March 07, 2012

10 Ways to Save Money at the Movies, or: Why Only Suckers Pay $13

The act of going to the movies can be frustrating enough - something we've written plenty about. But when you leave the theater after wasting two hours to sit in a room where manners and courtesy don't seem to exist to see a mediocre movie, the idea that you just spent thirteen bucks or more doing so adds even more of a sting. It's even worse when you're taking the kids - for a family of four to see a 3D movie and have some popcorn and sodas can cost over $100, depending on where you live. But it doesn't have to be that way.

In 2011, Erica and I went to the movies just over 100 times. Yup, we catch quite a lot of flicks, so it's a hobby we put a lot of money into. And we live in New York City, home of the $13 dollar movie ticket, and we saw almost all of these films in Manhattan.  But for 2011, the average we spent per ticket was $8.50 - and that includes lots of 3D and IMAX showings, visits to the premium priced Cinema Suites and other dinner theaters, as well as other more expensive (up to $30/ticket) special screenings with Q&As with directors and stars (who we then harass to pose for pictures and sign our DVDs and Blu-Rays).

The average ticket price in the United States in 2011 was $7.93, so many of you must find it hilarious to hear us boast about our $8.50 average. But it's no joke in the higher priced parts of the country. The $7.93 average ticket price is brought down by suburban and other regionally adjusted pricing, matinees, rush hour shows, second-run theaters, and reduced child, student and senior prices. In New York City, as well as other big cities, those discounts aren't always available and a visit to the movies can be expensive. A ticket for a 3D IMAX movie in Lincoln Square runs $20. $20!!

But between the two of us we saved more than $1,000 on movie tickets (based on standard $13 price per regular ticket or $16-20 for films we saw in 3D and/or IMAX). So how did we do it? And more importantly, how can you? Read on for 10 Tips to Save Money at the Movies.

These 10 suggestions might help you save some money at the movies:

1. Go To Matinees

New York City's movie theaters don't really have matinee pricing. You're out $13 whatever time of the day you go. Except for one major theater chain which has plenty of locations all over the island: AMC. If you see a movie at AMC before Noon on any day, it's only $6. That's less than half of the regular ticket price. If it's 3D or IMAX, the regular added charge gets added to that. Not only is this a good way to save money, it's also the best time to see a movie - the auditoriums are quieter and it's less likely to fill up. We've also encountered fewer groups of rowdy teenagers at these shows compared to Friday and Saturday night shows, which no sane person should subject themselves to.

Some theaters also have special weekday pricing. Outside of big cities, matinee pricing is even more prevalent and extends throughout the afternoon, and that's at almost all theaters, not just AMC.

2. Eat First

Theaters make a lot of their money off popcorn and soda. It costs them pennies but they sell it to you for four, five, six, or seven dollars. Or even more. And there's not much else - and of that, it's mostly greasy junk food like nachos with cheese, ICEE frozen sodas (with only two gross flavors to choose from), chicken fingers, stuffed pretzel bites... all cheap junk food that makes your seat seem smaller. It might seem like an obvious suggestion, but I'm making it anyway: Avoid it. Plan ahead and eat first.

First of all, I'm not a big popcorn fan so for me it's easy to avoid that. I never quite understood the link between movies and popcorn. Of all foods, why popcorn? Secondly, have you seen the giant tubs of soda that are sold at theaters? Often the smallest size is enough to fill a fishbowl. The quantity is obscene and almost guarantees a visit to the bathroom in the middle of your movie.

My advice: Check the showtimes early and give yourself enough time to eat dinner or lunch beforehand to make sure that you don't need anything to snack on. Your wallet and waistline will thank you.

3. 3D and IMAX Surcharges - Is It Worth It?

There are a lot of 3D movies out nowadays, but before you buy your ticket, think about (and maybe look up online) whether your movie is really worth seeing in 3D. Was it filmed in 3D? If it's a conversion, was it done well? Is the 3D really necessary for you? Take 2 or 3 minutes and google it to see what people are saying. For a movie like Avatar, 3D is obviously the way to see it. Some animated films are also really cool to see in 3D. But Green Hornet 3D? The Smurfs 3D? Alvin and the Chipmunks 3D?

We recommend to see whether something was shot in 3D or retrofitted.

The same goes for IMAX - for films like The Dark Knight and Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, where scenes were actually filmed with IMAX cameras, the added surcharge is worth it in my opinion. But I can't imagine seeing something like the recent Underworld movie in IMAX, which was simply blown up. Why anyone would pay $20 to see that in IMAX is beyond me. It adds nothing except for a few dollars to the price of admission. And you should also consider whether you're seeing the film at a genuine IMAX location instead of retrofitted screens, often referred to as Fake IMAX screens. Here's a Google Map to consult, which lists all real and fake IMAX screens.

4. Want Candy? Bring Your Own!

Going back to #2, you shouldn't buy food at the theater - unless maybe they have baked goods or something unique that you won't find at other theaters. Or maybe you're a movie popcorn purist and can't watch a film without it. Or you're simply willing to pay the theater's price. I already discussed the popcorn and soda, but what about candy? Even if you've already eaten before the movie, your sweet tooth might direct you to the five dollar candy boxes. 

While I've been guilty of doing so in the past, and will undoubtedly do so in the future under certain circumstances, I think bringing your own food into a movie theater is pretty gross. We've sat next to people eating Chinese take-out, pizza, home-made egg salad sandwiches, and lots of other stuff. It often makes a lot of noise, can leave a mess, and sometimes it even stinks up the place. In our book, it's a moviegoing faux pas, and often very inconsiderate.

But stuff like candy? It depends on where you draw the line, and who am I to draw the line anywhere but for myself? My suggestion: Go to the grocery store or pharmacy and buy it for one dollar instead of five. And maybe a bottle of water, in case you get thirsty? You're obviously not supposed to bring anything in, but nobody really checks.

Personally, on the rare occasions that I bring in food, it's not so much because of the pricing, but because I don't care for most movie theater foods and I don't care for the fact that nothing healthy is offered. I like to support movie theaters, but I'm not willing to support the chain multiplex movie theater concessions business plan.

5. Join Your Movie Theater's Loyalty Program

Often, it's free. If it's not, as is the case with AMC Stubs, it's probably worth it if you see movies regularly. We saw many free movies thanks to AMC Stubs, and even a few free ones from the Regal Crown Club card. Landmark also just started a card where every 10th ticket is free. It might take a while to reap the reward, but it's worth keeping those cards in your wallet. And it's not just for tickets - sometimes you get a free popcorn or a drink.

With AMC Stubs, an added benefit is that you don't have to pay Fandango surcharges.

AMC Stubs costs $12 per year, although we were given membership for free (no idea why) and it's often offered for just $6.

6. Keep An Eye On Groupon and Living Social

I'm not the biggest fan of Groupon or Living Social, but they occasionally offer good deals on buying movie passes for less at many different theaters. We've taken advantage of Groupon's Fandango offers, where you can buy two tickets for $9, each time it has been offered. We have also seen offers come through for several other local theaters.

7. Buy in Bulk

The big one. This is the most important one for us, and it's something you should consider if you see enough movies each year.

Many theater chains sell movie tickets in bulk at a significant discount. You can get them directly from the companies' corporate sites. They typically sell two types of passes: One that lets you into any film, and the other that lets you into a film that has been out for more than two weeks.

Regal Cinemas (which also includes United Artists Theatres and Edwards' Theatres) offers Premiere ($7.50) and VIP ($6.50) passes. We haven't bought these because they have a $1.50 Manhattan theater surcharge. Annoying, eh?

Instead, we buy Gold ($7.50) and Silver ($6) passes from AMC (including Loews), who don't have a Manhattan premium. They also count towards the AMC Stubs program.

The passes don't expire, which is nice. Other theater chains - even some of the smaller ones and also some independent theaters - have similar offerings.  Almost sounds too good to be true, if it weren't for a few caveats.

-You still have to pay the 3D and IMAX surcharges.

-You have to stand in line. No quick stop at the self-serve electronic ticket kiosk.

-You can't use them to buy tickets online. Either you have to go to the theater ahead of time to make sure it doesn't sell out or go a bit early, unless you watch films at times when it's unlikely to sell out (like during the week or in the morning). It's a trade-off in that you're saving money, but you need to plan things out a bit more. (On that note: The same goes for AMC gift cards, too. Believe it or not, you can't use those to buy tickets online, either!)

-You have to buy them in bulk, and 'in bulk' means at least 50 of a kind at a time. And no mix-and-match of the different types of tickets. But do the math. If you and your partner go to the movies 20 times a year, that's 40 tickets. It's worth pulling out a calculator and seeing if it works for you. We typically buy 100 passes - 50 of each type, gold and silver - at a time. It's a big up front cost, but it has saved us so, so much money in the long run. We each carry a few AMC Gold and Silver passes in our wallets at all times.

If you're not going to the movies that often or you don't want to pay so much money up front, here's another thing you can do that we've done in the past: Do your own little group buy. Check with your movie-going friends and family members and ask if they want in on your bulk purchase. Split up the tickets and get a more reasonable quantity that works better for you and fits in your budget.

Also, check with your employer. Many companies purchase these bulk tickets to offer them as a perk for their employees. 

8. Check Your Credit Card

I have a credit card with Chase, and they have some nice offers from time to time. Three months out of the year I get 5% cash back for any money spent at movie theaters. I usually try to time my bulk ticket purchases to go along with this, so I get 5% back on my big purchase of several hundred dollars. They normally only offer 1% cash back on all credit card charges.

Also, with your points/miles/cash-back/whatever-you-want-to-call-it you can buy gift cards, and sometimes Chase offers discounts on them. I've been able to get AMC gift cards at 20% off using points. So a $20 gift card only costs $16 in points, which in turn didn't cost anything at all. I've taken advantage of this quite a bit and use the gift cards to buy my $6 matinee tickets.

Chase has also sent me offers to get two-for-one tickets from Fandango, although I've never taken advantage of those offers as they were usually for specific films that I had no interest in.

That's just from a Chase credit card. I have no idea what kinds of offers other credit cards have, but I'm sure they must have similar programs that will allow you to save a few bucks at the movies. Please note that I'm not trying to advertise Chase here - that's just the credit card I happen to have and it just happens to have these offers that have worked out for me, and this site is not getting anything out of mentioning them here.

9. Buy Passes at Costco

You can buy the bulk passes we referenced before at Costco in 4-packs and sometimes other quantities. Depending on where you live, Costco has passes for Regal, AMC and Cinemark theaters. You can also order them online - four for $34.99, which includes shipping. That comes to $8.75 per ticket.

In-store pricing might be better. Sometimes, Costco has rebates and discounts which can bring your cost per ticket as low as $6 for a no-restrictions pass.

10. Ask Yourself: Maybe Wait?

Before you leave the house, think about whether you really want to see the movie now or just wait for it to come out on DVD. Ask yourself: "Do I want to see this now?" There are plenty of films that we're interested in seeing but aren't in any hurry to see and don't mind waiting for Netflix.

And I should also mention:

Local, Independent Theaters

If there's a film you want to see at your local independent theater, I think it's okay to pay full price now and then. Without remorse. You're supporting independent cinema and/or an independently owned and operated business. Nothing to feel bad about there. Of course, odds are that your local/independent theater has matinee pricing or other discounts, but in Manhattan that's not the case. Many of the 100 films we saw were at the Angelika, the Cinema Village, the Sunshine (Landmark), and we had to pay the full $13 because that was our only choice. But I'm fine with that - I don't mind as much handing over $13 to those theaters. (They'd get way more money from us if they had matinee pricing, but whatever, they have their reasons for not offering that here.) Nope, it's the giant multiplex chains like AMC and Regal, and you'll never see us paying full price to see a movie at any of those places.

Your Tips?

So, for us, we try to go to AMC most of the time, and that's what I'd recommend if you are in NYC, too. We use Gold and Silver passes, which we buy in bulk, and we see lots of matinees, which we pay for with gift cards that we get at a discount using credit card points (although that wasn't calculated into our average price of $8.50, nor were any discounts and free tickets we earned through the AMC Stubs program). And we don't waste our money on gross and over-priced movie theater food!

Got any other tips for saving money at the movies? Please share them in the Comments! We think our tips will be more helpful to frequent filmgoers in New York City and other big cities, so we'd love to hear some tips that might be specific to other places.


  1. Great information, thank you for the post.

  2. Great list. For those who have flexible work schedules and live in a major metropolitan area, signing up with a free movie screening site (google "free movie screenings") can get you into a number of movies for free. The downside is that your choices may be limited and you have to be willing to stand in line for a couple of hours in order to get in. In 2007 I saw 20 films for free this way, including Transformers and Knocked Up.

  3. You also might like:

  4. Any link to the sites where we can buy the bulk tickets?!

    1. John posted the link for Regal. Here's the link for AMC:

  5. Bulk Regal tix:

  6. This post is excruciatingly dull...Yawn, don't buy "unhealthy snacks", drink water you've smuggled in, ugh. If I'm going to go through the trouble of smuggling, it had better be worth it, like vodka and Chinese takeaway....Sorry for your luck Miss Manners

    1. Hopefully I won't have to sit anywhere near you then, as I think it's pretty trashy to bring in Chinese take-out. Stay classy, MissDemeanor.
      I don't mind when people bring in beers or a flask, so long as they don't annoy others with it. After all, most theaters don't serve alcohol, so smuggling it in is the only way to have a drink with your movie.

  7. there is a site called complete savings. which is a savings website.. it cost 2$ a month but it allows you to get up to 6 5$ movie tickets using fandango and that includes all the fees fandango charges... and this 5$ tickets are good for ANY movie (imax, 3d or what not) its a REALLY good deal for movie watchers.

    1. Thanks, Mathew. We hadn't heard about this one. But the savings potential they offer is huge! Unfortunately you can't sign up for complete savings, as I've learned after looking into it - you have to be offered membership after you buy something at certain web sites. I wasn't able to find a specific site that I could do this through, but I did find another service owned by the same company that offers the same benefits - except it's $14 per month. Still a great deal, especially since you can buy Fandango tickets for $5 and use them for $20 3D IMAX films. We're trying it out right now, thanks for the tip!

  8. Another way I often get free movie tickets is by winning them! Many radio stations regularly offer free movie passes and, depending on where you live, it can be very easy to call in and win. In our city, there are 5 different radio stations (you can win once every 30 days), so we can easily have one free night out each month (movies, concerts, plays, meals, etc.) without much effort.

  9. quick question, I tried ordering from amc loews to get bulk tickets, but they said it was for companies only. anyway to get around that?

  10. If you're not doing it through a company, you could just put in a company name or something generic.