Cost of Movie Tickets Soars

Consumers shell out more and more for favorite flicks, but some opt for videos

UP, up, and away go movie ticket prices in the United States - escalating faster than Arnold Schwarzenegger's bank account. Prices have zoomed as high as $5 this summer in Des Moines, $7 in Washington, D.C., and $7.50 in Los Angeles.

While consumer prices rose 4.6 percent last year, the cost of going to your favorite flick rocketed upward 8.1 percent, according to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and has outrun the consumer price index every year since 1982.

Industry sources cite soaring star salaries, surging production costs in Hollywood, and higher utility and wage expenses in theaters as the culprits.

``Going to the movies is not something I can afford to do all the time now,'' says Maria Newmaster, a junior at the University of Virginia. ``I would go to more movies if they were cheaper because I would feel I was getting my money's worth,'' she says.

IN Los Angeles, around-the-block lines for summer blockbusters like ``Days of Thunder,'' ``Total Recall,'' and ``Dick Tracy'' show that despite the steep cost, people are still flocking to the theater.

``Business is up,'' says Bob Franklin, vice-president of the MPAA's Worldwide Market Research Department. He says that there appears to be ``no negative effect'' from rising ticket costs.

Barbara Bernard, an analyst at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, says movie prices often rise in the summer just as public interest peaks.

``Hollywood holds releases that they think will appeal to vacation crowds,'' she says. ``In turn, [this] raises admissions prices. Admission rates rose considerably the year ``E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial'' came out on screens across the nation.

``Ticket prices rise during the summer because of blockbusters like `Dick Tracy.' ... [They] appeal to vacationing students. ... They are also a good babysitting service for parents.''

Bernard also attributes higher prices to rising production costs, and the salaries that actors command. ``The rental fees [for movies] have risen in response to that.''

Also, ``with the rising cost of the minimum wage, there has been a slight effect, not as great as in the past, [but an increase] because [the theater must] pay its help,'' she says.

Mary Ann Grasso, executive director of the National Association of Theater Owners, explains that the cinema business is ``like any business - when costs go up, theater tickets go up.'' Yet it's not always easy for theaters to recover these costs.

It might surprise moviegoers to know, for example, that when they plunk down $6 to see the latest blockbuster, as much as $5.40 goes to the film company, and only 60 cents to the theater - at least for the first two weeks.

After a few weeks, movie house payments to Hollywood can drop as low as 50 percent, but ``theaters have other expenses to pay,'' says a United Artists representative, who asked not to be identified. Other expenses include rent, electricity, payroll, and maintenance. Most profits come from the concession stand.

``Generally when a theater raises its price, it's because their costs have been increased in some arena,'' Ms. Grasso says.

When asked if the ``arena'' has anything to do with actors' salaries (some of them reportedly reaching around $10 million a picture), she replies: ``Ultimately, [actors' salaries] affect the cost of the picture on the other side, on the film producer or the distribution side. ... I imagine somehow down the line, that filters into everything.''

DESPITE steady increases in movie ticket prices, ``movie-going attendance has been stable for the past 10 years,'' says the United Artists spokesman, in defense of the movie theater industry of which UA is the leader.

Some teenagers don't even balk at today's prices - partly because they don't remember when tickets cost only $2.50 and $3.50 back in the early 1980s.

``[Higher ticket prices] don't really bother me because I work,'' says Matt Kingsley, who will be a freshman at Wingate College in North Carolina this fall. His brother, Josh, a junior at George Mason high school in Falls Church, Va., agrees, but he adds: ``I don't buy as much food [at the concession stand] now.''

But Eri Kimura, a junior at Georgetown University, says that even though some movies are ``great to see on big screens,'' she has ``become more selective'' when she goes to the cinema.

High ticket prices plus the availability of videos have driven some consumers away from the movie houses.

One customer at a Washington area video club said it is cheaper for her to rent four films even if she doesn't get to watch them all than go to the movies with her son.

She said it recently cost her ``between $25 and $30'' to bring her son to the movies. The cost included movie tickets for two, large popcorn, large drinks, and candy - all necessities for making a child's night at the movies complete, she said.

MISS NEWMASTER concurs. ``I've gone to fewer movies lately, but it's because you can get everything on tape.''

MPAA claims that the number of movie tickets sold (1.13 billion in 1989) has risen slightly in each of the past four years despite the growing use of videocassette players.

An official with one large movie chain scoffs at speculation that high prices will hurt the industry:

``Just look at all those long lines for `Days of Thunder.' That should answer your question,'' she says.

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