Would You Pay $20 to See Shrek Forever After? (Relax. You Won't Have To.) (Yet.)

Shrek Forever After image

Personally, I would pay more than that not to. But according to the Wall Street Journal, moviegoing families in NYC will, at least at several IMAX theatres , have to pony up $20 for an adult ticket to Shrek Forever After, and everyone across the media has picked up the story. Are movie prices going too high, too fast? Will charging so much for blockbuster movies alienate consumers, driving them away from the box office?  Commenters say they’ll wait for Netflix (those are clearly commenters without a pack of tiny Shrek fans).

But here’s the interesting thing: either the WSJ, via the analyst it quoted (Richard Greenfield of BTIG LLC) got it wrong, or the movie theatres have already backed off. I tried hard to pay $20 for a Shrek Forever After ticket this morning, and I couldn’t find one that cost more than $17–which became $19 with a $2 “convenience fee.” I had the same results from calling the theatre (and I had to put up with being promised a “free” cruise). And (a little suprisingly) there’s a big difference between $19 and $20. (Correction: I tried harder and finally found one theatre with a $20 price tag–and $16.50 for kids. That’s a big difference. Still more shopping found a range of adult prices in Manhattan from $14.50 up.) Why are we so captivated by the myth (now reality, if you’re not willing to try a different theatre) of the $20 ticket price?

Analysts and media observers worry about the $20 “psychological barrier” with reason. Partly it’s what economists call a “rounding down” effect, which means that your brain focuses on the first digit in any given number, making $19 seem closer to ten bucks than to twenty. And partly it’s because movie admission has proven to be extremely price-sensitive. If people perceive a night at the movies as too pricey (even at $17 an adult and $13.50 for a child, the price we’d pay for one of those Manhattan showings at the box office instead of online, it would cost us $88 to take our family to see Shrek and his donkey friend in nausea-inducing IMAX 3-D), they’ll choose to do something else, and it’s more about perception than reality–once you’re standing at the box office, you’re not likely to walk away when asked to pay $1 more than you’d expected, but thinking “would I pay $20 to see that?” is a lot different than thinking of it as $10, or even $15. That $20 thought might stop you from getting in the car in the first place. If theatre owners think enough people would be willing to cross that $20 mark for Shrek–and if they were right–that would say something about the economy, and about the future of movies and film.

But even if you want to see Shrek Forever After tonight (that’s Friday, at 3, 5, or 7–presumably the primo showings, and the same goes for Saturday at 2:50), at the Manhattan AMC Loews Kips Bay 15 (the theatre named in every news story) you won’t have to, unless there’s some plot afoot to shake an extra $1 out of you at the door. Tickets are “still available!” according to the chirpy automated teller, for just $17, plus that pesky $2 fee, or $13.50 for the kids. (However, if your plans include the AMC Lincoln Square 13, it might be worth it to walk a few extra blocks). If it’s a psychological barrier that they’re worried about, movie-makers and theatre owners may have more to fear from the Wall Street Journal than from their actual prices in one theatre of many–today. But at $19 and counting, a real $20 ticket (for everyone) can’t be too far off.

(Post updated 5/21/10 at 10:58 to reflect a theatre with a $20 ticket price.)