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In a rare if not unprecedented move, theater chains across the U.S. and Canada lowered the cost of admission for a new Hollywood release, the octogenarian sports comedy 80 for Brady, in partnership with Paramount. That included AMC Theatres, the largest circuit in North America and the world. For years, some distribution executives have argued in favor of variable pricing, whereby tickets are lowered depending upon a movie’s target audience. In this case, Paramount presented evidence showing that older demos are more sensitive about ticket prices.
But no sooner had 80 for Brady opened over the Feb. 4-6 weekend to a pleasing $12.7 million then did AMC reveal Feb. 7 that it is implementing a hefty $1 and $2 price increase for many seats in the middle and even upper sections of the auditorium, according to a review of various seat maps by The Hollywood Reporter. The new “Sightline” program borrows from the concert, stage and sports industries (or the airlines). The front-row, however, will be discounted by $2. The news quickly put the 80 for Brady initiative on the back burner since AMC’s plan goes in the opposite direction by introducing higher costs.
The two vastly different ticket pricing experiments come at a time of angst for the theatrical business, which has yet to recover from the COVID-19 crisis. (Last year, box office hit $7.5 billion domestically, up from 2021 but down 34 percent from pre-COVID 2019.) Behind the scenes, there’s concern that AMC’s Sightline seating will create consumer confusion and dampen movie attendance even if revenue is higher.
Beginning Feb. 10, AMC will implement the plan in roughly 40 theaters in the larger New York, Chicago and Kansas City markets, studio sources who were briefed by the circuit tell THR. Other AMC cinemas in those same markets will keep the pricing structure now in place to provide a control group. Studios have been told that this price increase is a test. If all goes well, Sightline will roll out across the U.S. in the coming months. If there’s backlash, things could change.
Already, many are voicing their displeasure on Twitter, including actor Elijah Wood. “The movie theater is and always has been a sacred democratic space for all and this new initiative by @AMCTheatres would essentially penalize people for lower income and reward for higher income,” Wood wrote on Monday.
Members of AMC Stubs A-List loyalty program won’t have to pay the upcharge for a preferred Sightline seat. However, joining the A-List costs $19.95, $22.95 or $24.95 a month, depending upon the state (those living in California and New York pay the higher amount). Members of AMC Stubs free loyalty program, Insider, will have immediate access to the $2 discount for the front row.
“Maybe preferred seating is a way to increase A-List membership, but this is definitely a price increase,” says Wall Street analyst Eric Handler of MKM Partners. “I have no clue how audiences are going to react. We will have to see. I don’t think pricing is infinitely elastic. There will be a point where consumers push back.” In 2022, the average ticket price in the U.S. was $11.75, per data firm EntTelligence.
At AMC Lincoln Square 13 in New York, one of the busiest theaters in the country, an evening ticket for a regular evening showing of Magic Mike’s Last Dance on Feb. 10 costs $17.99. A preferred seat costs $19.99 when accounting for the $2 upcharge. The cost of going to the movies is far cheaper in other cities. At the AMC Barrywoods 24 in Kansas City, for example, a ticket for a comparable showing of Magic Mike 3 costs $11.29. A preferred seat costs $12.29 after a $1 upcharge. All the prices above are before convenience fees and taxes. Members of AMC Stubs Premiere, who pay $15 a year for the program, don’t have to pay the convenience fee.
Premium formats already cost much more. Those wanting to see Magic Mike’s Last Dance in Dolby Cinema at Lincoln Square will play $27.99 for a regular seat and $29.99 for a preferred seat. The convenience fee at Lincoln Square is $3.49. A map of one Dobly Cinema showing of Magic Mike 3 reveals that many of the preferred seats have already been snapped up.
Hollywood studio executives, however, are concerned about the moviegoers who aren’t as eager to pay more, or who already have doubts about resuming their moviegoing habits. Notes one distribution source, “my biggest worry is that all of this pricing becomes too complicated.”
And it remains to be seen whether exhibitors will replicate the 80 for Brady test with other movies targeting a particular demo. Paramount says it won’t have complete data for at least two more weeks as to how much the discounted tickets helped, but notes that admissions are higher for the film than for the other new studio film in the marketplace, M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin.
During this past weekend, 1.3 millions consumers turned out to see Paramount and Fifth Season’s 80 for Brady, versus 1.1 million for Knock at the Cabin, according to EntTelligence. And the average general ticket price for Brady was $9.79 versus $12.30. Knock at the Cabin narrowly won the weekend race with $14.1 million, but on Monday lost to Brady.
“In a business where the only innovation in pricing has been to go up, this is a good first step,” says Paramount’s domestic distribution chief Chris Aronson.
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