A few days ago my husband and I drove past Old Country Buffet (a chain whose family includes Hometown Buffet and Country Buffet restaurants) and saw a big, colorful banner announcing an all-you-can-eat lunch special for the new, lower price of $6.99 -- and just $4.99 for breakfast! In small print -- well, small-ish, since the sign was about eight feet wide -- it said that the "beverage bar" was not included.

Being a curious sort, my husband stopped by the restaurant the next day and asked about the beverage policy. Yes, sodas are excluded from the $6.99 price, although you can pay another couple of dollars if you want to drink something other than water. And yes, the employee told him, the new lower price was because they were doing less business lately, since their customer base -- working families, people on fixed incomes -- are the folks who've been hit the hardest by the current economy.

People everywhere are broke. And when people are broke, they cut back on extras like Sunday dinner at Old Country Buffet for the whole family ... and movies. In the grand scheme, these things are luxuries, and more and more of us can't afford a lot of luxuries.

And yet, Regal Entertainment Group, Cinemark Holdings Inc. and AMC Entertainment Inc. have decided that it's prudent to raise their ticket prices. Not in every market, admittedly, and often for just the 3-D shows. But still. In this economy? Raising prices? Making it harder for people to afford to go to movies? What sort of psychotic business model are they using?

Most news stories about the price hike make it a point to note that in New York, the cost of a full-price 3-D ticket is now $20. But that's the high end -- we all know that New York's expensive. What if you live somewhere else? Well, let's say you live in Seattle. Let's also say that you are two parents with two children who want to see How to Train Your Dragon in 3-D. A regular 3-D showing at the Regal Meridian is now $14.50 for an adult ticket, and $11.50 for a child's ticket. Which means that the price for your family to see How to Train Your Dragon in 3-D will be $52.00.

Think about that a moment. Fifty-two dollars. How big a slice is that of your weekly grocery budget? How much gas could you put in your car for that money? What would $52 buy in clothing, shampoo, medicine? That's $52 to watch a movie -- a movie that'll be on DVD within six months, and that you'll be able to get from Redbox for a dollar. Sure, it won't be in 3-D on a giant screen with Dolby surround sound. But it also won't set you back $52, plus a couple of six dollar sodas and five dollar popcorn bags.

These exhibitors who have decided that we can afford $15 movie tickets are the same ones who express terror and dismay that less and less people are going to theaters, choosing instead to rent and stay home. Do they not understand why we stay home? Do they think we just don't like seeing movies on the big screen the way they were intended? Has no one explained to them that we don't have any money?

Where I live, in Portland, Oregon, the big-chain price gouging has had one positive effect -- it's been great for our small, locally owned theaters. Our so-called "beer theaters" offer second-run movies for $3.00 admission, banking that you'll also buy a beer and a slice of pizza to enjoy with the film. And they're thriving. One such theater, the St. John's Cinema, actually shows first-run features, with the prime-time tickets costing just $6.00 -- I've seen a number of brand-spankin'-new releases there for a reasonable price, and enjoyed a nice glass of wine, too.

Our art theaters, like Cinema 21 (general admission after 6 p.m.: $8.00) are all going strong. And one independent operator, the Roseway Theater, is considered by some to be the best theater in town. They're currently showing How to Train Your Dragon in 3-D on their single screen ... for $9.00 admission.

So if these smaller, independent businesses can thrive while charging reasonable prices, what the hell is going on with the big chains? They have volume on their side, and bargaining power that should cut them better deals with studios and suppliers. Is it sheer, unmitigated greed? Is it the result of bad business decisions, like throwing millions of dollars at new theaters so they can control their markets? Is it huge salaries for too many executives? Or is it all of the above?

The simple truth is this: If exhibitors want to see more people coming back to theaters rather than waiting for DVD, they need to make it attractive for the audience's wallet. 3-D is a fine gimmick, but gambling that spectacle alone will keep people coming to theaters is just plain stupid. Spectacle gets old awfully quickly; 3-D will stop being a shiny new toy in a year or so, and people will still be struggling to pay their bills.

Movies have always been an entertainment for everyone, no matter what their class or circumstance. The cost of a large pizza shouldn't be less than one ticket to see a 90-minute movie. By continuing to increase the cost of tickets, theater chains are turning the once egalitarian experience of going to the movies into a luxury that the working class simply can't afford. It's madness, and ultimately could damage the industry irreparably.
categories Movies, Cinematical