When do you draw the line on spending money to go to the movies? Tickets are priced differently depending on your region: If a family of four goes to the movies in my Central Florida hometown, it'll set them back $32. In a more expensive city like Boston, where I currently live, the total cost is more like $44.
But each new technology and gimmick that accompanies today's moviemaking gives an excuse for theaters to charge a little extra. Most IMAX theaters in this country, for instance, do not contain the traditional dome screen that adds to the experience by engaging your peripheral vision; rather, they offers an oversized screen with the IMAX movie projected onto it. It's better quality in terms of projection and sound, but it's hardly the immersive experience suggested by the ads. We like to call these screens LieMAX, and they come with the exact same surcharge as a domed IMAX. Then there's the 3D surcharge, for glasses that darken the movie in an attempt to add depth to the images onscreen. There's research to suggest that not everyone can see 3D. So for an experience that you might not see, that could cause eyestrain, and that might even induce motion sickness, you're ponying up another $2–3 on your ticket. For a premium movie experience, you're looking at between $4–$6 dollars added to the prices mentioned above.
We're giving those prices the side-eye too, Bilbo.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has tickets selling in major cities with an option to see it in 48 frames per second. For me, the faster projection is just another excuse to tack on a surcharge. First off, if you're seeing the film in 3D, there's a good chance you're watching a digital version, which is to say those are not the frames of film stock speeding through the light of the projector. So more accurately, it's a big ol' high resolution file showing you twice as many images as you're accustomed to. The standard cinema speed of projection is 24 frames per second. A 48fps ticket costs $17 in Boston—nearly double the amount of a standard ticket, and I'm not even considering tickets at premier theaters that serve a full-course meal, or the utter stupidity that is the D-Box trend, which involves an even bigger surcharge.
What's the overall effect of seeing the film at 48fps? Mixed. Some critics liked it, but many, including me, thought the quality was far inferior, with action scenes that looked as unreal as the video-game demos at Best Buy. Motion blur looked bizarre, and I still find the muted tones of 3D to kill the splendor of exterior shots. Director Peter Jackson showed how powerful CGI could be with the painstaking details of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In The Hobbit, CGI characters were obvious and actors looked to be acting against a green screen. I spent several minutes throughout the film taking my 3D glasses off to close my eyes in an attempt to stave off straining. If this is supposed to be the trick to "fix" the problems of 3D, leave me and my wallet out if it.
Think this isn't an issue? With hundreds of independent theaters staring down possible closure because of the studio-driven push to digital conversion, many communities are going to be left with only big-name behemoths offering 3D and LieMAX options. This might be the only way to catch movies in a few years. I know the only 2D showing of a kid's movie is the first show of the day for a particular theater in Boston—and If you can't make that time, then too bad for you. You can take the 3D surcharge to the wallet or go home. So many families who can't afford the price of taking their kids are opting out going to the movies.
This hurts me personally, as I grew up with a movie-loving mother who forked over plenty of her hard-earned pay to take her two daughters to the movies often. It hurts, too, because I work in a theater and get the "You know how much I paid for movie tickets when I was your age?" speech almost every time I'm on the clock. Empty gimmicks like 48fps can leave moviegoers saying "never again" and resigning themselves to the Redbox or Netflix schedule. Many already have.
And if the movie industry is concerned about declining movie-theater attendance, they've got a funny way of dealing with it. First, they saddle exhibitors with the cost of digital conversion, a move that mostly benefits studios. This then drives the ticket prices up in order to offset the cost of that conversion. Consumers are left holding the bill, and those who don't pay up are most likely staying home—or even pirating the movie, and we all know how much studios love that. For the sake of movie culture, I hope the gimmicks stop and moviegoers can go back to enjoying the entertainment they paid for without having to lose a week's worth of pay in the process.