How Hollywood can beat the recession

For three weeks straight, movie ticket sales have fallen, compared to a year ago. Both USA Today and the Los Angeles Times have stories today, indicating that the recession is finally catching up with Hollywood.

That shouldn't be a surprise. We are, after all, still in the midst of a recession. Unemployment is high, credit is tight -- well, you know the drill. What surprises me is that the theater industry is doing so well. The box office has still raked in 6% more than it did last year.

But I don't think it's going to last. Now, I'm not a box office analyst or a theater owner -- just a fairly avid movie-goer, mostly lately of family films, since I have two young daughters (5 and 7). So knowing that, take these thoughts for what they are.

But if movie theater owners would like to make more money instead of less, here's what I think they should do. It's quite easy -- just two little things.
Acknowledge that we're in a recession and lower your movie ticket prices.
Permanently would be nice, but if you can't bear to do that, announce to your patrons that you're going to drop your prices for the rest of the year. I know you're not going to budge on the popcorn prices, but if you make it cheaper to come to the movies, chances are, you'll fill more seats and sell more of your overpriced popcorn, candy and soda.

And if you think what I'm saying is just the ranting of a movie-goer who wants to get into the movies cheaper (which is true enough), take a look at the fast food chain Subway, which has been offering its foot-long subs for $5. It's been suggested that that's a big part of the reason that sales of cold cut sandwiches are up (they've gone up 11%, among children's orders, anyway).

Create an escape from the recession. During the Great Depression, Hollywood really came into its own. Ticket prices were typically a quarter for an adult, and a dime for a child. Yes, the prices had to be so low because people had less money in the 1930s --for instance, if you were a male school teacher in Illinois in 1933, your salary averaged $1,352 a year -- but from everything I've researched about the Depression, the movies helped people forget about their money troubles.

The fact that they were in glamorous movie palaces built in the Roaring 1920s helped, and so did the air-conditioning that most residential homes didn't yet have -- but the point is -- the movies gave people something that they didn't have. Some theaters even gave away a free dish with a movie ticket, encouraging a lot of housewives to go to the movies so they could end up getting the entire set.

Certainly movies can be an escape today -- you go in, and there are the flashing neon lights at the concession stand, maybe a section of the movie theater where you can play video games, and obviously the films can make you forget about your money problems.

On the other hand, there are times when I go the movies, and it's impossible to forget about the recession because I'm thinking of how much it costs to go to the movies.

When I took my wife and two kids to see Disney's Up, we decided to see it in the 3-D format. It was a Saturday afternoon, and we spent $40 -- just for the tickets and 3-D glasses -- and that doesn't count whatever we spent at the concession stands. I enjoyed the movie, and the kids loved it, but the actual money experience left me with a distaste for 3-D films.

And if movie theaters don't make their prices more accommodating to a public battered by the recession? Here's what I predict. I see a bubble occurring, similar to the housing and credit card markets, although on a much smaller and less catastrophic scale, of course. I think that people are going to go less and less to the movies as the experience of film-going keeps getting pricier and pricier, and that by the end of the year, Hollywood will bemoaning the fact that 2009 wasn't a great year for the box office and wondering what went wrong.

And so as usual, if film executives want a happy ending, they'll only be able to find it in a movie, and not at the movies.

Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).

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