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Why movie tickets will be $3 across America this Saturday

See a movie for the price of a coffee on National Cinema Day and contemplate the future of theaters.

Rows of empty red-velour theater seats.
For one day only, you can go to the movies for $3. Will you go back?
Valerio Rosati/EyeEm via Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

“National Cinema Day” sounds like another made-up holiday designed for meme-posting, like National Twin Day or National Dog Day or National Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day. But this one comes with a bonus: On Saturday, September 3, in 3,000 movie theaters across America, you can get a movie ticket for just $3. And with it comes a window into what’s going on with movie theaters.

Three dollars is a considerable bargain; the average movie ticket price in America has been hovering around $9 for about five years, and if you live in a major metropolitan area, you can pay double that. That does mean moviegoing is still just about the cheapest option for a night out, especially if you don’t succumb to the fragrance of slightly burned popcorn. But $3 is better than $9.

The discount day was announced by the Cinema Foundation, which is the nonprofit arm of the National Association of Theater Owners, a trade organization for all the major theater chains in America plus hundreds of independent theater owners. More than 3,000 theaters (which means over 30,000 screens) will be participating in the $3 ticket deal, which includes chains like AMC and Regal as well as art house theaters, and the major movie studios have bought in as well.

The move is kind of a nice one; if nothing else, it’s a good incentive to take a risk on a film you wouldn’t see in a theater otherwise. And it could be a smart move for theaters, too. September 3 is the Saturday before Labor Day, which has long been a dismal weekend for box office revenue. (The beach beckons.) But it’s hot outside, and it’s a holiday, and the cheaper ticket could be a good enticement to build moviegoing into your Saturday plans.

National Cinema Day — which could become an annual thing akin to Black Friday, if it works out well — feels like a harbinger of … well, of something. I probably don’t need to tell you that the movie business is hurting, and theaters are getting the brunt of it. The reasons are abundant and overlapping: streaming, the pandemic, and the sometimes-abysmal experience some theaters provide.

Tom Cruise wearing pilot gear and standing beside a plane in the movie Top Gun Maverick.
Top Gun: Maverick is the No. 1 movie of the year so far — and audiences flocked to it in droves this summer.
Paramount Pictures

Yet Americans are not ready to give up on movie theaters. This summer, in fact, audiences in North America went back in droves, with ticket sales numbers of well over $3 billion. Top Gun: Maverick, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Jurassic World Dominion, Minions: The Rise of Gru, and Thor: Love and Thunder were the summer’s top five earners, and they represent five of the top six movies so far this year. (The sixth, The Batman, sits at No. 4 on the chart, but it was released in early March.)

Three billion and change in ticket sales is still 20 percent less than summer 2019. But there’s a good reason for it: There were about 30 percent fewer widely released movies to see. Widely released essentially means a blockbuster movie from a major studio, the kind of film that will play in every multiplex in America.

And you may have felt that lack. Thor: Love and Thunder was the last big franchise film to come out, and it opened on July 8. There have been splashy and popular hits since, like Jordan Peele’s Nope (currently No. 12 for the year), novel adaptation Where The Crawdads Sing (No. 18), and Brad Pitt starrer Bullet Train (No. 20), plus a bevy of smaller specialty movies like Emily the Criminal, Bodies Bodies Bodies, and Resurrection. Earlier summer movies like Elvis (No. 10) and The Black Phone (No. 16) have been hits as well.

But for those who gravitate toward tentpole movies with existing IP — and that’s a lot of people — this summer movie season felt like it ended right after the Fourth of July weekend.

In a pink and black tux, Elvis plays a guitar onstage.
Austin Butler in Elvis, which leaves the summer as the No. 10 movie of the year.
Warner Bros.

Why? Once again, there’s a confluence of factors at play. During the first two years of the pandemic, movie release dates kept getting pushed into the future, when studios hoped theaters would be open in major markets. They need revenue from ticket sales to earn back the budget on these films. (Straight-to-streaming is just not a sustainable business model for megabudget movies.) But that means other movies got pushed even further into the future, either for story reasons or just to give the film as wide a berth as possible. Similarly, the pandemic made making a movie a lot trickier, and the bigger the movie, the harder (and more expensive) it is to adjust. That just results in fewer movies.

The next big tentpole IP movie — that is, the ones that are virtually guaranteed to gross a ton of money right out of the gate — is Black Adam, the DC Comics movie starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, due out on October 21. And October 21 is a long way away.

August is traditionally a slow time for movies, so this is not completely unusual. But last summer, for instance, releases included The Suicide Squad (which went to theaters and HBO Max on the same day), Free Guy (which ended up at No. 10 on the year-end list), and Candyman (which landed at No. 20). 2020 was a wash, but August 2019 saw the release of Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, plus The Lion King and Spider-Man: Far From Home were only a few weeks into their super-successful releases.

All of this means people who take advantage of the $3 ticket offer will have a limited set of options. Since they haven’t been crowded out by other tentpoles, the summer’s hits are still lingering in theaters (Top Gun: Maverick is still in nearly 3,000 theaters nationwide). August’s specialty offerings are there, too, and a few new movies will open over the weekend, including Three Thousand Years of Longing (from Mad Max: Fury Road director George Miller) and Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul, starring Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown.

Overall, though, the discount day feels like part of a broader effort to bring people into theaters and convince them to make moviegoing a part of their lives again, even if their couch beckons. You can see it in various theater chains’ membership programs, like the Regal Unlimited Movie Pass, AMC Stubs, and the Alamo Season Pass. Some independent theaters have created similar programs, designed to create loyal customers while also providing a solid revenue stream to backstop individual ticket sales.

And there’s always MoviePass, that rogueish merry-go-round of a program that crashed and burned spectacularly in 2019 after almost a year of allowing subscribers to watch a nearly unlimited number of movies in theaters for about $10 a month. (Then it started scamming people.) It’s back, sort of, with a new business model (including “tiers” and “credits”) that might help it survive, after the company’s original co-founder Stacy Spikes regained ownership. But the jury is still out.

The next few months are crucial for telling what the future of theaters might be, and the $3 ticket experiment feels like a way to remind people that they do, actually, like going to the movies, and that it might be cool to do it again soon. Trailers for movies coming out this fall, traditionally a time for prestige and awards-driven movies, frequently trumpet an “in theaters only” release plan. Even Netflix, which usually only puts its movies in limited theaters for a week or two before releasing to the platform, seems to be testing the longer theatrical release waters with films like Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Bardo. And since it seems like HBO’s grand experiment — releasing blockbusters in theaters and on HBO Max on the same day — was a huge flop, smart executives could be rethinking their digital-first plans.

But you know what? I have no idea what’s about to happen. Nobody does, and anyone who says they do is probably trying to get investors on board for some new scheme. Movie theaters have struggled to prove their importance since the birth of TV, and every new technological innovation has presented an additional challenge. There’s a ton of value to seeing a movie in a theater, just like there’s value to going to a concert or a play, not least because it injects elements of community and attention into the experience that’s hard to match at home. But there are a lot of factors in the mix, and whether theaters survive is largely up to the people in the seats.