Higher ticket prices for “The Batman” drove more money to theaters and the studio, but it also represents a massive risk: It means training the audience to weigh a price against its desire to see a movie.
AMC raised ticket prices for its showings of “The Batman” (Warner Bros.) by at least $1 for most shows. That theaters raise prices occasionally is not news, except among those who ignore that while calculating all-time box-office hits. However, by selectively raising and lowering prices according to demand, the theater chain is reviving an old trend and creating new and unexpected consequences.
The National Association of Theaters Organization hasn’t provided an estimate of the average ticket price since 2019, when it was $9.16. That number has grown over the last three years; some exhibitors used the popularity of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” as rationale for another increase.
AMC CEO Adam Aron described higher prices for “The Batman” as part of a new “variable pricing” strategy. It’s not a foreign concept; in home viewing, variable pricing is the rule. Streaming services vary in their cost, while VOD prices might range from $29.99 to 99 cents.
Before multiplexes and wide-release debuts, tiered pricing was common. Top films opened exclusively in central major-city theaters at a higher price. Other titles opened at less-prestigious cinemas. When top films expanded, prices dropped.
In the ’50s and ’60s, this strategy extended to the road-show concept. Films like “Ben-Hur,” “West Side Story,” and “The Sound of Music” would play up to a year in a single theater with limited, reserved-seat shows at ticket prices much higher than normal. That suggested a measure of superiority, but it wasn’t a mass-market approach: These were single theaters, with fewer shows. When they went wider — which is usually how the films found most of their revenue — the phrase “now at popular prices” often followed.
The AMC policy is very different: These are mainstream films at higher prices in the widest release, aimed at mass audiences.
One-size-fits-all ticket pricing became the standard once multiplexes were the norm, putting all films on equal footing. Higher prices for “The Batman” may suggest an old-fashioned attitude, but AMC is acting in accordance with the post-pandemic movie mindset: Fans are eager to see franchise event movies in theaters; therefore, those films will dominate theatrical releases.
The post-pandemic period is young, but so far that strategy suggests a steep decline in overall box-office revenues. “The Batman” drove AMC to eight of the 10 biggest-grossing theaters in the U.S./Canada on its first weekend; “Spider-Man: No Way Home” earned $800 million. It’s not enough. Movies through last weekend have grossed only about 57 percent of the same period in 2019.
With the potential for higher prices on some films, it could suggest lower prices for others. It can influence production and distribution decisions: As always, studios are guided by what brings the best return.
So far, no one seems ready to ask a basic question: When the current interest in thriving franchises decreases, what will replace it? If theaters signal that they elevate already-proven films, success becomes more difficult for titles that might spark new hits.
In the months ahead, it will be fascinating to see which films are selected for variable pricing, including those that might be selected for discounts. (Starting March 18, AMC theaters will show five Oscar Best Picture nominees for $5.) Prickly producers will resist any designation that their films have lesser status.
As big a threat as any to theaters is the decline in the volume and range of films released. Any strategy that bets on a set of blockbusters to sustain the industry long term is likely to fail.