Cinema News and Reviews for the Rest of Us

Hollywood Risks Backlash with 3D Ticket Price Increases

Last weekend, Hollywood studios and theater owners raised the prices of movie tickets across the country, focusing the brunt of their inflation on tickets for 3D films, like How to Train Your Dragon and the upcoming Clash of the Titans.  The price for your regular 2D ticket will go up only marginally, but the price of 3D IMAX tickets in many major markets could skyrocket close to $20.

The reason for this abrupt and drastic increase in an industry that has always emphasized gradual inflation?  Because they believe that they can.  No other reason.  Studio chiefs and theater owners have said as much, and they are making no bones about simply trying whatever they can to wring their customers for every penny possible in the wake of Avatar’s stunning international success.  Apparently the prospect of international grosses as high as that film’s $2.5 billion weren’t enough.  They felt they were undervaluing their product and saw a opportunity to squeeze more cash out of the current 3D craze.

And they’re probably thinking wrong.

First of all, the decision seems entirely based on the stratospheric success of Avatar.  But the problem is most 3D films are not made to such high format specifications and it shows, and consumers will catch on.  The new epic Clash of the Titans is already suffering from word of mouth concerning it’s shoddy and after-the-fact 3D transfer.  A movie-goer may be inclined to pay $18 for the spectacular Avatar in IMAX (I would have), but the next slate of inevitably inferior 3D films will reveal an large quality canyon with the $12 Avatar ticket on one and the suddenly diamond-price ticket to a lazily rendered Clash of the Titans on the other.  You cannot price yourself based on an anomalous blip at the top of the chart.  Viewers will be fully aware that they are having the screws put to them, and despite outliers like Avatar, Hollywood is still in period of fairly weak product delivery.  It’s a recipe for people getting pissed, especially in the current economic climate.

You need look no further than the chaotic state of the music industry for a class on what greedy overpricing can do to an industry in the age of New Media.  Record labels started reaming consumers for everything they could spare in the earl 90s, when CD prices skyrocketed and studios started scurrilous gimmicks like releasing multiple versions of essentially the same album to trick customers into paying two, three, or four times for the same damn thing.  The industry was taking advantage of its customers, and it was clocked upside the head by the rise of internet file sharing.  Labels were caught with their pants down, and while they reacted by throwing lawsuits at 12-year-olds and trying in vain to assault internet servers on Caribbean islands, they floundered.  As it happened, Steve Jobs and iTunes came to their rescue, but the industry is still in a massive state of upheaval and the new market model has yet to be comfortably established.

As the quality of pirated video transfers continues to improve, Hollywood faces a similar crisis.  It won’t be on the same scale, because the theater-going experience is part of the product they’re selling and that can’t be duplicated by downloading a movie on your computer.  But as the quality of the average home theater system improves and on-demand internet-based content becomes easier and cheaper to acquire, the means for a mass consumer backlash could put a major dent in Hollywood’s revenue.  Consumer anger could affect regular 2D movies as well, and the birth of 3D television will give potential moviegoers another place to get their 3D fix.   Hollywood is trying to start a 3D revolution, but while one film can make a revolution is an artistic sense, it cannot in a business sense.  Whether or not 3D is a fad or a power-format of the future has yet to be determined, and hitting consumers with drastically inflated tickets just because you think you can could stunt the 3D revolution in its infancy.

Hollywood has also begun a blatantly greedy method of DVD diversification that smacks of the album overselling that helped gut the music industry.  Soon a version of Avatar will be released on DVD, but it won’t have any special feature and it won’t be in 3D.  That version will come in November, by which time you’ll have already bought the first version and be ready to shell out twice as much for the second.  This is shameless consumer-gouging, and it has potential consequences that are not without precedent.

This is not a matter of production cost.  Avatar aside, the production of3D films is not significantly more expensive than regular 2D productions.  This is especially true of films like Clash of the Titans, where the 3D was added in post-production, meaning the the filmmaking was not undertaken with the possibilities of 3D presentation at the forefront as they were when Cameron made Avatar.

Consumers have been willing to pay a few dollar extra for a 3D tickets, and they will probably be willing to pay a few more dollars on top of that…for a while.  But Hollywood had better watch its step.  In an age where a deflated economic marketplace is matched with light-speed technological advances that give consumers more power than they’ve ever had, greed can rip the rug out from under you in ways you’d never before imagined.

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