Sticker shock at Manhattan's theaters

New Yorkers are used to long lines and no bargain matinees. But $9.50movie tickets have many outraged.

New Yorkers are accustomed to paying a premium. In fact, the city prides itself on being a top-dollar kind of town - within reason. When several movie theater chains in Manhattan hiked the price as high as $9.50, for many, that was just too much.

"I think it's outrageous," says Liz Thompson.

"It's crazy," says Pantera St. Montaigne, "you can't afford to take the family anymore."

Indeed, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone was so indignant, he called it a "mugging of the middle class." And at a hastily called news conference last week, he urged all New Yorkers to boycott movie theaters for one day.

"Do something else on Friday," he said. "Anything else."

But despite all of the outrage and indignation, it wasn't enough to keep New Yorkers away from the silver screen. In fact, the lines of cold, bundled-up patrons snaked around the street corner at most of the city's major theaters last Friday night, just as they do on every other Friday night.

"I'm a real movie fan, but I think they're taking advantage," said Ms. Thompson, rather apologetically, as she slipped in to buy her ticket.

Mike Ealy simply shrugged his shoulders. "It's the thing to do. And if they raise it to $11 eventually, we'll still go," he says, adding, "There's nothing like it, so they can get away with murder."

New Yorkers go to the movies more than people in any other major city in the country, including Los Angeles - Hollywood's own hometown. And Manhattanites, in particular, have grown accustomed to paying more for the privilege than anyone in the country. In fact, they're used to being trend-setters. When prices here jumped to $9.50 this month, they also went up in Chicago, from $8 to $8.50, and in Boston, from $7.50 to $8.

PART of the problem in New York is that the city has fewer screens per capita than any other major city. Another is that New York, is, well, just New York.

"Why is this a question?" asks Marc Pascucci, of Loews Cineplex Entertainment, owner of the largest chain of theaters in New York. "It's the most expensive city in the country, period. It's the most expensive to live in, eat in, work in. Why is this a question? I just don't understand this."

Mr. Pascucci insists that at $9.50, New Yorkers are getting an entertainment bargain, a two hour, out-of-home experience that's cheaper than anything else they can do in the city - except maybe ride the Staten Island ferry.

To make the point, Loews Cineplex Entertainment prepared a price list of other alternatives. The average cost of a Broadway show: $48.50. Off-Broadway's now up to $41 a pop. And forget sports. A Knicks ticket will run you $50. To see the Rangers, you have to fork out $80.

Such comparisons didn't sit well with many moviegoers, who were offended by theater owners' comparing live entertainment with their celluloid fare. "That cracks me up, they compare it to a Broadway show. There you at least pay for what's real," says Janine Perazzo.

So what's a New Yorker to do? William Jackson believes the city should try to increase competition in the theater industry, which like the rest of American business, has been merging at a rapid clip.

"But how you gonna introduce that competition?" he asks philosophically. "How are you going to be able to create opportunities for other people to own and operate theaters?"

Public advocate Mark Green tried to do just that last year when he opposed the merger between Cineplex Odeon and Sony Loews. He warned it would create a monopoly situation that would bring about such price hikes. But instead of blocking the sale, the Justice Department had the two companies sell about a dozen theaters before they merged. Loews Cineplex Entertainment now owns just under 50 percent of city theaters.

"The best consumer option is to go to Blockbuster," says Mr. Green. "I just hope this isn't the first of an annual increase that will bring it up to $15." And it could be. This was the fourth ticket price increase in five years.

But Loews' Pascucci thinks the politicians are grandstanding on this one. He points out that Loews Cineplex has been renovating several theaters and is in the process of building three new multiplexes for the city's viewing pleasure - one in Times Square, another in Harlem, and a third in the Kips Bay area.

"Our theaters improve areas that are targets for the city to improve. To get this kind of reaction for offering a product at what we think is a reasonable price, doesn't seem right," says Mr. Pascucci.

But many movie patrons feel just as strongly, that at $9.50, it's the ticket price that doesn't seem right.

"New Yorkers are outraged, as usual, but since movies are their favorite art, they'll keep going anyway," says Morris Dickstein, director of the Center of the Humanities at the graduate center of the City University of New York. "But the next time around, you watch out...."

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