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Reel fun's still a real deal

The writer of Friday's Movie Projector column, which looks at weekend box-office prospects, finds going to the theater is still a relative bargain

April 27, 2008|Josh Friedman | Times Staff Writer

Calculating the cost of movie tickets

The cost of going to the movies has increased sharply since the early days of cinema, but has climbed at less than the inflation rate in recent decades. Average prices, as calculated by the Motion Picture Assn. of America, include matinee showings and other discounts. Tickets tend to cost more than the national average in metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles.

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In Berkeley circa 1971, a weekend matinee at the local movie house cost about a buck. Ten-year-old Projector, flush with his $5 weekly allowance, could catch "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory," hit the concession stand for popcorn, a Coke and Bon-Bons, and still have enough cash left over to buy the next week's essentials at the corner store: baseball cards, Hershey bars and comic books.

Like everything else, the economics of moviegoing has gotten more complicated. With baby-sitting and dinner, a recent Friday night at the multiplex cost Mr. and Mrs. Projector $73.66. (That tab, by the way, does not include the two hours of our lives spent watching "Leatherheads." Call that a write-off.) No wonder so many folks simply flop down in front of their flat screen TVs and pop in DVDs from Netflix or Blockbuster.

And yet this year's summer movie season could be surprisingly lucrative for studios and exhibitors. No matter what the Old Farmer's Almanac says, summer begins with the first big-budget spectacle of May, and this year that would be Thursday night's opening of Paramount Pictures' "Iron Man," starring Robert Downey Jr. as the Marvel superhero. The other likely standouts of summer include "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" and Pixar's "WALL-E." And if Projector were a gambler -- which he is -- he'd never bet against Will Smith on Fourth of July weekend, this time in "Hancock."

Week in and week out, Projector exposes the often-bitter truth about Hollywood. On one point, though, he must back the industry line with gusto. Call Projector creaky, but nothing matches the moviegoing experience or offers a better entertainment value. Consider:

Since Projector lined up with a horde of other freckly nerds for the original "Star Wars" in 1977, when the average U.S. movie ticket cost $2.23, the price of admission has climbed less than the rate of inflation. That same ticket, in today's dollars, would cost $7.86 -- or well above the latest norm of $6.88. These averages include rural theaters and matinee, senior and child discounts; in L.A., the price of movies, like almost everything else, runs higher.

Contrary to the whiny drumbeat of the nostalgia crowd, the product is as good as ever, especially for those who look beyond the top of the box-office charts. Projector's recent favorites include "Pan's Labyrinth," "The Bourne Ultimatum," "Juno" and "The Bank Job."

Theater owners have crowed for years about what a bargain movies are compared with such events as concerts, which in 2007 commanded $62.07 for the average ticket, and baseball games, which went for $22.77. This spring the exhibitors' trade group, the National Assn. of Theatre Owners, calculated that watching films also costs less per minute than laser tag and bowling -- even if fans don't get the opportunity to rent those cool shoes.

Movie attendance has fallen by two-thirds from its peak years in the 1930s and '40s, when playing pinochle or listening to jazz on a giant, staticky radio might have been the only other options. Even still, Americans buy 1.4 billion tickets and fork over $13 billion a year at the cinema, including popcorn, beverages and sweets.

Projector, a machine of the people despite his Big Media credentials, spends his share. Industry screenings are the best deal of all -- free -- but typically require fighting crosstown traffic to make a 7 p.m. Tuesday curtain.

And DVD "screeners" aren't the perk -- er, research tool -- they're cracked up to be: Kenny Turan over in Calendar gets the Major Motion Pictures; Projector's FedEx packages contain Important Documentaries exploring such topics as modern midwifery.

On our date night, we spent $31.25 at the theater itself. Tickets at the AMC Burbank 16 were $11.50 apiece, Projector's medium Diet Coke ran $4 and Mrs. Projector's strawberry Twizzlers set us back $4.25.

The rest of the evening cost $42.41. Before the film, we zipped to our favorite taco truck in Pasadena for a nice $8.40 dinner. (Projector is frugal, not cheap: We're in the midst of a bathroom remodel and those fancy chrome Pottery Barn double towel racks don't grow on trees.) Add $4.01 for a gallon-plus of gasoline and $30 for a sitter to police and tuck in the little Projectors.

Of course, Projector is too savvy to entirely buy the exhibitors' assertion that movies "remain the most affordable form of out-of-home entertainment." They never considered a brisk 5K jog around the Rose Bowl, nor open-mike poetry night at many coffeehouses.

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