For people in South Brooklyn, there are two great incentives to going to the movies on Tuesdays. Unfortunately, each is offered by a different theater. At the independently owned Cobble Hill Cinema, the attraction is discounted tickets -- $6.50 instead of the usual $9. Down the street, at the huge Regal Entertainment-owned UA Court Street Stadium 12, the deal is a free small popcorn -- upgraded to a medium for only 50 cents.
So, being a South Brooklynite, I typically schedule my movie going for Tuesdays. But how do I choose which theater to patronize? Well, obviously, the first factor is what movies each theater is showing. Normally, Cobble Hill has indie films and other similar, adult-oriented fare (I don't mean porn; I mean Elizabeth: The Golden Age) while the UA has mostly mainstream, studio pictures (e.g. The Heartbreak Kid). However, on occasion, they are both showing the one movie I want to see. This week, for instance, both theaters are running The Kingdom.
Because I'm both cheap and poor, the best draw seems to be Cobble Hill's discount ticket. But then if I'm going to buy popcorn (I almost always want popcorn), it isn't really any cheaper than going to the UA and paying $11.25 for a ticket and a medium bag. And as much as I'd like to say that you should always support the mom-and-pop business, the truth is that I prefer the projection, the seats and, most importantly, the corn at the UA. Besides, Cobble Hill offers its discount on Thursdays, too; so anytime I choose to see a movie on that day of the week, the smaller business is definitely first choice.
Another problem with Cobble Hill, though, is that sometimes it runs movies that cannot be discounted. This isn't the cinema's fault; some studios just don't allow their titles to be discounted in the first two weeks it's playing. This isn't specific to small theaters with special discount nights like Cobble Hill's. This is also the case with the kind of discount tickets you get from the AAA or from your employer or school, which are commonly sold in bulk to these places by all major cinema chains, including Regal. This week, Cobble Hill featured five movies, one of which, Across the Universe, was full price every day, every show, including matinees.
I visited Cobble Hill Cinema this week and spoke to one of the owners, Andrew (technically son of the owner), in order to find out the reason for certain titles not being discounted. But I didn't learn much that I hadn't already known or at least assumed about the business. Across the Universe is distributed by Sony, which apparently always enforces a full price ticket for its movies. Other studios that typically disallow discounts are Warner Bros. and Disney. However, Andrew told me that Warner Independent films could be discounted.
The bottom line reasoning – though no studios replied to my emails requesting official statements – is a matter of box office. Everybody knows that studios are after the greatest sum of money they can get in the first weekend or two. That's when a movie's gross is at its highest. Therefore it makes sense for the studios to get the full amount possible on every ticket sold in that timeframe.
My question, then, is this: why are the studios okay with ticket prices being different all over the country? Sony is probably making less on Cobble Hill's $9 ticket for Across the Universe than it's making on Regal's $11 ticket for the same movie, which is playing across the river at the chain's Manhattan locations. And certainly the same movie is playing in other parts of America for even cheaper than Cobble Hill. So, does it really affect Sony's take for a little theater to drop its ticket price one or two nights a week? It must, but I don't really understand why.
Andrew told me that his theater did in fact have the choice to offer Across the Universe at the discount price, but that would mean his business would be taking a loss, because he would still be required to pay Sony the full price on each ticket discounted. It doesn't seem fair, but Andrew seemed not to mind. As he pointed out, even at $9 his cinema is still the cheapest place in the area to see the movie.
I asked him about the reactions from customers. Do they see the sign saying there's no discount on tickets to Across the Universe and then buy a ticket for another movie? He claimed yes, that the movie not discounted tends to get the shaft on Tuesdays and Thursdays. But he meant the customers change their minds and see something else. I admitted that in that situation I would be tempted to buy a discounted ticket for another movie and then sneak into the non-discounted movie that I had wanted to see. He said his cinema doesn't suggest or condone that idea, pointing out also that in such a small theater it isn't easy to hop from one auditorium to another anyway.
Well, I recommend pulling the switch if, when and where possible. What I would do, though, is make it up to the cinema by putting that $3 towards a concession purchase. Why? Because cinemas primarily make their money from the concession stand and rarely take a loss from issuing free or discounted tickets (I say rarely, because if a theater tried to appease customers with a lot of free passes, it would upset the studios and risk being unable to book certain films in the future). And since theaters are currently in worse financial shape and security than are studios, I think it fair to help out the former.
So what is the financial benefit to Regal, which chooses to offer an incentive of free popcorn rather than discounted tickets? I spoke to a woman named Nifty at Regal's corporate headquarters in Knoxville, and like with Andrew, I received a lot of information I had previously only assumed to be true. Despite popcorn being the bread and butter of a theater's profits, it made sense for a large chain like Regal to offer one night of free corn because of the increased chance a customer will spend additional money at the stand, such on a soda to wash the corn down.
Nifty also told me that Regal offers incentives in all areas, including free tickets, through its "Crown Club", a simple rewards program akin to airline miles. I have to admit that I'm a member of this program – it is in fact necessary to be a member in order to get that free small popcorn on Tuesdays – and have indeed received a number of freebies. So, certainly I'm a good example of how Regal's incentives work. Nifty said that in terms of her company's benefit, the basic reason of the "Crown Club" is to increase frequency, thereby increasing revenue. And she's right; I attend movies more frequently at the UA and other Regal locations because of the incentives program.
I asked Nifty if the studios have any problem with the eventual free tickets that "Crown Club" members receive, in the same way that some studios dislike discounted tickets. She claimed she wasn't aware of any issues brought up in the founding of the program, but that the studios worked with Regal in the initial plan for the "Crown Club" and continues to support it. Of course, the studios benefit in the form of certain movies being advertised more prominently through the program's specials. For example, each week "Crown Club" members can earn bonus rewards points by purchasing tickets to a specific film, likely something being pushed by the studios.
So it seems that in my choosing to see a movie at the UA on a Tuesday night, all parties benefit. I get discounted popcorn, Regal gets my business yet again and one of the studios possibly received some free advertising. Of course, if I choose to bring my business over to Cobble Hill Cinema, there's still plenty benefit to be had by everyone involved. And it probably benefits the cinema more because it probably needs my business more. Now if only it popped better corn, it would probably be my first choice every time.
Christopher Campbell has more then ten years experience in the theater industry, from art houses to multiplexes. He has worked as an usher, a cashier, a concessionist, an assistant manager and a manager of concessions operations and has been employed by The Angelika Film Center, Loews Theaters, Reading Cinemas and National Amusements.