Apparently Hollywood didn't get the memo that prices are supposed to stay low in a slumping economy.
The National Assn. of Theatre Owners reported Tuesday that the average ticket price in the first quarter was $7.95, up 8% from $7.35 in the same period last year. That's the largest year-over-year increase since the association started tracking quarterly ticket price data in 2001.
The increase comes as consumer prices have risen modestly in the nation. In 2009, the consumer price index rose just 2.7% before seasonal adjustment, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The primary culprit at movie theaters is 3-D. The three highest-grossing movies in the first three months of 2010 — "Avatar," "Alice in Wonderland" and "How to Train Your Dragon" — generated the majority of their ticket sales on digital 3-D screens, which carry ticket price surcharges.
Although the theater owners association doesn't break out the average surcharge to see a movie on a digital 3-D screen, analyst Barton Crockett at Lazard Capital Markets recently estimated that it is $3 to $3.50. That includes the impact of large-format Imax 3-D screens that often cost $5 extra.
Prices are significantly higher in certain urban markets, including Los Angeles, where prices for 3-D movies are as high as $19.50.
As a result of the rapidly rising prices, total box-office revenue rose 8.6% in the first quarter, according to the theater owners association. However, not many more people went to movies. Attendance was up just 0.5%, with 334.9 million movie tickets sold in the U.S. and Canada.
"There's a really good chance that the average ticket price is going to continue to be significantly higher [than last year] based on 3-D attendance," said Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research for the theater owners association.
He noted, however, that the average ticket price is comparatively lower than it was 41 years ago. Adjusted for inflation, going to a movie in 1969 cost $8.42, the association estimated.