The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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The 3-D ticket price hike: Are you paying for Hollywood's $150-million movies?

April 14, 2010 |  1:27 pm

I think we can all agree that, when done well -- as in "Avatar" -- 3-D is a fantastic extension of a filmmaker's visual imagination. And when done poorly, as in the cruddy, hastily converted "Clash of the Titans," it's an embarrassment. That's not to say that I'm pessimistic, especially every time I read the news that someone like Martin Scorsese is about to embrace the new medium -- he's directing an adaptation of the kid's story "Hugo Cabret" for Sony, with the likes of Sacha Baron Cohen and Ben Kingsley in key parts. This is all for the good, since we can look forward to a movie that will be made with painstaking precision, not crass exploitation in mind.

But here's what has happened, almost completely under the radar, with 3-D: With tickets for 3-D movies around $3 more than tickets for 2-D movies, the movie business has entered the age of variable pricing. For years, studios (and exhibitors) had quietly chafed at the way competing businesses -- think cable TV for a start -- could get consumers to pay extra for premium entertainment. If you want all the movie channels, or all the baseball broadcasts, baby, you pay for it big time.

And that's what in effect has happened with 3-D ticket prices. We, the movie-going public, are essentially paying significantly more to see movies that cost more to make. For the most part, 2-D pictures will be the film genres that can be made on modest budgets, starting with adult-oriented dramas, romantic comedies and youth-oriented laughfests. The films that have sky-high budgets, like "Avatar"-esque visual extravaganzas, lavish, Pixar-style family animation and "Batman"-style visual effects-loaded thrillers and action adventure movies -- which will nearly all be made in 3-D in the coming years -- will get a bigger return from the higher ticket price at the box office.

It's sort of like buying a new car. If you want something loaded with accessories, you pay for it. And now, as a moviegoer, if you want to see a movie made with all the latest new technology, you'll shell out $3 more for the pleasure. It certainly will help studios justify their investment, knowing that their box-office returns will be boosted by the additional ticket fare. But will we start gauging our interest in movies with an eye on the ticket price?

After all, we still have the choice of saving that extra 3 bucks by seeing a 3-D epic in low-fi 2-D. Or will there be too much peer pressure to save our money? Will moms with three kids in tow feel so sheepish when they reach the ticket window that they'll have to lower their voice to a whisper when they say, " 'Toy Story,' ahem, for the 2-D showing."

Is variable pricing a good idea? And should exhibitors even do more of it? For example, would you like movie theaters to offer the best seats in the house -- for a higher price -- the way they do at concerts and live theater events? Where should the line be drawn? I'm still wrestling with this myself, so any of your thoughts would be welcome.