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John Scalzi – Eye-popping Movie-Ticket Prices, Now in 3-D!

Look out, kids, I’m going to complain about 3-D movies again. I know, I know. But I do have a point.

Last weekend, Shrek Forever After hit movie screens, and many of those screens were 3-D equipped — and expensive, since movie exhibitors have apparently decided that goosing up the ticket prices for 3-D films even higher is the way to go. In New York City, tickets to the IMAX 3-D outing of Shrek went as high as $20 this weekend. This was apparently an error, however, and by Sunday those theaters scaled back the price — to $19. Other IMAX theaters elsewhere in the U.S. were charging $15 and $17 a pop.

The new installment of the Shrek series garnered over $71 million in weekend box office. This would be great for any normal film but is an underpowered performance for the ogre, whose last two films debuted with $100 million weekends, without the benefit of 3-D-ticket prices. Some of that underperformance no doubt has to do with its immediate predecessor, Shrek the Third, being not so great, but I’m going to hazard a guess here that another contributing factor was parents seeing the ticket prices, realizing that a family of four could be shelling out between $60 and $80 even before getting worked over at the concession counter, and saying, “You know what? We’ll wait for the DVD.”
Movies are still one of the cheapest ways to entertain yourself
out of your own home — cheaper, typically, than a music concert or a
sporting event — and, in economic times such as ours, this is not
insignificant. Being able to get out of your house and go on a date or
take your family on an outing makes us feel good. Hollywood knows this:
the film industry is superficially about glitz and glamor and big stars
weaving in and out of expensive explosions, but its core economic
engine is its value proposition, as it has been since at least the Great
Depression, when a nickel got you a cartoon, newsreel, B-movie, and the main feature.
Being the cheap entertainment
outside the home has a flip side, however: the closer a film ticket
comes to the prices of every other thing, the less of a case it makes
for itself. Movie studios and movie theaters in the U.S. are clearly
flirting with the idea of a $20 movie ticket in some shape or form. I
think that’s dangerous territory for flirting. It’s one thing to have a superspecialized movie
theater for people with too much money, in which a $20 (or so) ticket
gets you dinner, waitstaff, and a high-end recliner to sink into while
you watch your 3-D extravaganza. It’s another thing to expect people
without too much money to pony up the same sort of cash for a standard
seat, even at a big IMAX screen.

Now, I live in a part of the
country where I can pay the 3-D surcharge and still get into the movie
theater for under $10, depending on the time of day, so perhaps I’m biased
about these things. But I think that, no matter what, if you’re getting to the
point where the 3-D surcharge for a ticket is almost a third of
the ticket price ($3 on a $10 ticket, in other words), people are going
to start feeling as if they’re being taken advantage of. That’s going
to color their impression not only of the immediate film under
discussion but of all future 3-D films as well. People are going to ask
if 50 percent more dimensionality in a film is worth paying up to 100 percent more for.
That said, there is an alternate theory for 3-D-film opening grosses. We’ve already seen two examples of 3-D films with
less-than-anticipated opening-weekend box office do well over time.
One of them was fellow DreamWorks film How to Train Your
, which opened with a relatively modest $43 million but is
currently the number three film of the year, with $210 million
domestically. The other is Avatar, whose initial $77 million
weekend some saw as troubling but which, as we all know, ended up doing
okay. It may be that (successful) 3-D films have a different box-office
dynamic than most other current blockbusters — opening with soft
first-weekend numbers but exhibiting staying power in the long run. Will
Shrek‘s $71 million opening follow the same path? We’ll have a
better idea when we see its second-weekend numbers.
But in the
meantime, a note to Hollywood and to the movie theaters: think hard
about about how high you want to price those 3-D tickets. There are lots
of ways to kill the golden 3-D goose, and this looks like one of them to

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