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Monday, April 20, 2009

 

Cinema and its discontents, part 1

Last month, I declared that what with wedding planning, various home improvement projects and writing as well, I'd had it absolutely up to here with making decisions, and I wanted to have a day of fun that was planned for me. Rising to the occasion, my fiance planned not one but two surprise-fun days, after which I felt considerably better. Reflecting on them, one in particular stands out. We had a vaguely India-themed day, meaning we went to a highly-rated Indian fusion restaurant in the centre of town (Moti Mahal, if anyone's interested), and then we went to see Slumdog Millionaire.

That's right: on a planned day-of-fun, we went to the movies. As a special treat.

Ten years ago, I would have considered this a bit of a low-key way to spend a special day. Last month, though, it was a big thing, and not just because Slumdog Millionaire was charming. It was a treat because the cinema has become something of a rare excursion for us - and I don't think we're alone.

On the face of it, this is odd. There's a cinema within walking distance of our house. We both love movies. When we were undergraduates - at the same university, though we didn't meet until after graduation - we both went to the cinema a lot. I dropped by the Cambridge Arts Cinema board every week to see what was new, and quite often I'd buy a ticket: the place was amiably small and a little scruffy, the tickets were cheap, and I could pretty much be sure that whatever they were showing would be at least an interesting experience. Both of us dropped by the local multiplex regularly as well: the tickets were cheap, especially for students, it was within walking distance, and it showed whatever was on. He'd go regularly with groups of friends; my friends and I tended to do other things when hanging out but I went regularly on my own, often as a rest from revising - it would be a total distraction that lasted a limited amount of time, the perfect study break. Sometimes I just walked there and bought a ticket for whatever was showing next, with predictably mixed results, but that was fine; Patch Adams might not have been the most sophisticated film in the world, but it was a pleasant, manageable break from routine, and I was hardly the poorer for the experience.

You'll notice a phrase recurring in our reasons for picking the various cinemas: 'tickets were cheap.' This is a big part of what's changed. There are a few issues that have changed cinema-going over the past few years, and this week, I'll be posting about them.

At the risk of sounding like some old bat lamenting that ice cream used to cost a penny, money is the first one. Ticket prices have risen far out of proportion to income. This is not good for cinemas: it drives away custom. If it costs three pounds to see a movie, you may well drop in just on the off-chance you like it; if it costs three or four times that - and in the central London cinemas it does - then you'd better be sure that you'll really, really like it. Otherwise you might as well do something else with your money. Cinema tickets are getting as expensive as the more moderately-priced theatre tickets, and people don't often go to the theatre. Well, I used to, again as an undergraduate ... but you know why? It was student productions, and tickets were cheap.

So going to the cinema has become a big deal now. It seems to me that cinemas are trying various ways to keep afloat, and have been for some time, but most of their methods aren't very effective. To stay in profit with falling custom, there are two tactics - you either cut costs or increase prices. Cinemas seem to be doing both ... and it's not good for customers. Tune in next time for the first example...

Comments:
I think I may have commented on your blog before once or twice but if not then I'd just like to say I really enjoy reading it and generally find it thought provoking. Anywho.

Practically all the people I know don't go to the movies very often mainly because of the price. There's also the issues of: nothing interesting showing, being able to rent an iffy movie later and then stop/fast-forward if it turns out to be a dud, and getting a group together (I guess you can go alone, but I prefer to go with a group. There's something about watching the same movie at the same time, even though, if it's a good one, you're not talking or looking at each other during the film.)

Luckily I live near a theater that gets movies late, usually after their run through normal theaters, and then shows them for $3 a ticket. It's not as nicely kept as most of the more expensive theaters (although some of those are surprisingly dumpy) and the film often has some scratchiness or lines or whatever because of being used so much, but you can't beat the price.

I have no idea how theaters could change tactics without taking a loss. If ticket prices were cheaper, would the added ticket buyers make up for the lost revenue? There's gotta be a proper balance between the two somewhere.
 
Kit makes a great point in her next entry -- that ticket prices are making the experience especially problematic. Going to the movies is increasingly a gamble and if I am going to venture ten dollars (which is what I can expect to pay around here) the possible pay-off had better be good.

I have such a list of pet peeves that I feel like my own grandmother as I reel them off. People talking loudly in the audience is just one. People getting up and down constantly during the film to go and buy snacks that will make noise as they eat them is another. Parents bringing small children to long films which will either bore or scare them is yet another.

I _teach_ films and I seldom go to them these days. Feature that.
 
I've often pondered that even though I had a lot less disposable income 20 years ago, I went to the movies without fail on the weekend (except when my community theater was doing tech weekend).
If I didn't see a movie I wanted to see, I'd settle for one that might be good. Now I'm much less likely to take a chance.
It's not entirely money. It's also that even though I prefer seeing movies in the theater, there's so much available at home between cable and DVDs that it's much easier than in my youth to say "pass!"
-Fraser
 
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