Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Popcorn Is Too Damn High

For a long time, movie goers have felt like they went to the cleaners when it comes to the concession stand at movie theaters. Why are they so expensive, and are audiences being ripped off?

Theater owners are quick to illustrate that the bulk of their profit comes from concession sales. In fact concession sales account for 40% of the theater's income. Consider that ticket sales must be shared with the films distributors, where as the sodas, popcorn, and candy go straight to the theater's bank deposit. They also point out it's a matter of checks and balances. By increasing  the cost of food, it keeps the cost of the ticket prices down.

This seems sensible, if it were 20 years ago. But today, this seems like an out-dated, archaic business model sorely ignorant of today's movie culture. Gone are the days of cartoons and news reels. Nowadays movie audiences sit through advertisement slides from local merchants to full length commercials, not to mention corporate sponsorship. AMC theaters, for instance, is sponsored by Coca-Cola. Beyond the concession stand, you cannot wander the theater without confronting its logo, be it in posters, or even during on screen trivia games for those early movie goers. In fact, before the previews role, we're reminded to drink Coca-Cola.

With the economy dried up, and new technology and outlets, it's harder and harder to draw audiences in. Consider a family of four. Two adult and two children's tickets average around $25. Add to that four sodas, a large popcorn, and some candy, and your looking at another $20-$30. Is $50 for a night out economically feasible anymore? Consider the wealth of options available to movie goers today. Most new releases cost $19.95 at retail stores. They can subscribe to Netflix, Zune, and Hulu, allowing for unlimited movies to be streamed onto their television sets for an average monthly rate of about $9. Another option is to tack on about $4 to their cable bill, and order a movie from the pay-per-view options made available from their cable provider. And if that isn't enough, some are content to simply download films, including current theatrical releases, from pirated movie sites and watch them for free. All these options also come with the added advantage of "at your leisure." In other words, no packing up the kids and driving to the theater by a designated time. Now, you can watch what you want, when you want. Plus, you don't get charged $5 to microwave your popcorn.

Theaters and movie studios recognize this trend, and are combating it with films in 3D. The idea is to give theater goers an experience that they cannot get at home. Plus the technology is at a point where the 3D actually looks great, opposed to the old fashioned red/blue glasses seen decades ago. But all this really does is jack up the cost of admission even more. Now, the same family of four can expect to spend about $60-70. Plus, it increases money in a films budget to add the 3D to its production costs, often making it harder to profit. And now, with 3D television in its infancy, will the 3D experience be solely the domain of the theater?

Still, despite this, movie fans still attend theaters. There is a magical feel to seeing a movie on a large screen. Plus there is a sense of nostalgia to slurp your soda and cram popcorn in your mouth during the film. It's a habit that has been developed from parents to children for a century now. Wanting to feel that sense of tradition again, audiences will submit to the absurd mark-up, for now it seems. Still, as prices go up to maintain profits, less people are becoming enthralled with the movie experience. Concession prices aside, some theaters show films in rooms slightly larger than a closet. Floors are often sticky, and bathrooms are less than sterile. Despite films seemingly breaking records every year, overall attendances are down.

Perhaps theater owners simply need to adjust their revenue sources. Why milk the audience who is spending their hard earned money to escape the drudgery for a couple hours? Seems to me the advertisers and sponsors should be spending more. After all, they spend money to make money. Audiences don't profit at all from a film. Perhaps a sliding scale increasing the cost of advertising to offset the reduction in concession prices. Plus, wouldn't audiences be more inclined to spend money at a concession if they feel they are getting true value for their dollar? This would change how films are presented. Perhaps to compensate the advertisers, commercials should be placed after previews but before the film, insuring a fuller audience seeing the advertisements. Maybe even more commercials. Audiences may grumble about it, but if they're flipping the bill for us, it's a necessary evil.

Ultimately, theaters need to stop looking at technology like 3D and IMAX to solve their waning attendance issues and look to rediscover why we go to movies in the first place, to enjoy losing ourselves in a story. But we shouldn't have to lose our wallets to do so. 

MPAA Ratings: Are they relevant anymore?

What does it mean when a movie is rated "R?" Should it be avoided by those under the age of 18? Is a "PG" movie safe for children? Is the rating system an infallible and reliable reflection on the film. Is it even illegal to see a rated "R" film if under the age of 18? If so, how can theaters restrict ticket sales, but they can be rented or purchased by minors?

Contrary to popular belief, the MPAA ratings carry no force of local, state, or federal law anywhere in the U.S. The rating system is administered by the Classification and Ratings Administration, which is not a government agency. It is a group of corporate analysts that screen films and their personal opinions are used to arrive at one of five ratings: G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17. Not all films are rated, and are regulated to indy theaters or direct to DVD. Theaters voluntarily agree to enforce corporate film ratings in exchange for access to new film releases. Hence motion pictures have greater distribution opportunities if they submit to an MPAA rating, and theaters must enforce them less they have no new films to draw in audiences in order to sell their overpriced popcorn.

The problem with the C&RA is there are no absolute rules determining what content constitutes a particular rating. Not to mention what standards they have often get compromised anyway. Take for example the recent film, The King's Speech. Classified as a biography/drama, it is both entertaining and historically educational. No violence or nudity, or erotic situations, this rather squeaky clean film earns its R rating because in one scene the frustrated, stuttering King drops a few "F" bombs. This seems to contradict the MPAA standard that the "F" word is forgivable if the word is used as an expletive, and not used for sexual reference. Contrary to this is the 1976 film The Bad News Bears. Here we see kids ranging from 8-13 years old. The kids use foul language, they smoke, and get into fights.  There is also a scene where a drunk Father strikes his kid in front of the whole game. Yet this is stamped with a PG rating.

In 1984 the PG-13 classification was introduced. With parents upset over resent films like Spielberg'sGremlins and Temple of Doom, citing scenes of violence and gore, Spielberg suggested to MPAA President Jack Valenti to institute a rating that isn't as bad as an R, but containing more adult themes than standard PG. The result was PG-13, however Spielberg's films were never re-rated. 

Since 1990, ratings have been accompanied by brief descriptions of the films content, such as "Cartoon Violence", "Nudity", "Drug Use", "Strong Language", "Blood", etc. But do these even paint a clear picture? Does the PG rating for Hook with its "mild violence" going to inform parents that their kids will see Captain Hook murder a 13 year old boy in a sword fight?

It seems the rating system is becoming less concerned with self-regulating films for the good of the audience and more of a marketing ploy. Sometimes an R can create more buzz for a film than if it received a PG. 

So where does this leave parents and audiences? Nowhere really. Despite the MPAA, entertainment watch dog groups, and film critics, movies will always be a personal experience. With both a film's ethics and entertainment value being at the sole disposal of the viewer, one literally has to see the film in order to be fully educated on it.