10 rules for variable movie ticket pricing

Here's a riddle for you: How is going to the movies not like taking an airplane flight?

Well, usually the movie starts on time, commercials notwithstanding, and the flight attendants aren't nearly as solicitous; but there's another major difference: At a movie theater, you pretty much pay the same price no matter what night you go, no matter where in the theater you sit. According to a recent article by David Leonhardt of The New York Times, this is about to change. Theater chains are going to be experimenting with the same variable pricing structures that airlines have. A ticket Saturday night, for example, might cost more than one for Tuesday, and if you want a seat right in the middle "sweet spot" of the theater, it's more expensive than one right underneath that IMax screen.

But location and timing aren't the only way to price movies: what about quality? Or buzz? Wouldn't you be willing to pay more for, say, "Mission Impossible 3" than "Eight Below," the new Arctic snow dog movie? (I'm assuming, for the purposes of this argument, that you are neither related to a member of the cast and crew nor are yourself an Arctic snow dog.) Leonhardt is rightly skeptical, writing that, at this point, "the toughest job for the industry will be putting different prices on different movies, and we are not likely to see much of it anytime soon. If a theater cut the price of a movie on its opening weekend, it would announce that the film is a dog, turn off the audience, and offend the studio."

That may be the case. If, however, the industry decides that the financial rewards outweigh the potential risks, then allow me to humbly suggest a few guidelines for sensible - and potentially lucrative - pricing. Percentages are added or subtracted to whatever the current base ticket price is in your community.

1. Any movie in which a former television star turns into an animal, or indeed into anything at all - automatic 50 percent off. Guaranteed.

2. Any holiday movie (Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween) - 25 percent off, unless it's a re-release of "It's a Wonderful Life," "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles," or, um, "Halloween," in which case increase the price by 10 percent. If the movie has been released more than a month away from the holiday, take off 35 percent; no one wants to see a Christmas movie in July, and turkeys don't just come out on Thanksgiving.

3. Any movie where an aging action star is more than 25 years older than his wife or love interest - start with 25 percent off, and add 5 percent for every additional year difference. If, however, the aging action star is a woman, then add 10 percent. Twenty percent if the love interest is Ashton Kutcher.

4. If the movie's star currently a) is going through a painful celebrity divorce; b) is going through a painful celebrity marriage; c) is painfully having a celebrity child; or d) is Paris Hilton, add 10 percent to the base price. This is capitalism, people. Baser instincts must be acknowledged.

5. If the movie is a "cute" documentary (that is, it features penguins, koalas, or a cameo of a cuddly Michael Moore), add 10 percent. If it's an "uncute" documentary (featuring starving children, war footage, or an angry Michael Moore), take off twenty-five percent. Not because "uncute" documentaries are bad; it's just you've made so much money off rule No. 4 that you deserve to give something back as a public service.

6. Using a calculator, or optimally, a slide rule, determine the ratio of explosions to heavy-handed expositional monologues delivered by vaguely European bad guys. Multiply the resulting number by 10, and add that percent to ticket price. If done properly, a movie like "Hiroshima, Mon Amour" should stay about the same price, and the cost of a ticket to Bad Boys 2 should be approximately infinity.

7. Any interchangeable family-friendly sports movie where racial boundaries are broken by a vaguely saintly coach: add 20 percent. If you like that sort of thing, you're going to see it no matter what it costs.

8. When dealing with a remake of a classic movie, divide the original's number of Oscar nominations by the number of quality movies the remake's director has made. The resulting figure is the Index of Pointlessness (IOP). Multiply the IOP by 20, and add the number of times you cursed Hollywood for its cannibalistic instincts. Take that percentage off the ticket price.

9. To determine appropriate horror movie pricing, multiply the number of creepy descending piano runs by the number of screams from audience at test screening. Divide by number of acts of sheer, unblinking stupidity performed by characters. Add percentage to ticket price.

10. Any movie described, in production notes or publicity material, as an actor-turned-director's "very personal statement": take off 125 percent. That is to say, give anyone who walks into the theater money. They're going to need it.

I hope that this will help the theaters make some tough decisions in the times ahead. If they want more advice, my slide rule and I are always available for further consultation.

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