Movie Theater Communism

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Nicholas Tabarrok (brother of Alex) is a producer of small indie films.  But he’s frustrated because there’s no way for him to increase his audience by lowering the price to see his pictures:

When I make, say, an $8M film it has to compete at the same price level as the studios’ $80M or $100M film.  It costs the consumer the same $12 at the multiplex.

….A few years ago Edgar Bronfman Jr, during the time his family briefly owned the Universal film studio, suggested that theaters actually charge different admission prices for different pictures so those films that cost less to make had correspondingly lower ticket prices than the mega-budget studio pictures.  He was roundly ridiculed by the industry.  But truth be told I actually think the less-the-warm reception his proposal received had more to do with the fact he was an ‘outsider’ who had bought his way into Hollywood than on the actual merit of the idea itself.  Sound like good economic practice to me.

This same thought has occurred to me frequently.  Why don’t big, blockbuster films try to squeeze a few more dollars out of each ticketgoer?  I mean, who wouldn’t pay an extra couple of bucks to see Transformers 2?

Anyway, I’ve always assumed that theater owners are the roadblock here.  Right now, no one has any incentive to cheat: if I want to see Transformers 2, I just buy a ticket for it.  It doesn’t cost me any more than the ticket to District 9.  But if it did cost more, then I’d be highly motivated to buy a ticket to the cheaper movie and then sneak into the more expensive one.  That would require a bunch of extra ushers to make sure no one cheated, and the whole thing would be a gigantic pain in the ass and probably revenue neutral in the long run.  So why bother?

Then again, maybe there’s some other, far more interesting and sophisticated reason for this practice.  Anyone happen to know?

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