I just read an article about how ticket prices for movies are going up, and strategies that movie theatres and producers are considering to add “extra value” to customers.

As someone who’s worked on the sales side of theatre tickets in the past, I can tell you that every strategy involves getting the customer something that has emotional value to them, but has very little cost to the company. Seats in the theatre, in particular, are a big selling point – if you sit closer to the stage, or in a special box hovering over the action, then you have a certain prestige in your own head. Are the views from there any better? I can tell you, with both live theatre and movies, sitting close to the stage is my least favorite thing – the angles are terrible for huge musical performances, and for intimate, blackbox spaces, it can be uncomfortably close to the actors (and I say this as a theatre director and dramaturg, so I can only imagine how the general public feels about it).

Other items you often see are free or cheap concessions (they have the alcohol sitting around anyway, although for theatres in Seattle, a bar is the best way to make rent money for your space); posters and other collectibles (which, again, get produced and then rarely actually sell, so it makes sense to raise the perceived value among other patrons by throwing them for free at patrons who have the prestige of paying more for their overall experience); or some kind of special event, like a backstage tour, dinner with the cast and crew, something along those lines (which actually costs the company quite a lot, which is why you only see these things at really high sales or donation levels).

Apparently releases of the film World War Z in a handful of major cities will try out something very similar to existing non-profit theatre ticket strategy: they’re selling a “mega ticket” for $50 which includes a lot of, well, crap. For that amount of cash, you get to see the movie a whole 2 days early, plus you get “a digital copy of the movie (available upon its home-market release), 3-D glasses, a World War Z poster, and a small popcorn. (But sadly, no soda.)”

“This isn’t us trying to sell an individual ticket for 50 bucks,” says Ken Thewes, Regal’s chief marketing officer. “The objective is trying to bring more value to the moviegoing experience for the consumer.” While Thewes admits that not every filmgoer may consider the Mega Ticket a bargain, he believes it does appeal to die-hard fans. “We see a value in being the first to see the movie,” he says. “[And] there’s a number of people who know they’re probably going to want to own it [digitally], so we’re trying to make it easy for them.”

The main issue, for Paramount, apparently, is that they want to sell digital releases of the film, and are not so much worried about the first round of box office. Between pirated digital movies and services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, actual direct movie sales have gone way down over the years.

About this choice, I would like to say: Guys, just don’t.

Every theatre person in the US agrees that there’s a crisis in the theatre world, and I think a lot of it is related to perceived value of the experience compared to the price of tickets. If you don’t need or want the prestige of a front-row seat, or a lifetime season pass, or the perks attached to donation levels, then you’re not going to be a big fan of theatre in general, because you will perceive that all theatre is like this – gilded pseudobenefits attached to an underwhelming remake of some overdone “classic.” And you won’t want to go. And you won’t want to look at other theatre options. You would rather sit at home and watch TV – which, by the way, is a booming industry thanks to innovative producers at HBO, Showtime, and Netflix.

This is not to say that few people are interested in actual, live performances – concerts are huge, and when live theatre is cheap or free, people flock to the stage in droves. Check out these statistics from Theatre Communication Group‘s 2008 Free Night of Theatre:

Never visited theatre before – 65%
Under the age of 35 – 28%
Under the age of 45 – 50%
Non-white – 28%

New York City
Never visited theatre before – 83%
Under the age of 35 – 60%
Under the age of 45 – 77%
Non-white – 55%

People value theatre, but they do not value the pomp and circumstance attached to it. It is an unnecessary part of the art form and frankly sours the experience. They are no longer willing to pay for some hoity-toity parade just so they can be entertained for a couple of hours.

Then again, tourists flock to Broadway in droves just so they can say they’ve had the experience of seeing a mega-hit Broadway show, like Mama Mia!, Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark, or Phantom of the Opera. Movie producers: do you really want to make cinema the realm of entertainment hobbyists? Do you want to make it so that people scrimp and save for years to go on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation and, while doing that, just happen to throw $500 at seeing a movie?

Movies became a huge industry because they played to the masses when theatre refused to do so. Theatre only survived, and was revived, as an artform because it competed with drug-based religious rituals, animal fighting, gambling, prostitutes, and other low forms of entertainment for millennia.

Pop culture always prevails. It goes stale when it aims to appeal only to the highest members of society. Theatre is struggling to learn that lesson right now and save itself from the grave. If movies’ decline compared to lush television epics doesn’t teach producers a thing or two about what the common person actually wants, then that industry is doomed to suffer the same consequences. Kitschy ticket “bundles” will only get you so far for so long. It only saved larger regional theatres through the 1960’s and 1970’s.

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