The value of a film and the cost to see it.

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.

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4 thoughts on “The value of a film and the cost to see it.

  1. Wow, never thought about this before. I guess the current system translates more to a paying for entrance to the theater and getting your choice of movie sort of thing, kind of like a once through the line buffet.

    When you think about it, charging an extra dollar to see The Dark Knight probably wouldn’t have kept many people from seeing it, but it might have generated some bad press as people are so locked in to the same price for all movies system.

    I guess I’d have to say that raising the price for a movie would feel like gouging and dropping the price would feel like desperation, neither of which get me excited about shelling out money. That would be especially true if the price fluctuated during the theatrical run. If people knew the price would drop after a couple weeks, they’d wait and some would forget about it, losing the sale. If it went up in the second week, it’d chase off potential viewers not excited by the higher price.

    Interesting topic. Thanks or the read.

    • I would say that prices already do fluctuate, only after the theatrical run. You can see a film on video for a couple bucks, if you don’t mind waiting. And there used to be places called second run theaters where films were half price or less and played a couple months after the first run in the nicer theater. They were usually kind of run down places and often played double features. I don’t think these places took any business at all from the first run places. They had their own audience. I admit, it would be difficult to raise the price for a single film without it feeling like gouging, but that’s just because we’re used to it. They have a hard time raising airline prices too, because the competition is right there.

  2. films go through this marketing and distribution thing depending on their financial resources. unlike other industries, the sheer point where people (audiences) differentiate between films is the appeal of the film to their taste, because opting for a film is taste-driven, same price makes one film or the other worth it as far as their appeal to tastes go. because simply there’s no such thing as “I think this film should cost less, cause it is less captivating, artful or whatever”. because you cannot equate price decision to subjective evaluation. with your restaurant analogy, this seems like expecting that people who like sushi more than others are to be charged more. audiences either go to a film or not. that is, either the full price or no pay. so it seems not relevant to compare one film to the other in terms of the budget. you may create a worthwhile film for a “big enough” audience regardless of your finances while creating it, there you’re entitled to demand the same price, that is, get your film to theaters.
    If there is any price differentiation comes into being, that relates to film’s duration or conscious marketing decisions.

    • As an audience member after you’ve seen a film, you know exactly what you think that film was worth. You either feel ripped off or not, at varying degrees depending on how much liked the film. So there is some sense of this already. It just needs to be reverse engineered.

      But what I’m talking about is a filmmaker, or a studio, telling us that this film is worth more, so you have to pay more. Or maybe the star cost us more, so you have to pay more to see it. (I bet that would work, but everyone would hate that star.) People pay more to see Madonna than they do to see The Coathangers, and I’m sure they both put on a hell of a show. I agree that the budget of the film is probably irrelevant to the ticket buyer, but as you also said, M+A costs are directly proportional to the budget of a film. And why is the first question at a Q+A after a film always, “how much did that cost?”

      By the way, people who like sushi more WILL pay more to go to a better sushi restaurant. Some people think they’re crazy because sushi is just raw fish. And, personally, I think bargain sushi is a scary proposition. I’m not sure that I’d feel the same way about that pay scale for a movie, but I might.

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