Earlier this week, speaking on a University of Southern California panel, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas made headlines describing what Spielberg called an oncoming "implosion" of the film industry and its consequences.
"What you're going to end up with is fewer theaters, bigger theaters, with a lot of nice things. Going to the movies is going to cost you 50 bucks, maybe $100, maybe $150," said Lucas, he and Spielberg comparing the experience to going to a Broadway play or football game.
The idea of paying $50 or more to see a movie may be unthinkable to some (though what some theaters charge is nearly halfway there). Yet Thursday, Paramount Pictures announced it would be selling a $50 "mega ticket" for the release of "World War Z." Purchasers not only get to see the Brad Pitt action film two days before its national release, but receive an HD digital copy of the film when it comes out for home release later this year. The package also includes a small popcorn, a pair of custom RealD 3-D glasses and limited-edition movie poster.
Rather than a bellwether of an industry-wide shift to pricier tickets, however, execs from Paramount and its partner in the deal Regal Entertainment Group describe the mega ticket as an experiment targeted at a select group of superfans. "Fans who are really passionate," says Regal's Chief Marketing Officer Ken Thewes, are the type who would pay extra to see it early and would likely be interested in owning the film as well. "Let's try to get them right away," he says, offering the total experience in one single purchase.
Megan Colligan, Paramount's president of domestic marketing and distribution, says the trial is about finding "elegant ways to be responsive to a population that's more ready, wiling and able to make those determinations more succinctly."
The buzz around the film is greatest when it comes out in theaters, Colligan points out, with only a fraction of the excitement surrounding a movie's home release. Protecting the 90-day window around a theatrical release is still important to studios, she says, so Paramount is taking a "holistic approach" to capitalize on a film's theatrical momentum for the home release months later and is also looking at apps that offer presales of a film's home release to those who have just seen it in theaters.
Whether or not the mega ticket experiment works, audiences should expect more premium-priced tickets, says David Hancock, a cinema analyst at IHS's Screen Digest. But, he says, rather than offering home releases as part of the package, tickets priced double or triple today's price are likely to be more about the new technologies – high frame rates, 3D sound, etc. – that theaters must equip themselves with to keep up with what filmmakers are using to make their glossy flicks.
"Not everyone is going to want to spend $30, $35 on tickets," he says, so he sees the industry heading toward a tiered approach not nearly as drastic as the revolution Spielberg and Lucas are predicting. Hancock suggests theaters will reserve a screen or two for a "premium cinema" experience, and viewers will choose between those and cheaper tickets for less technologically impressive showings. He compares the decision to the one people make now between seeing a movie in theaters and waiting for it to come out on DVD.
The rise of television as the source of premium storytelling content is also an important factor in the changing film landscape, particularly one, as Spielberg and Lucas predict, in which it is impossible to release smaller films. Spielberg revealed his Academy Award-nominated film "Lincoln" was almost sold to HBO before he found a theatrical distributor. Steven Soderbergh was not so lucky. His latest, the critically acclaimed "Behind the Candelabra" was ultimately released by HBO even though it was originally meant for the big screen.
In some ways, the many trends pointing to a $50 movie ticket all lead back to what people want to watch from their own homes: be it a "mega ticket" that has you pay to watch a movie in theaters and from your couch in one fell swoop, or a more thrilling theatrical experience that makes films worth seeing on the big screen. Either way, the industry better hope rising prices don't keep viewers home entirely.