The summer blockbuster season is fully upon us. Audiences are buzzing about 2023’s two big and hotly anticipated releases–the fundamentally opposite experiences that are Oppenheimer and Barbie. With ticket buyers lining up to fill theater seats for both, we are reminded of that giddy and unparalleled experience of actually seeing a film in the cinema.
During the pandemic, when it seemed that we might never return to the theater, many of us embraced the streaming media and home theater experiences that our hibernation thrust upon us. And we got pretty comfortable with it.
Indeed, even as we have transitioned away from the closures and distancing of the pandemic, audiences have been slow to return to the theaters in their previous numbers. For many, the inherent costs of going out to see a movie have simply not been worth it, especially when we have access to so much media in our own homes.
But perhaps, for the first time in years, it feels like audiences really are ready to return to the theater for that big screen experience. And the summer blockbusters of the season could go a long way toward restoring our connection with the cinema–with the smell of churning popcorn, the excited chatter of families, friends and dates heading to their respective film experiences, the thrilling communal moment when the lights go down and the music crescendos.
Going to the Movies Can Be Expensive
Of course, we can wax sentimental all we want about how great going to the movies is, but we admit, it wasn’t just the pandemic that made it easy for audiences to retreat into their own select streaming media experiences. In reality, going to the movies can be just plain expensive. And at a time when even the cost of basic necessities has swelled to the point of straining many American household budgets, it’s easy to see why we might choose to bypass that costly sentimental cinematic experience in favor of the surround sound and microwave popcorn that we already have at home.
But as we’ve said before, it’s important to have some room in your budget for fun. Going out to the movies is a pretty worthwhile outlet for that fun. It makes an event out of watching, something far more engaging and participatory than falling asleep on the couch while “watching” a movie at home. This is true for young families seeking a low-key adventure, teenage couples seeking that classic high school date night, and comic book nerds (like me), who prefer explosive spectacles in the company of large groups.
So instead of staying home, the real focus should be on finding ways to make your theater experience more affordable. From the cost of your movie theater tickets to the concessions, from expensive add-ons for specific theater experiences to membership club perks–how can you get the best deal when you go out to the movies?
If you have difficulty putting aside a sufficient budget for the pursuit of fun, we recommend checking out our answer to the question, is it ok to have fun with your money? Spoiler alert: you should have some fun with your money, as long as you do it responsibly.
Part of doing it responsibility is seeking opportunities to save. But chances out, if you’re paying face value for your movie tickets, you’re not saving quite as much as you could be.
How Much Does It Actually Cost to Go to the Movies?
You always hear people complain about the cost of a movie ticket. It almost seems like the price is constantly rising. But is it?
Actually, yes. According to Statista, the average ticket price for a movie in the U.S. has gone up incrementally every single year since 2001. This explains why the average price for a single ticket today is more than twice that of a ticket 20 years prior. Whereas somebody might have paid an average of $5.66 per ticket to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone upon its 2001 release, those seeing the Top Gun: Maverick sequel in 2022 likely paid more than $11.75 per ticket, according to the New York Times.
And for what it’s worth, I couldn’t find a ticket for an adult without a senior discount for less than $14 in my vicinity. And naturally, most people go to the theater in groups. (No judgment whatsoever if you’re seeing Barbie solo. More power to you!) But using the average here above, and assuming a family of four wants to spend an evening at the movies, you’ve already spent $47 not including taxes and fees before you even hit the concession stand.
So no, you aren’t imagining it. Movies are absolutely more expensive than they were even just a few years ago. Naturally, that offers a pretty compelling argument for saving in every way you can. Here are a handful of options that we strongly recommend:
12 Ways to Save at the Movie Theater
We still think going to the movies is worth it. But it’s also true that many Americans are living on a tight budget these days. Read on for a few easy steps you can take to make going to the movies just a little more worth it!
1. Avoid the Enhanced Screen Experience
Sure, the 3-D experience can be cool, and the IMAX screen can be visually eye-popping. But there is rarely a situation in which you aren’t paying extra for those experiences. Some theaters will charge $4 to $6 more per ticket for the added visual indulgence.
We’re not saying it’s not worth it if you’re pursuing this enhanced experience. But it is a great deal cheaper to bypass the special screens in favor of a more traditional widescreen format. As long as your local theater offers fully up to date sound and projection systems throughout, your traditional screen experience should still be compelling.
So if saving on ticket prices is a top goal for you, actively seek out only screenings of your film in traditional theater settings.
2. Use Cash Back Credit Cards
One great way to double your savings is to take advantage of certain discounts while also using a credit card with a generous perks program to make your purchase. This means you’ll enjoy both the promotional price break and an additional credit, depending on the nature of your credit card offer.
Take a look at your credit card rewards programs. Some credit cards offer points or cash back rewards in affiliation with certain participating cinema groups. You may be able to receive rewards through your credit card offer in exchange for use at national theater chains like AMC, Regal or Cinemark.
Of course, it should go without saying that any purchases you make using a credit card should be treated responsibly. Always pay your monthly balance in full. Failing to do so could result in interest charges, which would very quickly eclipse any savings or rewards earned on your movie ticket purchase.
If your credit card doesn’t offer any rewards for going out to the movies, it may be worth looking for a card with a fun rewards program. Check out these unique credit card rewards programs.
3. Go Straight to the Box Office
You can’t beat the convenience of online ticket ordering, right? Perhaps not. But you can certainly beat the price. If you have the option, just go buy your tickets at the box office. In addition to getting that experience of a good old-fashioned ticket purchase, you’ll bypass the service fees that invariably come with an online transaction.
Do this part in person and shave a few dollars off the price of your ticket. And as long as you’re actually speaking to a real human being, be sure to ask about any rewards programs, promotions, or special offers that might not be widely advertised.
4. Go To the Movies When It’s Still Light Out
If you really want to make an adventure out of going to the movies with your family, you may want to think about playing hooky from work and school so you can go during off-peak hours. Traditionally, the most expensive time you can go to the movies is at night, especially on Friday and Saturday nights.
But those are the best times to go to the movies, you say? Well, sure. But it’s actually really awesome to go to the movies in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon. There are no lines at the concession stand and you’ve got practically the whole theater to yourself.
And here’s the best part–off-peak hour tickets–they used to call them matinees back in the day–may cost as much as 30% less than peak hour tickets. And tickets may be discounted further still if those off-peak hours are during the weekdays.
5. Look For Discount Days
Not only is it cheaper to go off-peak, but many of the largest movie theater chains actually have designated days when tickets and concessions are heavily discounted, especially for those who sign up for their membership club perks.
As it happens, Tuesday is actually a fairly popular day among the larger theater chains. According to Penny Hoarder, “America’s three largest movie theater chains all have the same discount day — Tuesday. You also have to join their customer loyalty club to get the Tuesday discount, but that’s usually free.”
AMC, which is the nation’s largest theater chain at nearly 10,000 locations, offers Discount Tuesdays, where members of the AMC Stubs loyalty club enjoy cheaper ticket prices. Also on Tuesday, Regal offers Regal Value Days where Regal Crown Club members get tickets for as little as $5 to $6 as well as half-priced popcorn. And Cinemark’s Discount Tuesday’s provide Cinemark Movie Rewards members with reduced ticket prices which vary by location.
6. Join Rewards Clubs
Note the recurrent theme in the section above. Those who enjoy access to the best discounts and promotional offers will invariably be those who join the various rewards clubs affiliated with their local movie theaters.
The cool thing is that most of these rewards clubs are free to join. You’ll receive various coupons, special pricing, and some rewards programs may allow you to accumulate points toward bigger discounts and rewards. This means that there’s really no drawback to joining a bunch of these clubs. This could give you the flexibility to choose where you’ll see your next movie based on the best promotional offers and discounts available at the right time slot.
Some membership clubs do include a premium membership option where you can pay for enhanced benefits that might include a monthly allowance for a free film, ongoing concession discounts, online service fee waivers, and more. If you are considering paying to join the premium membership level for a given rewards club, choose only one option and through the theater chain where you are likely to see most of your movies.
In other words, you might get more out of a modestly generous premium rewards club with the theater two minutes from your house than you would out of a very generous rewards club with a theater 30 minutes away. Only join at the premium level if you know that you’ll take advantage of its added benefits. In other words, this option is probably best for those who actually plan to go to the movies with some regularity.
7. Buy Through Your Preferred Wholesaler
Speaking of joining clubs, there’s one you may already be a member of which provides significant price cuts for movie goers. Those same big box wholesale stores that sell you canned goods and paper goods in bulk at price-per-unit discounts often do the same thing for movie tickets.
Visit the customer service counter or the online store for your big box store–whether you belong to Sam’s Club, BJ’s, or Costo. And here’s the thing–if you are a member of one of these wholesale clubs, you’re already paying an annual membership fee for access to these discounts. Therefore, it is incumbent upon you to take advantage of every savings opportunity available to justify that expense.
If you plan to go to the movies with any sort of regularity, look for the bulk discount option at your local wholesale club. And of course, be aware of any expiration dates and make sure you use your purchased tickets within the appropriate window of time.
8. Save on the Snacks
Let’s face it. Half of the expense of going to the movies is everything that you’ll spend on popcorn, candy, soda, etc. And while we admit that’s a big part of the fun, you could really save a bunch of money by filling up on food before you get to the movies.
Now just between us, movie theaters really don’t want you to stop at the store and buy your own candy bars and snacks for much cheaper, then smuggle them in in your coat pockets…so definitely don’t do that and definitely don’t tell them we said it was ok.
That said, you should think about filling up your own water bottle and bringing it in with you. Most theaters will at least allow this. That way, you can split the difference. Get the fun of buying popcorn and M&Ms at the concession stand while saving on that giant soda or bottled water.
Alternatively, you could just chow down on a big meal before you get to the theater and take away the temptation to spend on concessions altogether. If, on the other hand, you really can’t enjoy a movie without popcorn (which we totally get), make sure you take advantage of any discounts or promotions through your rewards club when ordering at the concession stand.
9. Get Your Eligible Discounts
Speaking of getting all eligible discounts, there are plenty that you could qualify for based on your age or demographic. For instance, if you are a senior, or a member of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), you may qualify for reduced senior rates both through your theater and courtesy of the Association.
AAA motor club members may also enjoy access to discounted movie tickets at participating theaters.
Other discounts may apply for students who can present a valid student ID as well as for military veterans and spouses. Make sure you’re aware of any special discounts when you go to buy your tickets. And of course, it never hurts to ask if you aren’t sure.
10. Check Out Second Run Theaters
If you’re just looking for that special feeling of going to the theater but you’re not necessarily hung up on seeing this week’s big blockbuster premier, you may consider a discount theater in your area. Some smaller independent theaters specialize in showing films that are no longer showing on most major screens but which still haven’t arrived in streaming formats.
This is also a popular outlet for many family friendly films that don’t necessarily receive a major national release in the bigger theater chains. The great news is that this experience can generally cost a whole lot less than the traditional theater experience. It’s also possible that the major chain theater in your area offers some of these same discount screenings during off-peak hours, or on smaller screens.
According to NEA, “Both independent theaters and large theater chains often offer deeply discounted (as low as $1 or less), showings of second-run G- or PG-rated movies. Some cinemas schedule screenings on early weekday mornings, while others hold once-per-week family nights. Check your local theater’s schedule for specific details.”
Granted, the recent setbacks faced by the theater business have impacted these smaller theaters most profoundly. Likewise, many studios now transition their films to in-home streaming formats much more rapidly than in the past. So there are not as many of these discount operations as there once were. But if you are fortunate to have one of these smaller theaters in your vicinity, your whole family could enjoy the night out for roughly the cost of what one ticket might cost you at the nearest multiplex.
11. Be a Film Critic
We’re not saying you should literally pursue a career as a film critic just for the free movies…although it does seem like a pretty cool gig. Assuming you already have a job, there is one pretty neat way to see movies in the theater entirely for free…and before everybody else.
There are a number of different programs that actually allow you to sign up for sneak previews of upcoming films. Studios are always looking for ways to market test audience reactions. Position yourself as a market tester and you could see all kinds of stuff for nothing.
According to Timeout, “Studios love to get an early reaction to their upcoming releases with special preview screenings. If you fancy seeing things first and for free – annoying your friends in the process – sign up with ShowFilmFirst or agencies like Stretch and elevenfiftyfive.”
As a bonus, if you’re the kind of person who loves sharing your opinions about movies, there are people who are getting paid to listen to you.
12. Look for Group Deals
Whether you’re a family of five, a couple on date night, or a Little League team celebrating a successful season, make sure you look for group rate discounts. Not every theater offers this option, but you can usually locate all kinds of group deals and promotions through third-party coupon sites.
For instance, says MoneyCrashers, sites like Groupon and LivingSocial are usually a good place to start. MoneyCrashers notes that “Since it’s difficult to snag cheap tickets for particular theaters, you can look for deals instead for ticketing websites, like Fandango. It’s usually a percentage off the ticket price, or a flat rate price for two tickets to a specific movie. It’s perfect when you’re lining up a date night with your partner; you’ll get a code to enter into the ticketing website when purchasing the tickets.”
MoneyCrashers does note that you will usually pay a convenience fee for access to this promotion. Bear this in mind as you look for deals. Make sure the math actually adds up to savings. Remember, you may be able to save just by buying tickets at the box office. Consider any applicable service fees before you determine the best way to seize your discount.
In fact, this is something that you’ll want to bear in mind with consideration to all of the tips highlighted here. You can combine a number of these strategies to truly minimize your expenses at the movies. The best combination for you will usually depend on your personal eligibility for certain discounts, the availability of promotions based on the theaters in your proximity, and your ability and willingness to be flexible about where you go, when you go, and what you see.
Of course, the most important thing is that these savings add up to a more enjoyable experience at the cinema.
Still not sure you can afford the night out? You may want to start with a closer look at where all your money is going. Jump to our article on how most Americans spend their money.