A better world at 40% off
Last month I went to see “Brooklyn’s Finest” with my son and two friends. We arrived at the theater expecting to pay the customary $10.25 ticket price but were thrilled to discover that the venue was only charging $6 on Tuesday nights. The film, which deals with three morally defective cops in New York’s most self-involved borough, wasn’t especially good. But at the diner afterward, we all agreed that it was probably worth the $6 we had shelled out, particularly as that $4.25 price break was enough to cover coffee and pie for each of us. Pie a la mode, in fact.
The following week we went to see “Repo Men,” in which Jude Law and Forest Whitaker play charismatic low-lifes who repossess body parts from people who have fallen behind on their kidney-transplant payments. “Repo Men” was better than “Brooklyn’s Finest”; my son said he would have paid as much as $7.50 to see it. While not quite an outright steal at $6, “Repo Men” was definitely a bargain.
By this point, we had launched a bona fide Gentlemen’s Six-Dollar Tuesday-Night Cinema Club. Word spread of our outings, and the next week we were joined by Gene, the short-order cook at our local restaurant. The film was “Clash of the Titans,” a low-octane retelling of the saga of Perseus. Liam Neeson (Zeus) and Ralph Fiennes (Hades) seemed to be enjoying themselves, decked out like members of a Mt. Olympus-based ABBA tribute band, but the film was sabotaged by subpar monsters, crummy special effects and the male lead’s refusal to play ball. Gussied up in a burlap minidress, sporting both a studiously non-Herculean accent and a historically inappropriate crew cut, the Australian Sam Worthington (“Avatar,” “Terminator Salvation”) made a drab, unconvincing Perseus. The consensus was that at six bucks, we had overpaid for the film.
We were reimbursed on our very next outing when we took in the sardonic action film “The Losers.” It featured a quintet of freelance commandos betrayed by a mysterious villain whose treachery had cost 25 Bolivian tykes their lives. Buoyed by the antics of the sizzling Zoe Saldana (“Avatar,” “Star Trek”), “The Losers” was by far the best of the $6 films we had taken in. The consensus afterward was that the film was worth paying at least $7.75 to see.
This brings me to my point. Critics treated “The Losers” badly, reviewing it as a first-run film that people would be paying full price for. But reviewing it on these terms is like blasting Breyers ice cream for not being as good as Haagen-Dazs. Breyers isn’t as good as Haagen-Dazs, but nobody cares because Breyers doesn’t charge as much as its upscale rival. Similarly, “The Losers” isn’t worth as much as “Avatar” or “Star Trek.” But it’s definitely worth six bucks.
These cut-rate moviegoing experiences have changed the way I view the economy. Basically, everything in America is 40% overpriced. My 2009 Camry, which set me back $21,000, is a good car, but it isn’t worth $21,000. When you consider that I recently had to take it back to the shop because of that vexing acceleration problem, which has significantly slashed its resale value, I’d say that I probably paid $8,000 too much for it. That’s why I don’t have especially positive feelings for the car or the company. If, on the other hand, Toyota had priced that car the way the theater prices Tuesday night movies, charging me, say, 13 grand, I’d be out on the street telling everyone to buy its products, defects or not.
Another example: Bananas run 99 cents a pound at the store up the street. That’s 39 cents more than my optimal price point. If bananas were 60 cents a pound, I’d eat five pounds a week. Instead, I eat clementines, which I don’t even like. Similarly, if a share of Berkshire Hathaway went for $70,000 instead of $117,000, I’d call my broker and tell him to load up. But it doesn’t, so I don’t.
An even better example: It cost me $43,000 a year to send my son to a fancy college. He got a swell education at Franklin & Marshall, but I paid 40% too much to send him there. If my son’s education had been priced as competitively as “The Losers” and “Repo Men,” I’d be telling all my neighbors to send their kids to F&M. I tell people to ship their kids to Central Connecticut State or Oral Roberts instead.
Basically, everything in this society is way more expensive than it should be. That’s why we’re still in the doldrums. MRIs should run $875, not $1,500. Yankees tickets should run $180, not $300 apiece. And it should only cost $60,000 to buy a congressman’s vote, not $100,000.
Six-dollar movie nights have completely changed the way I interact with the world. I used to give the saxophonist in Central Park a buck when he rasped his way through “The Girl From Ipanema.” Now I’ve cut back to 62 cents. I used to pay $2.50 for a hot dog on Fifth Avenue. Now I tell the vendor that if $1.50 won’t cover it, he can take his hot dog and stick it where the sun don’t shine.
Last week I read an article in the newspaper about hot summer films. By my count, only two might be worth paying full price for: “Robin Hood” and “Iron Man 2.” Everything else looks like a $6 film. The new Tom Cruise-Cameron Diaz comedy? Six bucks. The big-screen version of “The A-Team”? Six bucks. Maybe.
In the end, I honestly believe that this is a six-buck society trying to pass itself off as the $10.25 model. Give people a 40% break on your product, and they’ll buy whatever it is you have to offer. Charge full price, and they’ll feel like the poor schmucks in “The Losers.”
Joe Queenan writes frequently for Barron’s, the New York Times Book Review and the Guardian. His most recent book is a memoir, “Closing Time.”