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Ticket to ride

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It's no breaking news to most of us that mainstream movies are being directed overwhelmingly at teenage boys. Exactly how long that's been the case, and to what extent it's gotten worse in recent years, is up for constant debate.

A recent GQ article traces the trend back to 1986's Top Gun; plenty of others have pointed to 1977's Star Wars. But however and whenever it began, there's little questioning that Hollywood now depends on serving the young male audience, as a seemingly nonstop buffet of comic-book and video-game adaptations bears witness.

On the surface, it's easy to understand why. Perhaps more so even than other large industries, the American movie industry is paralyzed by fear of failure. Young singles on dates and fantasy fanboys are about the only sure things when it comes to a theatrical audience any more, which makes it seem like common sense for Hollywood to base its economy around them.

But while the landscape of media consumption continues to change by the hour — a reality of which the music, publishing and news-media industries are all-too-painfully aware — the film exhibition industry continues to operate roughly the same way it has for the past century.

It hasn't learned the most obvious lesson of the 21st-century 3-D boom, which is also the first rule of economics: The price for a product should reflect what the market will bear. Premiums for 3-D films have kept the revenue stream for theatrical box-office income relatively stable, even as overall ticket sales dropped around 5 percent in 2010 over the previous year. It's clear that the exhibition industry has figured out that demand-ticket price interaction moves in one direction. So why haven't movie theaters considered the most obvious inverse: charging lower ticket prices for movies that might need a little boost?

Adults aren't going to movies, and mainstream studios aren't making movies for adults. It's a chicken-and-egg conundrum, but one that's easy to solve. The making and marketing of adult-targeted dramas and comedies costs a fraction of what it takes to make a summer action blockbuster, and there's a completely different demand by the audience to see those two types of films as soon as they hit theaters. Yet whether you want to see The King's Speech or Iron Man 2, you'll pay the same $9. No other type of live entertainment is this absurd in its pricing structure.

A modest proposal: Charge people what they're actually prepared to pay for a movie. If you're trying to get audiences to a lower-budget romantic drama, make the ticket price $2. Not just for matinees, but all day. Then advertise the living hell out of that. Give adults who are prepared to wait out a film's theatrical run an incentive to see it now, for less.

"Discount movies" can work as a marketing tool. Look at Lionsgate Films' partnership with Groupon for the opening weekend of The Lincoln Lawyer, which brought in 40,000 moviegoers — the vast majority of them adult women — at $6 a ticket. According to a MovieWire report, 89 percent of those attendees said they wouldn't have gone to the movie without the reduced price.

Of course, distributors would need to collaborate with exhibitors to make this a reality. But imagine the market the industry could resurrect from the dead, re-instilling the movie-going habit, while maybe even making better movies in the process.

scene@csindy.com

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