Does it really cost that much to see a movie in the theatre?

After typing the words “Modest Movie” into Google today, I discovered that the top link wasn’t my highly-esteemed blog but an article from the Globe and Mail with the title “A modest defense of price gouging at movie theatres” (emphasis added). While this wasn’t my original posting intention of the day (a couple of Spaghetti westerns that I recently watched were), I think this is a good issue to jump on and discuss.

Liam Lacey, the author of the article, writes a great introduction that outlines that people are now more likely to complain about going to the movie theatre than actually going to the movie theatre. The three complaints? Noise (which I’m guilty of complaining about), cellphones, and the prices of movie tickets and popcorn.

Lacey doesn’t really focus on offering a defense for noise or cellphones (because there’s nothing to defend – it’s just irritating) but he offer three reasons why we shouldn’t be complaining about tickets and popcorn:

1. Movies are Cheap Entertainment

2. High-price popcorn keeps movie theatres in business

3. Different prices for different movies (3-D vs. Regular D) makes sense

Unfortunately, he uses the wrong word in framing his argument: “gouging.” This isn’t “gouging” – this is “going out.”

The best defense against the “price-gouging” complaint is going to the theatre costs about the same as everything else. Take the family of four for instance. This is the classic standard to measure the cost of going to the theatre. Roughly $11/per person plus $25 for snacks (that would be two large Cokes and two large popcorns) for about $70 for two hours worth of entertainment. So the breakdown is $17.50/per person.

Going out for drinks for a couple of hours? Probably an average of about $14/ per person for two beers – if you only have two beers. More likely about $21/per person…more when you order an appetizer and add a tip. Eating out at most places will end up averaging close to $17.50 a person, especially if you order a drink and don’t just have water. I looked at go-karting places ($12.75 for ten minutes of adrenaline-fuelled racing fun), paintball ($15.00 for two hours), and laser quest ($9 for thirty minutes). So, if it costs (roughly) the same as everything else – why are we complaining?

And the answer is: VHS. Or more specifically, that fear from the 80s – watching movies at home.

Yes, as much as I (and practically ever other person on the planet) love DVDs and their ilk, they infected us with a virus: a sense of entitlement. We can own a movie for $25, rent one for $5, get a monthly streaming service with unlimited movies for $8, or just download illegally pirated copies for free. So why should we pay $17.50 to see one? Because you’re going out.

I like to think about this in another way: people don’t really complain about restaurants that often (at least in the same way as they do movie theatres). In most pubs it costs around $11.99 for a burger and fries. And no one complains. Why not? Buying ground beef, frozen fries, buns, and a head of lettuce from the grocery costs about the same, plus it’s enough for four burgers. I hear what you’re saying: it’s just not as good at home – or – buying all the supplies needed actually costs more than buying it in the restaurant (short-term thinking, but understandable). Now back to home video and movie theatres.

The main justification for going out anywhere – whether it be to a hockey game or a rock concert – is that it’s just not as good at home. That’s the rationale for paying $70 a ticket and downing $15 lukewarm beers. In the past decade, home video has changed that for movie theatres. High-definition televisions, home surround sound systems, and Blu-ray players have changed the experience. We can’t justify going to the theatre because it’s just not as good at home – because it’s not. It’s better at home.

The superior home-viewing experience has changed the way we think – everything at the theatre seems overpriced because the experience is arguably inferior to the one we can get at home (depending on the thousands of dollars worth of video and audio equipment you have). But it’s not. It’s pretty much the same price as any other “going out” activity (sometimes even less). We’re just having a hard time justifying it these days.

In short, it doesn’t cost that much to see a movie in the theatre. Remember, you’re paying to go out. Leaving the comfort of our homes opens up our wallets, plain and simple. But people like to go out. Even if it seems irrational at times (I still don’t understand the point of seeing a band live – just get their  CD and pump the music up loud) because we’re just paying extra to do the same things we could be doing at home, there’s something about leaving our homes that we enjoy doing. Maybe the socializing experience perhaps? Nah, probably not.

Sidenote: I was thinking about talking about “overpriced” popcorn somewhere in this post when I thought about that term for a minute. A large popcorn costs what, $7? But it gives you a full days’ worth of calories and fat. Try getting that deal anywhere else. Overpriced? I think not.

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One Response to Does it really cost that much to see a movie in the theatre?

  1. Julia Turnbull says:

    Exceptionally clever post. Thank you!

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