a lot of people if it’s going to make your money back, so let’s assume that this film is the McDonalds of movies. It’s quick, it’s easy, it looks great in the poster and we know what we’re getting; it fills us up, even if it never quite satisfies.
On the other hand, there’s the 10 million dollar prestige picture. This one is a little more complicated, has a few more ingredients. We still know what we’re going to get, but maybe there’s a little foreign influence or a surprise ingredient. This film is maybe the Cheesecake Factory of movies. The portions are huge and satisfying and the food actually looks like it does on the menu. This film still appeals to a lot of people, but it’s not the kind of place you go to all the time. This is a going out to dinner place.
Then we get a 3 million dollar or less film, which could be complex or not; it may look great, or it may look like shit; it could be high art, or Clerks. This is your family run restaurant. The food could be excellent (or awful) simple fast food, like tacos or burgers. Or it could be a three star restaurant with an excellent chef creating new foods that may be so groundbreaking, that it would take a critical understanding of Japanese food to understand how good it is.
Now, we pay differently for all this food and have different wants and expectations when we go into any of these restaurants. What I’m finding interesting as I write it down is that it seems to be sort of reverse economics as far as cost goes. McD makes a profit on its cheap burgers by keeping its costs down. Why should the most expensive films be the ones expected to cost the least to see, but that’s what I would expect.
The studios would look at it exactly the opposite, and they may be right too. They would argue that the 200 million dollar film is an “event” movie, and deserving of more bucks. It’s hard to argue with 200 million dollars.
Either way, I think there is room for maneuvering. A three million dollar film with a lower price would definitely be able to compete better against the 200 million dollar film at regular price. You need more people to see it to get your money back, but that’s the whole point, isn’t it?
Plus, there’s the idea of “Price Image”, which is a jargon used by supermarkets and such to identify the correlation between the price of something and its perceived quality because of that price. For example, if sushi is cheap, it would be perceived as lower quality. So, if you charged more for your “prestige” film, you might get your price image up there, and appeal to the people out there seeking quality.
Or a studio film that is tanking, might offer some incentives to get people in to see it.
You see, none of this is an option because the value of seeing a film is the same, no matter what film it is. Would you pay more to see a good film? It’s such a shot in the dark when you pay for a film, who knows? Even the best reviewed films suck sometimes. And the other way around. And it is so ingrained in our minds that a movie costs a certain amount, I don’t know that you could get around that, but maybe you could. I don’t know. Just some ideas.