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Should Movie Tickets Cost Less For Independent Films?

A frustrated indie director inspires us to consider the barriers between indie films and their audiences.

"A Ghost Story"

“A Ghost Story”

Over the weekend, “Morris From America” director Chad Hartigan posed an intriguing question on Twitter: “Why do all movies cost the same to see?” Specifically, Hartigan was curious if lowering the ticket price for certain indies might incentivize people to be a little bolder at the multiplex, if it might inspire casual moviegoers to check out a Sundance sensation rather than the latest superhero spectacle.

“Why can’t I to to a Regal and pay $15 for ‘Spider-Man’ or $7.50 for ‘A Ghost Story?’” he asked into the void. In other words: Not all movies cost the same to make, so why should all movies cost the same to see?

At a time when smaller films are struggling for the screen real estate they need in order to survive, it’s worth considering anything that might prevent indie cinema from permanently resigning itself to the recesses of Netflix and VOD.

Hartigan certainly knows from experience. “Morris From America” was a crowd favorite at Sundance, where A24 picked it up for a cool $3 million before releasing it over the summer as part of their pact with DirectTV (a deal that effectively turned the movie into an ad for the satellite service, and ensured that an uptick in subscribers would be the only meaningful way of calculating its performance). Everyone was made whole, and the film’s ultimate fate should only make it easier for Hartigan to finance his next project. Still, it must sting that “Morris From America” grossed a measly $91,151 at the American box office. The movie is a bonafide crowdpleaser, but the audience at its Sundance premiere was just about the only crowd it ever got to please.

Hartigan, of course, is hardly the only talented indie filmmaker who’s frustrated that his work has been relegated to the land of televisions and tablets — it’s no secret that this is an ongoing crisis for the people who live to make movies (and the people who love to watch them) — but it isn’t often that someone from that side of the fence proffers an actual solution, even if they’re just thinking out loud on the internet. Still, this particular idea might be more of a conversation-starter than a game-changer.

“Morris from America”

For one thing, theaters couldn’t bear the burden. It’s true that moviegoers can’t afford for tickets to get any more expensive, but it’s also true that movie theaters can’t afford for tickets to get any less expensive. Even if most of the money is made from concessions, it’s hard to imagine theaters subscribing to an idea that would force them to take the only hit. Of course, more tickets means more popcorn, but the negative ramifications would only ripple out from there. As Hartigan himself observed, it would be tricky to figure out what price category should apply to each film, or who gets to make that call. Would theater owners make that judgement call on a case-by-case basis? Would they be factoring reviews, social media buzz, or audience demographics? How long would it take before the whole thing somehow turned super racist? (It’s hard to imagine exactly how it would, but so much harder to imagine that it wouldn’t).

If this approach didn’t work, then indies would be evacuated from theaters forever. And if it did work, the situation wouldn’t be much better. It’s inevitable that making indies cheaper to see would have the effect of devaluing them, of making them seem somehow less than. Even now, when a phenomenal piece of entertainment like “Okja” can premiere on Netflix, there’s no denying the taint of inferiority that’s still painted on every film that opens day-and-date or skips theaters entirely (and “Okja,” of course, had the luxury of a Competition slot at Cannes before receiving select engagements at some of America’s finest cinemas).

Tilda Swinton, "Okja"

“Okja”

Netflix

Stripping movie theaters of their fundamentally democratic nature and depriving indie film of its remaining dignity would fatally invert the dynamic of the day-and-date approach: VOD works because it feels like a chance to see a theater-worthy movie in private, but this could make it feel like theaters were offering a VOD-quality experience in public. Indies would be seen as worth less, they would become harder to finance, and making them would become a harder career path to justify.

Hartigan agrees that the move could have unintended consequences, but argues that the situation is too dire for us to nothing. “I’m aware of subconsciously promoting the idea that indie movies are ‘less valuable’ than studio films,” the filmmaker told IndieWire, “but I would argue that that perception already exists amongst most moviegoers. And rather than have them associate ‘less valuable’ with ‘watch at home,’ I think this could keep all films viable in the cinema. I don’t know if the idea is good at all, but think it deserves a shot.”

He continued: “It just seems odd that movies are the only thing that operates this way. You’d pay more to see U2 than Beach Fossils not because U2 is a ‘better’ band but because they sunk more money into the production of their show/tour at a larger scale/and have brand recognition.” When asked if it matters that U2 and Beach Fossils albums sell for the same price, Hartigan stressed that he always likened going to the movies with the communal experience of attending a concert.

Still, it’s possible that the blowback could go in the other direction and negatively impact studio fare, the U2s of the movie world  — maybe, after more than 100 years of populism, movies would complete their ongoing transition into a venue for outright classism. Your rich friends got to see “Dunkirk,” but you were stuck with “The Book of Henry” because of those pesky student loans. God forbid you broke an arm and didn’t have the healthcare to cover it — I hope you like Drake Doremus movies.

Of course, a lot of these conclusions depend on the assumption that lowering ticket prices wouldn’t result in a major surge in viewers, and that’s because it wouldn’t. Yes, cost is a major barrier to entry, but enthusiasm is the more immediate obstacle. If you just want to get out of the house, enjoy some industrial-strength air-conditioning, and see something… congratulations, you’re the target demographic for “The Emoji Movie.” But people go to see “The Beguiled” or “The Big Sick” because they’re interested in something specific. At a time when people can stream a million bad movies on your couch for $8.99 a month, movie theaters are asking consumers to spend twice that in order to see just one. And people do it because it’s the one they want to see.

Rather than making movie tickets cheaper for indies, we need to focus on making people more enthusiastic about paying for the pleasure. The theatrical experience will only survive if we get people excited to go the movies — conceding that the medium is dying, highlighting its desperation, and insisting that creativity is worth less is a recipe for disaster in an age when the television medium is throwing money at premium cable shows that affirm the value of its visionaries.

So what’s the solution? Well, it’s a good start that smart, personally invested people like Chad Hartigan are thinking about the problem. It’s also worth remembering that the movies have been dying since the day they were born, and that we’re in the middle of a particularly robust summer for strong indie fare. “The Big Sick” is on its way to becoming a genuine sensation, “The Beguiled” continues to clean up, and “A Ghost Story” is coming on strong. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Lower-profile titles are raking it in, as the likes of “Beatriz at Dinner,” “The Hero,” “Maudie,” and “Paris Can Wait” are nabbing millions of dollars left behind by “Despicable Me 3,” “Cars 3,” “Planet of the Apes 3.0 3,” “Spider-Man Reboot 3,” and more. And while older audiences remain the most reliable crowd, the year’s highest-grossing indie is the decidedly youth-skewing “47 Meters Down,” which proved for the second consecutive summer that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a shark.

Making movies cheaper would obviously incentivize people to see them in the short run, but the movies as a whole might not survive the devaluation. The trick is to get people more excited to support indie cinema, because if you allow them to pay less, eventually they won’t be willing to pay at all.

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