Pay what you want – my dream of a different pricing model for movies
Deep into a Swedish forest, in the middle of nowhere, hundreds of kilometres from anything of significance to mankind, there’s a restaurant with an business model that is, if not unique, at least unusual.
They don’t have any fixed price on the food they serve. You pay as much as you want to pay, what the food was worth to you. If you thought the meal was awful and gave you nothing, you can leave the restaurant without paying a dime and no one will make a fuss about it.
From everything I’ve heard, it’s rare that people try to take advantage. On the contrary, the restaurant is doing well. I don’t know if it’s because the cooking is that good. It could also be that it’s the only place where you can eat for a long stretch of road and long distance travellers who pass regularly might want to make sure they can stay in business.
I’ve been playing with the idea if you could do use the same model in a theatre. Imagine that you paid after watching a movie instead of before and that the price correlated to your experience. If you hated the film you wouldn’t pay anything. If it was your number one of the year you’d pay a lot, maybe even more than you would pay with the current system.
I imagine that this will remain a thought experiment. Perhaps you can find an example of someone who has tried it if you looked around. Somewhere in the world there might be a theatre equivalence to the restaurant in the woods, but I can’t see it becoming the new industry standard. Making a movie is a huge risk enterprise with many people involved in different parts of the production and distribution. Each one wants their share of the sales and it might seem too unreliable to trust the honesty and generosity of the movie-goers. In the crowd at a theatre, you’re more anonymous than you are at a restaurant. No one will notice your decision not to pay. There’s no social pressure. And in times like this, when piracy is socially accepted, even the norm, could you expect anyone to pay unless they have to?
Opera vs cinema
But even if it the idea never will leave the drawing board, I can’t get it out of my head. It tickles my mind.
For instance: how much would I be ready to pay for a movie that I genuinely loved?
My instincts tell me that I probably wouldn’t give it a great deal more than what I currently pay. Maybe I’d be ready to pay a few dollars more, but I probably wouldn’t go further than 30 dollars for a movie ticket, no matter what. Meanwhile I will happily pay 100 dollars for a good ticket to see an opera live, provided it’s a good seat. The more I think about this, the more arbitrary does it seem. What is the big difference? Sure, I know that there’s an impressive amount of people involved in an opera, but is that’s the case with movies too. Did you see the text credits for Iron Man 3? They went on and on, for at least ten minutes. Hundreds of names passed across the screen. Making a movie is no less an effort than putting up an opera.
An argument for why you should pay more at the opera is that it’s got a special quality that movies lack. They only happen once. Each performance will be a little bit different depending on the audience. This quality of experiencing something unique justifies the higher ticket price.
But again: is a movie theatre all that different in this regard? While the film that is screened night after night is the same (or should be, provided that the projectionist does his job properly), the reactions from the audience may vary. Watching a movie is a group experience and the way you perceive the film will be affected by the atmosphere in the room. A comedy can become funnier, a horror movie scarier, depending on who you watch it with. A night at the cinema can be as special as a night at the opera.
So in the end, why are we so unwilling to pay for it? Why do I rule it out that I could pay 100 dollar for watching a movie in a theatre? I don’t know. Maybe it’s just a habit. We’ve become used to that cinema is a comparatively cheap if you break it down to cost per minute of entertainment.
Winners and losers
I also wonder how a pay-what-you-want system would affect the box office. If they were free to choose, where would people put their money?
I’m no expert in box office numbers, but as far as I’ve understood it, there’s often a correlation between the size of the budget, the marketing of the film and how well it goes. Of course there are exceptions, movies that do better or worse than expected. But on the whole, movies with mega sized budgets also generate mega sized incomes.
However, it doesn’t say a whole lot about the sentiments of the audience. For all you know they may have hated the latest box office success. Perhaps it was just the marketing campaign that was well made, luring people to buy tickets, which they regretted on watching the movie.
So if you let the pricing free, who would be the winner? Would blockbuster movies featuring well known names, loud special effects and a lot of CGI keep doing well? Or could it be a chance for independent movies with small budgets but high artistic ambitions to shine?
I want to think that the audience is smarter than they usually get credit for and if they could use their consumer power to get better movies, they would.
Imagine that you after watching Before Midnight could give a sum that truly reflected your feelings about it, also knowing that it would increase the chances for a fourth movie to be made.
And equally, after watching After Earth, you wouldn’t have to regret that you have helped boosting their numbers at the box office, that you’re a part of their “success”. You could just shut your wallet, holding it tightly, letting it speak for you. “Sorry, but this movie was unacceptably bad. You won’t get anything from me. Make a better one next time”.
It’s just a dream, but wouldn’t it be great if you could?