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3D tickets fuel record price surge

Quarterly jump nearly double typical annual gain

Premium ticket prices for 3D movies fueled the biggest quarterly increase in average U.S. admission charges on record during the first three months of the year.

A movie ticket cost 6% more during the first quarter than during the final three months of last year. That compares with a less than 1% uptick marked between fourth-quarter 2008 and first-quarter 2009.

In fact, the three-month price jump was so severe -- yielding a nationwide average of $7.95 a ticket -- it nearly doubled the typical 12-month increase in average ticket prices of 3% or so.

The price surge, calculated by the National Association of Theatre Owners, reflects three things:

-- The rollout of 3D equipment to more theaters during the past year;

-- the historic success of the 3D phenom "Avatar," which still was playing broadly during the quarter; and

-- hikes in 3D "upcharges" after "Avatar's" boxoffice success.

NATO has been tracking average ticket prices since 2001.

"3D releases are clearly having an effect on the average ticket price," NATO spokesman Patrick Corcoran said Tuesday. "Moviegoers are demonstrating they are willing to pay a premium for a premium experience."

Corcoran added that moviegoing still represents a relative bargain.

"Even with that factored in, the average price of a movie ticket, adjusted for inflation, is less expensive than it was in 1969," he said.

Carmike Cinemas, which has invested heavily in digital and 3D cinema, noted Monday in a first-quarter financial report that its average admission charge rose almost 8% during the past year, to $6.85. Serving mostly smaller markets, the Columbus, Ga.-based circuit boasts 3D capability in almost one-fourth of its 2,268 auditoriums.

Price hikes in bigger markets before the March 5 bow of Disney's 3D fantasy "Alice in Wonderland" likely contributed to the big quarterly uptick in the NATO data, Carmike CEO David Passman said Tuesday.

"Most of us did our price increases pre-'Avatar,' but there was some further catch-up pre-'Alice,' particularly in some of the large markets after their experience with 'Avatar'," he said.Passman told The Hollywood Reporter. "Most theater operators tend to raise prices before the Easter and Christmas holidays."

The Carmike chief said he's seen little resistance to 3D upcharges among moviegoers.

"I'm very bullish on 3D, as it has become almost an expectation with the under-30 crowd," Passman said. "It's much more immersive and moves the needle on what the under-30 generation wants to see and is willing to pay to see."

Regal Cinemas, the nation's biggest circuit with 6,739 U.S. screens, recently calculated an average ticket price of $8.64. That is more than 3% higher than the average price for admission into a Regal venue during the previous quarter.

Meanwhile, the next NATO report might show that average ticket prices have been treading water during the current quarter -- or even taking a little dip.

Industry averages are based on sales of tickets for a particular crop of films, and the previous quarter boasted two 3D blockbusters, including the top-grossing pic of all time in "Avatar." Movies set to open during the current quarter also include two 3D titles: DreamWorks Animation's "Shrek Forever After," which Paramount unspools May 21, and Pixar's "Toy Story 3," coming June 18 from Disney.