Why Do All Movie Tickets Cost the Same?

The new "Mission: Impossible" film has made ten times more money than smaller films like "Young Adult." If greater demand is supposed to move prices, why does a ticket to each movie cost the same?

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Tom Cruise/Mission: Impossible

At the AMC Loews in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., every evening ticket is $12, plus taxes, whether you want to see Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, the holiday-season juggernaut starring Tom Cruise bouncing off Dubai's 2,700-foot Burj Khalifa tower, or Young Adult, a small, dark comedy starring Charlize Theron.

Like tens of millions of Americans, I have paid money to see Mission: Impossible, which made $130 million in the last two weeks, and I have not paid any money to see Young Adult, which has made less than $10 million over the same span. Nobody is surprised or impressed by the discrepancy. The real question is: If demand is supposed to move prices, why isn't seeing Young Adult much cheaper than seeing Mission: Impossible?

Senior rates and matinee discounts exist, but movie theaters don't offer different prices for different films showing at the same time. "Since the early 1970s, at any given movie theater, one price has been charged for all movies, seven days a week, 365 days a year," Barak Y. Orbach and Liran Einav begin in their research paper that looks at pricing strategies for movie theaters. This practice -- known, wonkily, as uniform pricing -- isn't specific to movies. It's true for sports, where I pay the same price for a football ticket whether the Redskins are playing the New England Patriots or the St. Louis Rams. It's also true for music. The fact that Katy Perry is likely to outsell Gilbert & Sullivan this year doesn't make "Last Friday Night" any cheaper than "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General."

But it's something of a mystery to Orbach and Einav that studios and theaters, so notoriously canny about finding profits, never experiment with higher prices to capture more money from inevitable blockbusters -- or with lower prices to fill up empty seats.

To make successful movies more expensive, you have to know what movies are going to be successful. That's not as hard as it sounds.

The Hollywood cliche is that "nobody knows anything" when it comes to how a movie will perform at the box office. But there are some basic rules of thumb. More expensive movies have bigger audiences. There is a high "correlation coefficient" between production costs and gross revenues. Sequels outperform non-sequels. The seven best-performing movies of 2011 were second, fifth or eight in a franchise. Christmastime outsells Eastertime ... and every other time, as the graph of weekly attendance below shows. Furthermore, it's practically a rule of law that big opening weekends predict overall success and that movie revenues fall after the first week.
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One-price-tickets is a kind of return to the earliest days of (barely) moving pictures, when everybody would put a penny in a peep show machine. But the first instances of what film archeologists would actually call "movies" around 1910 featured different prices for different films. Movies were priced according to their length, stars, and popularity. For three decades until the 1940s, one theater would have the rights to each movie within a certain zone, and movies received grades (A, B, or C) that corresponded with ticket prices at those theaters. If the rules of the 1920s ruled today, Mission Impossible might be $15 and Young Adult might be $7. What changed?

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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