good documentaries streaming on netflix (part 2)

I’m much less busy than I have been in recent months, so I want to get back in the habit of blogging regularly. I’ve been researching some new topics to blog about, but for now I’ll take the unoriginal approach of doing a new version of one of my older posts. A while ago, I wrote about five good documentaries that you can stream on Netflix. Since then, I have seen four more documentaries on Netflix that I would describe as “good.” I could inflate the goodness of another pretty good documentary, say Mitt, to make my list have a solid five films, but the only reason to do that would be because we use a base ten counting system and five is half of ten. Besides, I’m considering doing a post comparing Mitt to the superior 1993 film The War Room, which followed Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign (unfortunately, The War Room is unstreamable). Anyway, without further ado, here is my list:

the house I live in

Photo from BBC News.

I first learned about this film from an episode of This American Life (one of my favorite podcasts). The episode discussed how the director, Eugene Jarecki, had been showing the film, which is about the war on drugs and the criminal justice system, in prisons around the country. Both prisoners and staff members would watch the movie, and the folks at This American Life decided to use the film as a catalyst for a discussion between prisoners and guards. The film depicts stories from individuals affected by the drug war and how it has devastated poor communities. The film’s website says, “Over forty years, the War on Drugs has accounted for more than 45 million arrests, made America the world’s largest jailer, and damaged poor communities at home and abroad. Yet for all that, drugs are cheaper, purer, and more available today than ever before.” My favorite line in the movie is when David Simon, a former journalist and creator of HBO’s The Wire, explains, “It’d be one thing if it was draconian and it worked; it’s draconian and it doesn’t work…” Some of the most eye-opening parts of the film are when it explains how the history anti-drug laws has had a lot to do with race, the absurdly large difference between the minimum sentences for crack and powder cocaine, and the financial incentives for cops and police departments to put most of their efforts into drug offences.

Overall, The House I Live In is fantastic and I strongly encourage you to see it. You can click here to view the trailer.

dirty wars

Dirty Wars is an Oscar-nominated documentary that has won numerous awards. Even comedian Louis C.K. tweeted that all Americans should see it. The film is based on a book by investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill, who previously authored a best-selling book on the private military group Blackwater. The film follows Scahill as he embarks on a journey that takes him to countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen. He starts by examining a NATO and US military cover-up of the deaths of five Afghan civilians with no terrorist connections, leading him to learn about the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a highly covert military unit and the only one that reports directly to the White House. JSOC conducts night raids in Afghanistan, some of which are successful, while others result in the deaths of innocent people. Scahill discovers that in a three month period, about 1,700 night raids occurred. Later in the movie, Scahill explores the ideological transformation of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric who was originally against terrorism but then became a radical who called for violence against Americans. Both al-Awlaki and his son were subjects of targeted killings by the US. His son may have been killed for no reason other than because he had the potential to follow in his father’s footsteps, which Scahill calls, “A twisted logic; a logic without end.” Dirty Wars is a powerful film that makes the viewer question if America’s actions in the Middle East are doing more harm than good.

Not only is Dirty Wars an extremely important film, it lacks any dull moments and is sure to keep you on the edge of your seat as Scahill uncovers secrets of American covert operations. Click here to view the film’s trailer or here to watch the first few minutes of it.

we steal secrets: the story of wikileaks

WikiLeaks’ Logo

This is a good film for anyone wanting to learn about WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange. Prior to viewing the documentary, I knew little about Assange, WikiLeaks, or Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning), a soldier who leaked documents to the website. Director Alex Gibney chronicles the rise of WikiLeaks and how it published revealing documents on subjects ranging from an Icelandic banking collapse to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What amazed me the most about WikiLeaks was how small of an organization it is. In an interview, WikiLeaks supporter Gavin MacFadyen described it as “a corner gas station with some extremely bright attendants.” Journalist Mark Davis said, “I see this story entirely as one man against the world. One man against the world.” He also stated, “It was Julian Assange, his $300 laptop, ten SIM cards and a very, you know, cheap jacket that he’d put on to get through the interview.”

The film received much criticism from WikiLeaks, which made an annotated version of the script, aiming to correct inaccuracies. However, the annotated script WikiLeaks originally published the day before the film’s release did not contain crucial on-screen internet conversations between Chelsea Manning and hacker Adrian Lamo, probably because WikiLeaks may have been using an audio recording instead of the actual screenplay. Gibney made his own annotations in response to the WikiLeaks annotations. While I did not read every annotation, the ones I reviewed seemed to generally show that many of the facts presented in the film which WikiLeaks perceived as inaccurate were not, in fact, inaccuracies. In my opinion, Assange was portrayed favorably, at least until the section of the film that deals with the sexual abuse allegations against him. I thought Manning was portrayed in an extremely positive light. Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir writes,

Many people in Assange’s orbit appear to have convinced themselves that Gibney is in favor of prosecuting Manning and Assange, overtly or covertly supports the mainstream media campaign to demonize WikiLeaks and is a defender of government spying and secret-keeping. That either means that they haven’t listened to anything Gibney actually says or that they think he’s lying. While the film has received overwhelmingly positive reviews, it has only 4.3 stars out of 10 from IMDB users, a highly unusual split that may reflect an organized campaign by Assange supporters (whether or not they’ve actually seen the film).

Discussing WikiLeaks’ criticism of the film, Gibney said, “Instead of saying, ‘Go see this film and then read my commentary,’ it was, ‘Don’t see this film.’ Not exactly the transparency agenda.”

Click here to see the trailer.

the revisionaries

Abraham Lincoln once said, “The philosophy of the classroom in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.”

The Revisionaries is a film about how some Religious Right members of the Texas school board, led by former chairman Don McLeroy, have attempted to bring intelligent design into science textbooks and alter history textbooks to express their own political beliefs. For example, they tried to remove the idea that the constitution supports the separation of church and state from history textbooks. The standards the Texas school board sets affect the entire nation, because as the film’s website explains,

Texas is one of the nation’s largest textbook markets because it is one of the few where the state decides what books schools can buy rather than leaving it up to local districts, which means publishers that get their books approved can count on millions of dollars in sales. Further, publishers craft their standard textbooks based on the requirements of the biggest buyers. As a result, the Texas board has the power to shape the textbooks that children around the country read for years to come. Varying estimates claim that between 45% and 85% of American classrooms use Texas state textbooks.

The film follows the conflict between board members and different groups trying to influence their decisions. It also tracks McLeroy’s reelection campaign.

Click here to view the trailer, which gives a very good idea of what the film is like.

how do bad movies get good blurbs for advertisements?

Ever wondered how so many movies, including terrible ones, are able to get exceptional blurbs from critics in advertisements? Well, in many cases movie studios will actually take critics out of context to get great blurbs out of negative reviews. The Slate Magazine article “‘[Best] Film Ever!!!'” provides comprehensive information on how movie blurbs work. The article describes the rules, or perhaps lack of rules, for quoting critics in advertisements:

There’s no official check on running a misleading movie blurb, aside from the usual laws against false advertising. Studios do have to submit advertising materials like newspaper ads and trailers to the Motion Picture Association of America for approval. But the MPAA reviews the ads for their tone and content, not for the accuracy of their citations. When a new movie comes out, the studio’s marketing department scans the reviews, picks the most positive quotes, and figures out how to represent them in advertisements. Publicity teams don’t necessarily try to make blurbs line up perfectly with the original reviews. They do, however, generally avoid wild inaccuracies, so that the reviewer doesn’t throw a fit or file a lawsuit.

Although publicity teams generally avoid wild inaccuracies, there are still plenty of examples where critics have been blatantly taken out of context, or worse. Sometimes, these blurbs are changed, such as when a critic complained after he/she was quoted as calling the movie Se7en “a masterpiece,” when the original quote called the introductory credits “a small masterpiece of dementia.” Vanity Fair‘s Mike Ryan was quoted by ABC as having said that that the series Lost was “the most addictively awesome television show of all time.” He really said it was “the most confusing, asinine, ridiculous—yet somehow addictively awesome—television show of all time.” Roger Ebert said that he once wrote a negative review of a movie based on a novel he had enjoyed and the studio used positive adjectives he used to describe the novel to promote the movie without his approval. Fortunately, the studio stopped using the quote after Ebert complained. Gelf Magazine has a section called “The Blurbs,” which exposes blurbs from New York Times ads that take critics out of context. The following examples of quotes taken out of context are from the Gelf Magazine articles listing the “Best Worst Blurbs,” for 2007 and 2008.

  • Jack Matthews of the New York Daily News was quoted as having said that Live Free or Die Hard was, “hysterically…entertaining.” He actually said, “The action in this fast-paced, hysterically overproduced and surprisingly entertaining film is as realistic as a Road Runner cartoon.”
  • Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune was quoted for an ad for the movie Norbit as having said that “Eddie Murphy’s comic skills are immense.” He actually said, “Murphy’s comic skills are immense, and ‘Dreamgirls’ shows he’s a fine straight dramatic actor too. So why does he want to make these huge, belching spectaculars, movies as swollen, monstrous and full of hot air as Rasputia herself—here misdirected by Brian Robbins of ‘Good Burger,’ ‘Varsity Blues’ and that lousy ‘Shaggy Dog’ remake?”
  • An ad for Year of the Dog claimed that it was one of the year’s best reviewed films. According to Gelf, thirty-two movies were in theaters at the time that had a higher rating on Metacritic, a movie review aggregate website.
  • In an ad for Funny Games, Ty Burr of the Boston Globe was quoted as having said, “Fasten your seatbelts—This director doesn’t play nice, fair or easy.” However, Burr said this quote after watching a preview for the film months prior to actually seeing it. He later called the entire film, “infuriating and moot.”
  • In an ad for Leatherheads, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone was quoted as saying, “Clooney throws us a rowdy party of a movie.” He actually said, “Clooney throws us a rowdy party of a movie. Or does he? Leatherheads could be subtitled We Only Kill the Things We Love.”

When studios can’t find any good quotes from well-known or noteworthy critics, they often will turn to local stations or newspapers and inflate their credentials. For example, according to the Washington Post, ads for The Nanny Diaries used critic Milan Paurich of WKBN-TV in Youngstown, Ohio. However, he was described as working for “CBS TV” because that is the network WKBN-TV is affiliated with. The label “CBS TV” implies that Paurich is an important critic for a major network when there are actually over 200 stations that CBS is associated with, many of which having movie reviewers. The aforementioned Washington Post article explains:

Film critic Erik Childress, who has examined how movie studios use blurbs for the Web site Ecritic.com, says movie companies regularly turn to lesser-known and out-of-the-way critics when more prominent reviewers have panned a film. He calls the practice lazy as well as foolish. “When you see some name you’ve never heard of [in a movie ad], it’s fun to do some research,” he says. “You find out that the guy praising ‘Rush Hour 3’ is really some local station’s former weatherman or daytime talk-show host.”

The article gives the examples of Lisa Stanley and Jim Svejda, who are both claimed to be “CBS Radio” critics in ads. Both Stanley and Svejda are actually associated with local radio stations in Los Angeles; Stanley works the morning shift at KRTH-FM and Svejda is a part-time critic at KNX-AM.

Another tactic studios use to get good blurbs for bad films is using critics that like almost everything and constantly exaggerate how impressive movies are. While researching these kinds of critics, one name kept appearing–Earl Dittman.

In Schlock Value: Hollywood at It’s Worst, critic Richard Roeper, the former co-host alongside Roger Ebert of At the Movies, writes about this infamous critic:

One thing that we can agree on: Earl Dittman loves movies. Big movies, small movies, action movies, comedy movies, action/comedy movies, sequels, prequels, trilogies, buddy movies, dramas, romances—if the picture is in focus and the sound is working, you’ve got a fighting chance of getting an ‘attaboy!’ from the Dittman quote machine. The media are fascinated with Dittman. He’s been the subject of a 20/20 segment on ABC and articles in USA Today and the Toronto Star, and online journalists have skewered him in several in-depth pieces. Dittman was even one of the ‘critics’ named (along with Maria Salas, Jeff Craig and Mark Allen, among others) in a 2001 class-action suit filed by a group called Citizens for Truth in Movie Advertising. They alleged that quote whoring duped them into seeing bad movies and that the studios were essentially purchasing positive reviews by paying all expenses for reporters who come to Los Angeles to screen films and interview the stars…Dittman’s more famous than 99 percent of the legitimate critics in the country—not just because he likes so many movies, but because he likes so many movies that just about everybody else despises.

So, just who is this Dittman guy anyway? He works for Wireless Magazines, which includes five publications. In a CNN article, Dittman claimed that Wireless distributes publications in 183 markets that do not include New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles.

Variety magazine’s Timothy M. Gray has been listing the best movie blurbs of the year since the 90s. Dittman is a staple of these articles (Click here, here, and here to view some of the Variety articles featuring Dittman.). Dittman’s quotes from the Variety articles are as follows, with the reviewed films’ Rotten Tomatoes ratings added:

The Legend of Bagger Vance — “As perfect as any film could get.” (2000) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 43%.

Almost Famous — “The best film of the year.” (2000) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 88%.

What Women Want — “The most entertaining and delightful film we’ve seen all year.” (2000) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 54%.

Into the Blue — “It will leave you breathless.” (2005) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 21%.

Derailed — “It will leave you breathless!” (2005) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 20%.

Guess Who — “An extraordinarily funny, laugh-a-minute, side-splitting comedy!” (2005) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 43%.

King’s Ransom — “A gut-busting and side-splitting comedy!” (2005) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 2%. That’s right, only 2%. Only one out of 50 critics counted on the Rotten Tomatoes rating liked the film, yet Dittman apparently loved it.

Lucky Number Slevin — “The year’s best thriller!” (April 7, 2006) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 51%.

RV — “The best family film of the year.” (April 28, 2006) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 23%.

From calling a badly reviewed film “as perfect as any film could get” and then calling another film “the best film of the year” to overusing the words “breathless” and “side-splitting” to naming the best films of the year in April, Earl Dittman’s film criticism is so terrible it’s hilarious.

Roger Ebert once wrote an article on his website called “Movie Quote Whores of 2005” (Yes, Roger Ebert was apparently a user of the term “quote whore.”) In the article, he quotes a list of quotes Dittman supplied to the studio to use to promote the film Robots, which currently holds a 64% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Dittman’s quotes were leaked to Criticwatch by an editor for the Robots trailer. The following is just one of the ten quotes that Dittman supplied:

Wow! ‘Robots’ is absolutely magnificent … Although there’s still nine months to go in 2005, ‘Robots’ is such a spectacular animated film that it already deserves the Number One spot on every critic’s year-end Top Ten list … if ‘Robots’ is any indication of the caliber of animated motion pictures we can expect from Hollywood from this day forward, audiences are in for the best movie-going years of their lives … Count ‘Robots’ as one of the funniest and brilliantly conceived computer-generated animated films of the new millennium.

Dittman is hardly the only critic that consistently loves poorly-reviewed films and writes grand overstatements praising them. Another such critic is Shawn Edwards of WDAF-TV in Kansas City, although he is cited as being from Fox TV, the affiliated network, in ads.

Edwards is heavily featured in Variety‘s best blurbs of the year for 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007. Here are his quotes:

Barbershop 2 — “The best comedy of the year!” (Feb. 6, 2004) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 68%.

White Chicks — “The funniest comedy of the year.” (July 9, 2004) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 15%.

Little Black Book — “The best romantic comedy of the year!” (Aug. 1, 2004) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 21%.

The Chronicles of Riddick — “One of the best sci-fi films ever! Extraordinary! A true classic that’s not to be missed! Vin Diesel is ecstatically superb.” (June 11, 2004) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 29%.

Hitch — “’Hitch’ is the comedy of the year.” (Feb. 6, 2005) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 69%.

Be Cool — “The coolest movie of the year!” (March 3, 2005) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 30%.

Batman Begins — “It’s the film of the year!” (2005) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 85%.

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants — “The most charming and wonderful movie you’ll see all year.” (2005) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 77%.

Waiting… — “The craziest comedy of the year!” (2005) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 31%.

The Skeleton Key — “The best thriller of the year.” (2005) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 37%.

Get Rich or Die Tryin’ — “The most powerful movie of the year!” (2005) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 16%.

Nacho Libre — “You won’t see a funnier movie all year!” (June 16, 2006) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 40%.

Little Man — “The wildest, funniest and most hilarious movie of the year!” (July 9, 2006) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 12%.

No Reservations — “The most delightful movie of the year!” (July 22, 2007) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 41%.

Resident Evil: Extinction — “The most exciting movie of the year!” (Sept. 28, 2007) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 22%.

Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium — “The most magical movie of the year!” (Nov. 11, 2007) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 37%.

I Am Legend — “The best movie of the year!” (Dec. 15, 2007) Rotten Tomatoes rating: 70%.

As you can see, Edwards contradicts himself many times such as when he is names multiple movies as the best comedies of the year. He also likes to name the best films of the year as early as the beginning of February. What motive would he have for giving exaggerated praise to so many movies? According to Gelf Magazine, Edwards told the Kansas City Star, “The quotes you read of mine, alongside Roger Ebert and all the top-notch critics, has totally helped my career as a film critic and my credibility.”

I think it’s sad that many legitimate critics probably aren’t able to get quoted in ads and gain more exposure because people like Dittman and Edwards, who were quoted 36 times each in 2005, give ridiculously positive quotes for movies all the time.

other questionable movie marketing practices

Besides taking critics out of context or using quotes from “critics” who seem to think every film is the best of the year, movie studios use other dubious tactics to promote films.

Sony Pictures once had to offer a $5 refund to all Americans who saw certain films that had been advertised using quotes from film critic David Manning, who was completely made up. This blunder cost Sony $1.5 million and they suspended two employees. In addition, Sony later admitted to posing two employees in their marketing department as fans in a testimonial ad for The Patriot. The company isn’t exactly a stranger to sketchy advertising techniques; in my blog post on astroturfing, I wrote about how Sony used actors disguised as tourists to advertise a new phone and made an inauthentic fan blog to promote the Play Station Portable. Sony isn’t the only studio that engages in dishonest advertising, though. According to a Los Angeles Times article, in 2002, multiple movie sites traced the IP addresses of people making posts on message boards promoting certain films to studios like Universal and Paramount.

the two best movie reviews of all time

Variety‘s 2008 article on the year’s best movie ad quotes provides the two funniest quotes about movies I have ever read. They don’t really give examples of specific problems about blurbs in advertisements that I wrote about in this blog post, but they’re hilarious.

Richard Roeper on Forgetting Sarah Marshall: “One of the funniest movies of the decade. I want to get down on my knees and declare my undying love for this movie … An instant classic. I laughed out loud 20 times… I don’t think I can oversell this, I loved it. One of the funniest damn movies I’ve ever seen.”

Peter Travers said that Pineapple Express was, “like if ‘Superbad’ met ‘Midnight Run’ and they had a baby, and then ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘True Romance’ met ‘Freaks and Geeks’ and ‘Undeclared’ and they had a baby, and by some miracle those babies met — this would be the funny movie they birthed.”

movieconomics: should movie theaters change their pricing system?

Have you ever wondered how movie theaters make money? Sure, they make it off ticket sales, but how do they split the profits with the movie studio? And why do all movie tickets cost the same, regardless of the quality of the movie or the time of the year? These questions led me to do some research and make a blog post on movie theater economics. My findings were more complicated than expected, but I have tried to simplify the facts by writing a paragraph or two about many of the possible questions one could have about how movie theaters make money and what they could do to make even more.

how do theaters and studios split profits?

This question is more complicated than it seems, since the method of splitting profits depends on the movie and theater. In At the Movies: The Economics of Exhibition Contracts, Filson, Switzer, and Besocke write (emphasis added):

While some contracts are “aggregate” deals, in which each side’s percentage share remains fixed throughout the run, most are ‘sliding scale’ deals. In a sliding scale deal, each week, the distributor gets the maximum of two possible payments: 1) 90% of the movie’s weekly ticket revenue over the ‘house nut,’ which is a flat payment to the exhibitor; 2) a ‘floor payment,’ some percentage of the weekly ticket revenue that typically declines according to a ‘sliding scale’ as the weeks go by – perhaps 70% in the first week, 60% by the third week, and as low as 30% at the end of the run. If the parties anticipate that revenue might peak in the second or later weeks (which can occur when the movie opens before a holiday weekend, for example) the contract includes a ‘best weeks’ clause that ensures that the high floor payments are associated with the high demand weeks.

The difference in profit splitting between different theaters and movies is demonstrated by a study of a theater chain in St. Louis, Missouri from the same article:

The sharing rules vary substantially by movie and theater. For example, in sliding scale deals the exhibitor’s share ranges from 23-70% in week 1, 30-70% in week 4, and 40-70% in week 8. Run lengths depend on performance and vary from 1 to 28 weeks in our data; the average run length is 5 weeks.

According to Forbes, theaters on average keep 45-55% of ticket sales throughout an entire theatrical run.

are concession profits split?

No, the theater takes all of it. Theaters make lots of money at concession stands; around half of their profits. According to Time, around 85 cents of every dollar spent at concession stands is profit for the theater. People often complain about the ridiculous price of items like soft drinks, but high concession prices keep ticket prices lower. The Stanford Graduate School of Business article “Why Does Movie Popcorn Cost So Much?” (the full article is actually worth reading if you’re interested in learning more on the subject) explains (emphasis added):

By charging high prices on concessions, exhibition houses are able to keep ticket prices lower, which allows more people to enjoy the silver-screen experience. The findings empirically answer the age-old question of whether it’s better to charge more for a primary product (in this case, the movie ticket) or a secondary product (the popcorn). Putting the premium on the ‘frill’ items, it turns out, indeed opens up the possibility for price-sensitive people to see films. That means more customers coming to theaters in general, and a nice profit from those who are willing to fork it over for the Gummy Bears.

why don’t theaters just lower ticket prices so they can sell more concessions?

Since theaters get all the money from concessions, but have to share profits from ticket sales, they have an incentive to lower ticket prices so more people will go to the theater and buy concessions. The previously mentioned article At the Movies: The Economics of Exhibition Contracts, discusses this issue:

The exhibitor gains from adjusting p only if the adjustment occurs after the contract is signed. If the exhibitor adjusts p before the contract is signed then the distributor will simply argue to change the sharing rule to ensure that the exhibitor still gets its reservation utility. Given that exhibitors include their proposed p in their initial bid, a subsequent adjustment would violate an implicit contract. Such behavior could cause the distributor (and perhaps others as well) to punish the exhibitor in the future. This encourages exhibitors to keep p up (15).

The letter p represents the price of the ticket.

why do tickets cost the same for all movies?

There is good reason to believe that theaters are making a mistake by charging equal prices for all movies. There is a detailed 22-page article on this subject called “Uniform Prices for Differentiated Goods: The Case for the Movie-Theater Industry,” which was published in the International Review of Law and Economics. I have provided a brief summary of the responses of the article’s authors, Orbach and Einav, to five main perceived problems with nonuniform ticket pricing.

1. Consumers would perceive theaters as being unfair if prices were not uniform.

This isn’t necessarily true. First, theaters started using uniform pricing in the early 70s, so because people used to deal with nonuniform pricing, it is not unrealistic to think that they would be willing to accept it again. Secondly, not all movies are the same and charging different prices for different products is not really unfair. Orbach and Einav explain (emphasis added):

Despite the difficulties that fairness perceptions may present, they cannot justify uniform admission prices. Uniform prices seem fair because of the system’s regularity, not because of any intrinsic justice. No sophisticated schemes and ploys are needed to change the present reference transaction; in fact, simple marketing mechanisms could do the trick. The starting point is the distinction between the movie and the show-time puzzles. All consumers are familiar with the concept of different prices for different products, although for some consumers charging different prices for products they consume at different points of time may appear unfair at first. Thus, charging premiums or giving discounts for unique categories of movies is unlikely to be perceived as unfair. For example, given the unique characteristics and highly publicized production budgets of event movies, charging premiums for such movies probably would not violate fairness perceptions. Indeed, past experience and international markets provide good reasons to believe that patrons would not perceive such a practice as unfair. It also seems unlikely that discounts for films whose demand is relatively elastic, such as documentaries, would be perceived as unfair (145-46).

2. Consumers would be less likely to go to movies with lower prices because they would believe that they are worse movies.

The Avengers is an example of an event movie.

Orbach and Einav believe that this argument is only valid for movies that are similar. If a theater charged more for an “event” movie, which is a movie whose arrival is a big deal and often has a huge budget or is a sequel to a popular film, consumers would probably not believe this action signifies that the other films are worse. Also, if prices were lowered on different types of movies, such as documentaries, demand may actually increase, and consumers would be able to tell that the lowered price does not mean the movie isn’t good (146).

3. Theaters would not be able to know which movies should be priced higher.

This film was so unpopular that the Lone Ranger probably wasn’t the only lone person at many showings.

Frankly, this just seems like a dumb argument. Sure, sometimes movies perform a lot worse than expected, like the Lone Ranger, but in general I’m pretty sure companies can tell that the sequel to The Avengers is going to make a lot more than, say, Ant-Man, which is an actual superhero film scheduled for a 2015 release. In fact, there is an entire website dedicated to predicting how well films will perform at the box office called the Hollywood Stock Exchange. HSX, which may be the subject of a future blog post, is a virtual stock exchange where players buy and sell fake stocks of movies and actors. Orbach and Einav’s response to the demand uncertainty criticism is as follows (emphasis added):

…empirical evidence shows that demand uncertainty is not as great as popularly argued and that the determinants of success in the industry are not totally random (see Section 2.2.1 and Moul, 2004). Producers may be unable to predict the demand for specific movies, but can identify with some level of confidence certain categories of movies with unique demand characteristics, such as event movies and documentaries. In fact, studios make significant investments in studying consumers’ preferences to improve their ability to forecast box-office revenues (Bakker, 2003). Empirical evidence suggests that production budgets, sequels, participation of stars and top directors, ratings, competition from other movies, and advertising are all significantly related to revenues and thus can be incorporated into pricing decisions  (147).

4. Nonuniform pricing could result in people taking advantage of the system by sneaking into higher priced movies.

The Atlantic article “Why Do All Movie Tickets Cost The Same” explains, “[Nonuniform pricing] would create a fascinating incentive for art-house studios to release smaller, cheaper films the same weekend as blockbusters, knowing that thousands of canny consumers might buy fake tickets to their show to sneak into the more expensive blockbuster.” However, Orbach and Einav essentially debunk the claim that this problem is serious enough to justify uniform pricing (emphasis added):

In practice, exhibitors already employ mechanisms that could mitigate much of the arbitrage opportunities. Today, some screens are sold out while others are not, and, therefore, exhibitors must monitor the patrons entering sold-out movies. Otherwise, patrons who could not purchase a ticket to a sold-out movie could use a ticket to another movie. Similarly, exhibitors must prevent moviegoers who buy matinee tickets from watching evening shows and, at the multiplex, they must prevent moviegoers from watching two movies in a row for the price of one movie. One indication of the possibility to administer variable pricing with reasonable monitoring costs is the prevalence of price discrimination across seats in some countries (Cheung, 1977) and at some theaters in the United States, as well as the prevalence of reserved seating in many international markets. Put simply, the arbitrage opportunities under a variable-pricing regime are similar to those that already exist today and, therefore, cannot explain a firm uniform pricing regime (148).

5. Theaters could take advantage of nonuniform pricing and the studios would make less money.

I’ve already addressed the idea that theaters could just lower prices and make more money because more concessions would be bought. Another concern involving theaters taking advantage of varying prices is the fact that they could report that sales for higher-priced movies were actually for lower-priced movies and take the difference for themselves. As Orbach and Einav point out, though, this complaint makes little sense, since theaters could already report more sales for movies which they get a higher percentage of the price from. In addition, they could just under report how many people bought tickets and keep more money (148). The previously mentioned Atlantic article makes a couple of additional criticisms. The first is that theaters already  favor certain movies by giving them more and larger screens. I honestly don’t understand why that is an argument against  varied prices. Secondly, the article says that another reason to not adopt nonuniform pricing is that if one theater raises prices for certain moves, and another doesn’t, some people would go to the lower-priced theater even if they live closer to the one with higher prices. This concern seems legitimate, but it only applies to people who are willing to travel a potentially much longer distance to save what is probably not much money. Therefore, I doubt it is a sufficient reason to use uniform pricing. Also, if all theaters raised the price of a certain movie by the same amount, there would be no stealing of customers.

why do tickets cost the same throughout the year?

Although matinees cost less, movies are otherwise priced the same year-round. However, if demand is greater on certain days or seasons than on others, it makes sense for theaters to raise ticket prices.

Photo from The Atlantic.

On the subject of varied prices based on the time of year or day of the week, Orbach and Einav write (emphasis added):

Much of the reluctance to adopt variable pricing stems from formidable concerns about the costs of administering and policing price differentiation across movies. Such differentiation may present a challenge to the industry, but it should neither be confused with, nor should it supersede, price differentiation across show times. Practical obstacles to variable pricing across movies, if such exist, cannot explain why movies are priced uniformly on weekdays and weekends and throughout the year. Thus, those who remain skeptic of the viability of price differentiation across movies, should still accept the view regarding the likely profitability and viability of non-uniform prices along the show-time dimension (150).

Another idea for how to vary ticket prices is by reducing the price every week or so. A criticism of this idea raised in the Atlantic is that “[y]ou can’t consistently cut prices after a successful opening weekend. If people knew that ticket prices would fall after a big opening, many more would wait until the second or third weekend to see it, which would, ironically, destroy the meaning of opening weekends.” I think this claim is mostly true, but it may not be the case for event movies. I remember a few years ago my math teacher was talking about if movie prices should be nonuniform and asked the class how many of us would be willing to pay $25 to see the latest Harry Potter film on opening day. Around a quarter of the class raised their hands. Therefore, theaters could potentially raise prices to very high amounts early on for event movies, and later the price could become the same as other movies. This way everyone who doesn’t want to pay extra would pay the same price as they would if all prices were equal, and the theater would make more money.

will we continue to see uniform ticket prices in the future?

We may not. According to ABC News, Steven Spielberg recently said, “You’re going to have to pay $25 to see the next ‘Ironman.’  And you’re probably only going to have to pay $7 to see ‘Lincoln,'” suggesting future high-budget films will cost more to see than lower-budget ones.

have movie tickets become more expensive over the years?

Photo from The New York Times.

Yes and no. As the graph to the side from a New York Times article shows, movie prices have indeed increased in recent years. However, the article also states that “Patrick Corcoran, the director of media and research for the National Association of Theatre Owners, points out that a ticket purchased for the average price of $1.65 in 1971 would cost $9.20 today — higher than the actual industry average, if adjusted according to the general inflation rate.”

five documentaries streaming on netflix that are actually good

If you’re ever in the mood for some enjoyable, yet intellectually-stimulating entertainment, I recommend taking a look at any of the following five documentaries, all of which can be streamed on Netflix. Also, if you think watching documentaries is a tiresome activity, these films will likely convert you.

banksy’s exit through the gift shop

Before I watched this film, I remember skimming its plot summary on Wikipedia and being greatly confused as to what it was actually about. Simply put, Exit Through The Gift Shop is a film so genius and unconventional that I feel that a brief summary will not be able to encompass the gist of the film, but I’ll try anyway. Thierry Guetta, a French emigrant residing in Los Angeles, videotapes everything he can and starts videotaping street artists at work after being introduced to street art by his cousin, an artist known as Space Invader. He starts filming artists like Shepard Fairey and eventually meets the renowned graffiti artist who goes by the name of Banksy. He constantly films Banksy’s work, which he claims is part of a documentary he is making. Although Guetta didn’t initially plan to make the film, he attempts to do so after Bansky tells him to. The outcome of Guetta’s project is horrendous, and Banksy takes over the daunting task of completing the movie. During this time, Guetta reinvents himself as the artist Mr. Brainwash, and holds an extremely successful art exhibition. The film is very informative about the world of street art and also explores ideas about what makes art great and what it takes to be a successful artist. The film does not try to push a certain perspective on the viewer, but instead lets him or her make up their own mind as to what the message of the film is. Toward the documentary’s end, Banksy, whose face is not shown and speaks with a distorted voice explains:

I don’t know what it means; Thierry’s huge success and arrival in the art world. I mean, maybe Thierry was a genius all along. Maybe he got a bit lucky. Maybe it means art is a bit of a joke…I don’t think Thierry played by the rules, in some ways. But then, there aren’t supposed to be any rules, so I don’t really know what the moral is. I mean, I always used to encourage everyone I met to make art. I used to think everyone should do it. I don’t really do that so much anymore.

Click here to view the trailer, which is hilarious and one of the best trailers I’ve ever seen.

the imposter

theimposterNicholas Barclay, a Texan boy who went missing at age 13, was found in Spain three and a half years later. His family took him into their home and believed with certainty that he was who he said he was. However, the boy, or rather man, who claimed to be Nicholas was actually Frédéric Bourdin, a 23 year old man from France who did not actually look very much like Nicholas and spoke with an accent. How did Bourdin, who was found to be an imposter by a private investigator, successfully deceive the American Embassy, the FBI, and Nicholas’ family? You’ll just have to watch the film, which includes interviews with Bourdin and Nicholas’ relatives, to learn more. Click here to watch the trailer.

the thin blue line

thinbluelineThe Thin Blue Line is “the first movie mystery to actually solve a murder.” The film led to the release of Randall Adams, a man who had been sentenced to life in prison and previously sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer. Director Errol Morris’ research points to the conclusion that the real murderer was David Harris, who committed many crimes after the murder including another murder. One of the main causes of Adams’ conviction was that three witnesses committed perjury. The documentary’s style of using reenactments and interviews was very innovative for the time. Click here and here to read more about the film and murder case.

hoop dreams

Hoop_DreamsRoger Ebert considered Hoop Dreams to be the best film of the 1990s. For six years, the film follows two inner-city boys, William Gates and Arthur Agee, who both have ambitions to play professional basketball. The boys and their families experience many unexpected twists and turns in their journey, most of them being for the worse. For example, Arthur gets a scholarship to a private school and is then loses it, resulting in his family having to pay a debt in order for him to receive his transcripts; William struggles with injuries throughout the film; and Arthur’s mother deals with losing a job, her husband leaving the family and then returning, and chronic back pain. In addition, both boys try to get college scholarships. The many themes the film explores include family, poverty, and race. In his excellent review of the film, Robert Ebert writes:

No screenwriter would dare write this story; it is drama and melodrama, packaged with outrage and moments that make you want to cry. “Hoop Dreams” (1994) has the form of a sports documentary, but along the way it becomes a revealing and heartbreaking story about life in America. When the filmmakers began, they planned to make a 30-minute film about eighth-graders being recruited from inner-city playgrounds to play for suburban schools. Their film eventually encompassed six years, involved 250 hours of footage, and found a reversal of fortunes they could not possibly have anticipated.

kumare

kumareKumare is “the true story of a false prophet.” Vikram Gandhi, a first-generation American, was frustrated with people posing as spiritual leaders and wanted to understand why these fake gurus were becoming popular in the West. To answer this question, he reinvented himself as the guru Sri Kumare. To make himself look like a guru he grew out his hair, made up fake yoga poses and chants, spoke in an accent, and dressed in simple clothing. Gandhi’s results are very impressive–he gains many dedicated followers who greatly value his made-up teachings. Throughout the film, his followers, who often are seeking Kumare’s help to deal with personal problems, seem to actually benefit from the false prophet’s guidance. At the end of the film, Gandhi reveals to his followers that he had been deceiving them, and their reactions may surprise you. Click here to read an article on the film and here to view the film’s trailer.