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Theaters Try $5 Surprise Screenings to Lure Budget-Conscious Movie Lovers Back to the Multiplex

The catch: The film is revealed only after you’re snug in your seat


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Movie mavens are jumping at the chance to pay just five bucks — less than half the average price of a movie ticket in the United States — to watch an early screening of a coming theatrical feature.

But would you buy a ticket if you had no clue what you were about to see?

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That’s the catch behind the new Screen Unseen and Monday Mystery Movies promotions from AMC Theatres and Regal Theatres (the North American movie chains with the most screens). Even after you’ve laid down your five-spot, you won’t know what you’ve bought until you’re in your seat and the title rolls.

  • AMC has secret screenings twice a month. The next we-can’t-tell-you-what-it-is movie is scheduled for Jan. 8 at 300 U.S. theaters. All that potential buyers know is they’ll be seeing a PG-13 flick with a run time of 2 hours, 18 minutes.
  • Regal’s next unidentified movie is scheduled for New Year’s Day at a reduced price of $1. Your clue: It will be an R-rated film with a run time of 117 minutes.
  • Cinemark, for now, has discontinued its own similar Secret Movie series.

Such mystery offerings happen only at designated times and dates, typically at the start of a weekday.

Why movie theaters are offering such big discounts

After the pandemic shutdowns, writers strike and actors work stoppage, theaters are looking for novel ways to woo cinephiles back to their auditoriums. It’s not easy.

Even people who love a night out at the movies are often content to cocoon at home. They not only save money on parking, snacks and tickets but also can watch streaming services on relatively inexpensive large-screen 4K televisions anchoring their home theaters.

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Moreover, some movies at the cinema are available simultaneously in your living room or will be on tap for home viewing soon. Recent releases Maestro and May December spent a month or less in theaters before moving to Netflix; Nicolas Cage’s The Retirement Plan went from big screen to Hulu in three months; and the controversial blockbuster Sound of Freedom lands Dec. 26 on Amazon’s Prime Video, about six months after its theatrical debut.

Some are included gratis if you have the streaming service’s subscription. But buying a film for $20 or $30 may be a budget win for some who have a house full of people, and renting is even cheaper.

Take a chance on the unknown

If $5 tickets are a temptation, keep expectations in check. You may enjoy the movie, but don’t count on a highly anticipated Hollywood blockbuster or a title with a lot of Oscar buzz. It may even be a snoozer whose backers are banking on word of mouth.

Folks who pay close attention to trailers and coming attractions may be able to sleuth out a title, especially because the run time and Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating are part of the promotion. But a movie’s genre and other details remain under wraps.

Both AMC’s and Regal’s December secret film was The Boys in the Boat, George Clooney’s movie about the real 1936 U.S. Olympic rowing team. It got middling reviews, though many compared it to Chariots of Fire and Variety’s headline called it “His Best Film in a While, a ’30s Rowing Saga That’s an Old-Fashioned Movie Daydream.”

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Keep in mind that taxes are extra, and you have to pay if you want popcorn, soft drinks and other treats from the concession counter.

9 other ways to save on movie tickets

1. Pay attention to promotions. Theaters typically knock a few dollars off the ticket price for filmgoers 60 and older. And don’t ignore preteen discounts if kids or grandkids are in tow.

Some movie houses, including Cinemark and Regal, include veterans in their military discounts. Keep your government-issued military ID with you and ask at the box office.

Specials may yield additional deals. Cinemark’s Senior Discount Days offer prices less than the chain’s standard senior discounts.

When the octogenarian comedy 80 for Brady was released in early 2023, theaters dropped opening weekend prices by 25 percent to 30 percent. The movie itself got middling reviews.

2. Go on Tuesdays. Early in a week is low season for all entertainment venues because much of their audience is working.

All the major chains give customers a break on Tuesdays. Discounts apply to ticket prices and sometimes food and drink. Exclusions may apply for 3D screenings or special events. Holidays and other dates may also be blacked out.

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3. Catch a matinee. Matinee prices are generally cheaper than evening showings for the simple reason that fewer folks can escape obligations during the day. At AMC, adults get 25 percent off a movie ticket before 4 p.m.

4. Buy at the box office. To guarantee a seat for a popular movie, you may want to purchase tickets in advance on the web or through an app, but you’ll spend an extra buck or two for the convenience. If you’re confident you’ll find plenty of decent seats, head to the cinema in person to buy tickets.

5. Be loyal. To take advantage of the biggest discounts or to accumulate points for later bonuses, you may have to join a theater’s rewards program, just as you do for a grocery store or restaurant chain.

Be wary of tiers that require you to pay for membership. But if you’re a die-hard moviegoer or want to see films several times a week during cold weather, the math may work out. Just be sure you can cancel a subscription when you want without penalties.

6. Choose lower tech. Save money by seeing the 2D version of a movie that’s also available in 3D or immersive IMAX high resolution.

7. Be selective. The most popular movies usually command the highest prices. But many of these flicks, think superhero blockbusters, often appeal more to the young. Grownup moviegoers can see arguably better and less expensive films without all the competition for a seat.

8. Skip opening weekend unless you get a special deal. If you can live without seeing a film ahead of your friends, it might turn up in lower-priced theaters. You may run the risk of missing out if it drops out of the multiplexes, but you’ll likely get a second chance to stream it at home.

9. Arrive early to sit where you want. AMC began testing a Sightline program in three pilot markets in 2023. Patrons paid more for premium seats in the center of the theater and got a modest discount for sitting in the dreaded first row.

Don’t worry: The program didn’t, um, sit well with customers. AMC said it saw “little or no incremental lift in front-row attendance” despite the discount and decided not to roll out the plan nationwide.

Instead, AMC is testing more spacious front-row seating areas where moviegoers can recline all the way back to watch at a desirable angle. Prices are the same wherever you rest your fanny.

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