Financial Resource Center


That's the Ticket: The Cost of Seeing a Movie

by Jennifer Garrett / September 27th, 2010

If there's anything more American than apple pie, it's the movies. The movie theater—with its bright lights, jumbo popcorn buckets, and silver screen—is an iconic symbol of our culture. It's also a $29.9 billion industry worldwide, with 1.4 billion tickets sold in the U.S. and Canada each year and more than two-thirds of the population attending movies. Viewing options range from the traditional to the cutting edge, and there are price points for penny pinchers and high rollers alike.

First-run films

The theater is still the only place to go for first-run mainstream movies. In 2009, the average ticket price was $7.50, up 4.4% from 2008, but prices vary widely by region. Once rare but increasingly common, and popular, 3-D versions of films command decidedly higher prices; in New York, some theaters charge nearly $20 for a first-run showing of a 3-D feature such as "How to Train Your Dragon." Despite the ticket price, the number of American 3-D screens doubled between 2008 and 2009. Cost: U.S. average ticket price $7.50; 3-D can cost considerably more.

Second-run theaters

Second-run or discount theaters used to be the place for budget-conscious film fans who wanted the theater experience but not the theater price. Now the shortened window between theatrical release and DVD release is eating into the market, so options can be limited. Watch out for Milk Duds, though, because discounts usually don't extend to concessions. Cost: Varies, but all shows at the Crest Cinema Center in Seattle, for example, are $3.

Art house/specialty theater

Art-house and other specialty theaters offer an upscale alternative to the multiplex. In Madison, Wis., Sundance Cinemas 608 screens independent, documentary, and foreign films in smaller theaters with reserved seating, bar service, and restaurant-caliber food. Of course, the special treatment comes with a special price: Base ticket prices for an evening showing are $9 with an amenity fee of up to $3 on weekends (less during the week and nonprime viewing) tacked on.
In 2009, the average ticket price for a first-run movie was $7.50, up 4.4% from 2008.
Cost: $6.75 to $12 for an adult ticket.

DVD rental stores

With 45% of the market, brick-and-mortar rental stores still are the most popular choice for accessing films for at-home viewing, according to NPD, a New York-based consumer research company. However, subscription services, kiosks, and on-demand services are eating into the market, and the effects are evident. Earlier this year, Movie Gallery, owner of Hollywood Video, filed for bankruptcy and announced that it would close all its stores. Even so, some still prefer browsing in person to browsing online, and it doesn't get any easier than popping in a DVD. Cost: Varies; expect about $1 to $5.

DVD rental kiosks

Born at McDonald's as another way to draw clientele, the $1 a night rental Redbox kiosk is gaining ground on the brick-and-mortar rental market. With more than 24,000 nationwide locations at select McDonald's, Walgreens, Walmarts, and leading grocery and convenience stores, Redbox is adding new kiosks at a rate of nearly one per hour. The company caters to clients seeking convenience—and value. The touch-screen kiosks take debit or credit cards and dispense new releases from a catalog of about 200 titles. You can rent at one kiosk and return at any other. You also can reserve a DVD online and have it held at your chosen location for 24 hours; iPhone users can download an app that helps them find the nearest location, browse titles, and reserve DVDs. There are no late fees—the tab just keeps running up at one-dollar increments until 25 days, at which point there's no need to return the DVD because you own it.
If you don't mind watching on your PC or Mac, you can view movies for free on Hulu.
Recognizing the growing popularity, Blockbuster is shedding some traditional stores and setting up kiosks to compete. Cost: $1 each movie a day.

Subscriptions and on-demand

Cable and satellite television companies have offered pay-per-view or other on-demand options to their customers for years. Other services—some paid and some free—that don't require contracts have entered the market by offering home DVD delivery, streaming, downloading, or some combination. There are many on-demand choices, but some require that you watch your rental within a certain timeframe or limit your ability to pause and restart.
  • Netflix set the standard for home DVD delivery. For a flat monthly fee, customers can have a set number of DVDs at home for as long as they like. Customers build and manage queues online. Delivery tends to be swift, and there seldom is a long wait for a title, even with new releases. Blockbuster and other companies have gotten into the game, but Netflix is still the industry leader. Now the movies-by-mail company is diving headlong into movies on demand by offering instant streaming of more than 20,000 titles directly to your Mac, PC, Blu-ray, Tivo, iPad, Xbox 360, PS3, or Wii. For $8.99 a month, customers get unlimited by-mail DVDs (one out at a time) from a library of more than 100,000 titles, plus unlimited streaming with no time limits on viewing.
    Some on-demand choices require that you watch your rental within a certain timeframe or limit your ability to pause and restart.
    Netflix offers scaled membership options that allow customers to have more DVDs out at a time—up to eight—with pricing topping out at $47.99 a month. For the especially budget-conscious, there also is a limited plan that includes one DVD but no streaming. "Chances are more likely than not that you have a device in your home that already streams instantly—you just might not be aware of it," says Steve Swasey, vice president of corporate communications at Netflix in Los Gatos, Calif. "You really don't need to go out and buy anything new in most instances." Cost: $8.99 to $47.99 a month.
  • If you don't mind watching on your PC or Mac, you can view movies for free on Hulu. Viewing is easy: You don't have to download any software. If you have Flash 10.0.22 and an Internet connection, you're good to go. All content is ad-supported, however, so prepare for ad breaks. Currently the company offers around 900 films. Title licenses are negotiated independently, so there are no set timeframes for availability of new features, but Hulu is aggressively adding content. Hulu also will offer Hulu Plus later this year, an optional paid subscription service that features increased content availability and streaming to the iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, and to certain Internet-enabled TVs, Blu-ray devices, and game consoles. Cost: Free, or $9.99 a month for Hulu Plus.
  • Just about everyone has an iTunes account, so most users already were registered and ready to go when Apple added movies to its library. You can rent or buy from your Mac, PC, iPhone, or iPod, and you can download anywhere via a Wi-Fi network. Then iTunes automatically syncs or transfers content from one device to the other when you connect your iPhone or iPod to your computer. Apple's intuitive design and functioning makes it easy for even the biggest technophobes.
    Public libraries' online reservation tools allow you to put titles on hold and then alert you when the title is in.
    Cost: Standard definition new release rentals for $3.99 and purchase for $14.99; some 99 cent standard definition rentals; HD rentals and purchases cost more.
  • Amazon has entered the market as well with Amazon Video On Demand, allowing viewers to watch instantly (without downloading) on a Mac, PC, or on select HDTVs. In some instances, a Blu-ray player, DVR, or separate set-top box is necessary. Prices for purchase and rental vary, but there are frequent specials and promotions. Cost: Devices available for less than $100; rentals as low as $2.99; special purchases less than $5.

Build your own library

Some movie fans buy DVDs with the intent of keeping the ones they like and selling the ones they don't on eBay, Craigslist, or other secondary markets. Cost: Varies; "Shutter Island" lists on Amazon for $17.99.


Some fans still like to purchase DVDs from retailers or movie stores for their in-home libraries. Cost: Varies, but new releases generally run from $14.99 to $29.99 depending on store specials and if you're buying Blu-ray or not. Older releases are far less expensive, usually around $4.99.


Public libraries rent DVDs, including new releases. Online reservation tools allow you to put titles on hold—even before they appear in the libraries—and then alert you when the title is in. You'll often wait weeks or even months for new releases, but other DVD titles take just days to receive. And it's free. Cost: Free unless you miss your due date, and then the fines rack up quickly at many libraries.
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