The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Pay what you want – my dream of a different pricing model for movies

with 19 comments



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?

photo credit: BillRhodesPhoto via photopin cc

Written by Jessica

July 18, 2013 at 5:00 pm

19 Responses

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  1. This idea pulls at my very heartstrings.

    I would give anything to live in a world where films told people to “come as you are” and left the decision of how much should be charged until the film was over. It might entice moviemakers to try harder, instead of knowing that they already have our money the moment they unveil the poster with faces we recognize on it.

    Alternately, I would pay more for a better experience. If you told me that for an additional $5 you’d keep an usher in the theatre that would shush chatty patrons, and prevent people from texting, I’d be all over that too.

    Ah, to live in such a moviegoing paradise…

    Ryan McNeil

    July 18, 2013 at 9:38 pm

    • I’ve heard about some theatre where they’re doing that thing: bing strict about the code of conduct, taking measures against people who don’t comply with them. I’m not sure if you paid extra for this service, but from what I got of the interview with someone in the staff, this policy was very successful and they had become hugely popular. No wonder! I wish there was a theatre like that where I live.


      July 19, 2013 at 12:49 am

  2. I suppose you’d need to have a minimum price. Part of the issue is that your average patron doesn’t really have an idea of what movies really cost. And I know that for myself and most of my friends, our own negligible income would skew our idea of what a movie is worth. If everyone paid what a movie is worth, the economics would be determined by a lot more than simply our feelings about a film. I’d love it if it would work, but it really couldn’t.


    July 19, 2013 at 3:54 am

    • If I remember it, the restaurant that runs this has a “suggestion” to give their customers a hint about what a reasonable price could be. I suppose that could help people a little to get an idea about the costs. But yes, I’m afraid it wouldn’t work either. You’re an honest person, but if your income is low, it all ges very complicated. What is a very small contribution for one person could be a huge sacrifice for someone else..


      July 19, 2013 at 8:07 am

  3. Great idea, Jess! 🙂


    July 19, 2013 at 4:45 am

  4. An extremely interesting notion. The cost of movies vs opera should for example hinge on difference in audience numbers and the cost of maintaining an opera company. Something along the lines why etchings generally are cheaper than oil paintings?

    Being a pessimist to the core though, I fear that this system could mean that movies like Before Midnight would not be made at all while we would be swamped with bland and family oriented stuff. The many that pay less will always outweigh the few who might not be able to pay as much as they would like or need to.


    July 19, 2013 at 11:26 am

    • The price of art is a mystery, we can just as well admit it. There’s so many factors playing in. Status is one I suppose. The deomographic of the audience another. I imagine the people who attend opera performances aren’t all that sensitive to the costs. So they can charge you. (This said, as far as I understand the opera get a lot of public funding, so the “real” ticket price should be considerably higher).

      Swamped by family oriented stuff? Yeah, probably. Maybe. Kickstarter isn’t swamped with that kind of stuff now, but maybe that’s because they find financing elsewhere and because the mainstream audience isn’t all that aware of Kickstarter. A lot to think over here. I’m not done yet.


      July 19, 2013 at 12:53 pm

  5. It’s a wonderful idea and one that I remember Radiohead doing with their In Rainbows album – you could download the album for as much or as little as you liked.

    Unfortunately it would never happen. The studios would be too scared that their film wouldn’t make any money. I think even if people could pay what they wanted, the most profitable model is probably the current one. The risk is probably too great. I also think that there simply aren’t enough honest people out there. Many people would pay but a lot would also see it as a freebie. I’d love to see it tried though, even just as an experiment.

    Great piece Jessica!

    • They did? That’s wonderful. I wonder how it went. It’s a bit like being a performing artist in the streets I guess. You only get as much as your current audience thinks you deserve.

      I wonder if someone ever has tried it out in a theatre context. Perhaps in a very small scale, arthouse/indie type of thing? As you, I don’t think it’s realistic that will be a big scale thing. But it’s fun to think about.


      July 19, 2013 at 12:55 pm

  6. The one problem I would have with this concept is that if I saw something like, say, “Atonement”, I would come out of the theater and just start throwing wads of hundred dollar bills at everyone in sight screaming “It’s too good! Take my money! I’m not worthy!”


    July 20, 2013 at 2:30 am

    • Haha! Yeah, it might cut a deep hole in the wallet for true cinephiles.


      July 20, 2013 at 8:34 am

  7. In one limited sense I guess I used to do this a little back when I used to go to the cinema – if it was a film I really liked I used to go and see it multiple times.


    July 21, 2013 at 1:48 am

    • That’s a great option now! Help them get their numbers up – and enjoy the movie one more time while doing so!


      July 21, 2013 at 8:10 pm

  8. I bought the Radiohead album when they did “pay what you want” for $5. If not for the incentive of the novel pricing system, I probably wouldn’t have bought the album because I’m only a mild Radiohead fan. Of course since that digital download wasn’t in the cloud, I lost the whole album when my hard drive went. From what I heard, they did very well with that album, though part of that is probably the novel factor driving in people, which wouldn’t be sustainable with that as a fixed system.

    With the rise in popularity of monthly passes where you can see as many films as you want, it’d be neat to see them turn that into a “budget” sort of system where at the end of each month you could allocate how your $30 is broken down between the films or something.


    July 21, 2013 at 10:56 pm

    • That’s a wonderful idea! Not that I expect it to happen, but I like it. It’s like Flattr, but for movies.


      July 21, 2013 at 11:15 pm

  9. The idea is interesting but movies are a commodity which I don’t think people will be willing to pay a lot for. I think I’ve stated this before but I have an unlimited pass which allows me to see as many movies at the cinema as I want, so I’m not someone who will complain about pricing. I will pay 21 euros a month whether I see no movies at all or stay at the cinema for a whole week and watch every movie that is playing several times. So I don’t think I would want to pay different prices for the amount I enjoyed or disliked a film.


    July 22, 2013 at 2:53 pm

    • That’s a very interesting business model that unfortunately doesn’t exist in Sweden. I love the idea. It’s like a fitness center membership card.


      August 13, 2013 at 5:23 pm

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