question of the day: Would variable pricing of tickets get more people going to the movies, and would you welcome it?

Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times blog 24 Frames raised a question regarding the price of movie tickets that I haven’t heard raised before. See, this year has been especially bad for the box office: people simply are not going to the movie as much anymore. Attendance has been falling for years, and it looks like it’s going to continue to fall. There are lots of reasons for that, but one of them, I think most moviegoers would agree, is that tickets are just too damned expensive.

Now, I’m not sure what 24 Frames’ Steven Zeitchik discusses is a solution to that part of the issue, but take a listen:

On Twitter, the suggestions have been flying for some time on what, in fact, will reverse it: more in-theater amenities, more 3-D releases, fewer 3-D releases, across-the-board price reductions (unlikely to happen), assorted other recommendations. But the sales slump also calls to mind another idea that has been alternately floated and dismissed over the years: variable pricing.

A jargony term for a straightforward concept, variable pricing basically means that ticket prices will rise or falling depending on a slew of factors, most notably how much people want those tickets in the first place.

Many theater chains, of course, already practice a form of it with their afternoon matinees. The concept, which economists have been examining for a while now, would extend the variability to other factors: where assigned seats are located, how close to the showtime the tickets are bought and, most critically, how in demand the tickets are. Basically, it’s the airline and hotel model for movie tickets.

How would it work? Essentially, prices for all movies would start at the same baseline as they do now ($7 to $12, or even a little lower, to give filmgoers a break). But as supply and demand shift before and during a film’s release, the prices would fluctuate accordingly.

For instance, this weekend, as demand for “Limitless” increased, the amount that it cost to see the film would tick up. Prices for “The Lincoln Lawyer” and “Paul,” less in demand, would slide down.

As more people took advantage of the lower prices, prices for it would start to climb back up. At the same time, as the higher prices deterred some “Limitless” patrons, the price for that film would start to drop. If the system were set up right, you should, many economists believe, see more revenue on “Limitless” and more tickets sold on “The Lincoln Lawyer.”

There would be both upsides and downsides to such a scheme:

Do you want to be the company bringing out “The Dark Knight Rises” and explaining to fans that the movie they’ve been waiting years to see will now cost them $20 or $30?


More important for all of us in the general public, variable pricing would offer an incentive to buy tickets early and with some resourcefulness, the way frequent travelers seek out the best flight deals. It would reward planning and enthusiasm — that is, it would reward the hard-core filmgoers, which isn’t at all a bad thing. Sure, none of us want to pay more for movie tickets. But if you’re a big Christopher Nolan fan and bought tickets right out of the gate, it would cost you a lot less than if you sat and dithered, a proposition that has a kind of pristine fairness to it.

It sounds to me, however, that variable pricing would make going to the movies ever more of a hassle, and add unnecessary stress to something that is meant to be fun.

What do you think? Would variable pricing of tickets get more people going to the movies, and would you welcome it?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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