A few years ago, I remember thinking $8 dollars was way too high for a movie ticket. Now, that seems like a treat compared to the soaring prices of movie theater tickets. A ticket for an IMAX screening of Shrek Forever After, on a weekday, costs $17.50 at the Regal Cinemas near me in the Philadelphia suburbs. That’s twice as much as I would have spent a couple of years ago. Is 3D really worth it? Is this what we can expect as more and more popular movies are being released on IMAX and 3D?
Spending almost $20 for a movie ticket isn’t something I’m prepared to do unless it’s a movie I’m dying to see and there are no other options, such as matinees or regular screenings. Apparently, I’m not alone. According to Box Office Mojo, Shrek Forever After pulled in just over $70 million, about a $16,000 per screen average. By contrast, Shrek 3 opened with $121 million, and an average of over $29,000 per screening. That’s without 3D. Clearly, not as many people came out to see the newest version. Perhaps quality of product had something to do with it, but that doesn’t usually factor in with children’s movies. It seems clear that fewer people wanted to invest the extra ticket cost to see the film.
There are some good things about 3D. It is visually amazing in some circumstances, but it doesn’t lend itself to every movie. For a movie like Shrek Forever After, or the upcoming Toy Story 3, there isn’t much to be gained by donning the glasses and seeing it in 3D. A film like Avatar relied heavily on the visual aspect, but movies like Shrek and Toy Story are being watched for an entertaining storyline and funny voiceovers. Shelling out an extra 9 bucks to see some 3D is hardly appealing. The box office results of the newest Shrek are clearly showing that people aren’t on board with being forced to watch something in 3D and paying twice the price.
The problem is that as more and more 3D movies are released, and on increasing number of screens, there are less opportunities for casual moviegoers to pay a normal rate and see a movie on regular screens. There doesn’t seem to be much incentive to change the prices either. As movie studios retain the bulk of ticket sales, theaters don’t benefit as much as you might think from ticket sales, especially in the early weeks of a release. That’s where the astronomical concession sales come in, where you’ll pay another $20 for a popcorn and 2 sodas. All together, going to a movie theater is now about as expensive as taking your family to a baseball game. That hardly seems right.
Internet piracy of movies has been around for years, and the soaring movie ticket prices are hardly likely to discourage that. Bootleg copies are readily available, even for someone who doesn’t really know how to get them. I see people selling them at train stations all the time for a fraction of the price of what you’d pay at the theater. This a problem that has long been an issue since the time video tapes were released. We can expect more and more enforcement on piracy if movie ticket sales continue to decline.
As the summer movie season kicks in to full gear with Memorial Day weekend, Shrek Forever After should serve as a cautionary tale for movie studios. The higher prices for 3D movies hasn’t translated into larger box office revenue. They may need to think their strategy regarding the percentage of screens in which they release their films on 3D. With more and more 3D movies slated to hit the big screen, we can expect more box office weekends like Shrek Forever After’s opening weekend. That’s a troubling sign for the movie industry.