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Is a Picture Worth 1,000 Pennies?

Tickets are rising ever closer to $10, but perks such as stadium seating and state-of-the-art sound are getting strong thumbs up.


OK, so going to the movies isn't what it used to be. Gone are the days of lumpy seats, scratchy sound and views of the person's head in front of you. But one thing never seems to change: complaints about skyrocketing ticket prices, especially from groups and families who want an evening out catching the latest Hollywood release as they feast on popcorn, candy and soda pop.

"Ticket prices are too high," exclaimed Ethelyn Eblaan of Sun Valley, who was out one recent Saturday night with her sister Julia McBride and granddaughter Janae at the Mann's Plant 16 in Van Nuys to see a holiday flick.

Waiting in line for tickets, Eblaan confessed that despite her frustrations about high prices, she remains loyal to the Plant. "We come here all the time," she said. The reasons: convenience and comfort.

"Theaters are a lot nicer today than when we were kids," she said. "I like the big seats and the big screen."

Movie theater executives are betting that once moviegoers everywhere get a taste of the new cushy, comfy theaters they will--maybe grudgingly--shell out more bucks to go to them. They may be right, witness the long lines around such "luxury" theaters as the Plant. Statistically, Los Angeles and Orange County make up 4.43% of the country's population, yet audiences here bring in about 6% of the total national box office, according to the box office-tracking firm ACNieslen EDI.

We really go to the movies here.

And we really pay for it.

A survey of ticket and concession prices around Los Angeles and Orange counties reveals that the average night out to the movies for a family of four (two adults, two children) can easily cost about $50 when refreshments are included.

Although the $10 movie ticket is a reality in New York City, the average cost of a movie ticket nationally in 1999 was $5.08, which factors in discounts for matinee, student, child and senior admissions and could creep up to $5.35 in 2000 when the final numbers are available in March, according to Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co., an independent box-office tracking firm. Southern California moviegoers should expect to see $10 tickets within the next few years, Dergarabedian predicts. "It will happen; it's just a matter of time," he said. "We've always seen increases, and usually they go up about 50 cents at a time."

Holiday and summer blockbuster seasons traditionally mean ticket price bumps, but most chains try to keep quiet about raising prices. One local movie theater employee confessed that he knows tickets are going up by 50 cents soon. "We really don't know when it's going to happen, though," he confided. And Robert Laemmle, owner of the Laemmle Theatres chain, said, citing the state's new minimum wage increase, "Don't be surprised to see ticket prices go up [soon]."

Ticket prices are traditionally determined on a theater-by-theater basis, even within the big chains. "A lot depends on the area, supply and demand, and the age and condition of the theater," explained AMC spokesman Rick King. For example, general admission to the AMC in Pasadena is $7.75, but the same film costs $9 at the AMC in Century City, because people in that area are willing to pay a higher ticket price.

While films grossed more money than ever last year nationally ($7.7 billion), the number of tickets sold declined by about 2%--possibly a commentary on rising ticket prices, but also no doubt because of a summer that was slim on blockbusters.

Countering the complaints about high ticket costs, movie industry folks like to compare going to the movies with other entertainment options. An average concert ticket today runs about $35. Club hopping with cover charge and two-drink minimum can easily cost more than $30 per person. The average ticket to a pro basketball game is $51.02--and the Lakers have the league's second-highest average ticket price (to the New York Knicks) at $87.69. Maybe $9 for a movie ticket isn't so bad after all, they suggest. Look what you get for the money.

"Exhibitors have created these wonderful theaters that offer technical innovations and comfort amenities," Dergarabedian said. "Theaters have just gotten better and better, with stadium seating, curved screens, digital sound and rocking reclining seats. There's never been a better time in the history of films to see a movie in the theater."

Coming Soon: Printing Out Tickets Via the Web

In addition, many chains today allow customers to pre-purchase tickets by phone or the Internet. Coming soon from AOL Moviefone: ordering and printing out bar-coded movie tickets from your home computer via its Web site There's no extra charge for the service, which means there will be fewer people standing in line for tickets.

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