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What Would You Pay to Skip the Multiplex?

Despite all the competition for your viewing dollars, to most people I’m sure the perfect movie watching experience occurs in a movie theater, a shared experience. These days, theater owners are pulling out all the stops to get you to come on over and watch the latest blockbuster — or whatever it is you want to see.

But maybe you would just rather save your money. After all, even buying a soft drink can be monstrously expensive these days. I just consulted the list of prices for the AMC theater chain, and you can bet I’m even less tempted to see a movie, any movie. So the price of a small popcorn ranges from $6.09 to $7.09. A small soft drink is $5.09.

Well, maybe they gouge you on refreshments to keep the ticket prices low. But to many they aren’t so low.

In any case, I usually wait for the film to show up as a rental, or, if I’m patient enough, free on cable TV or Netflix. So just a few months ago, I finally had the chance to see “Dr. Strange,” about the Marvel magical super hero, on Netflix. It was a terrific movie.

According to published reports, Hollywood is considering a premium movie rental scheme that would allow you to see a digital movie days or weeks after it is released to the movie theaters. Indeed, while it’s still showing at your favorite multiplex. So within 17 days after its theatrical debut, you’ll be able to rent a movie for $50. The price will drop to $30 four to six weeks after release.

Is it worth it? Well, if ticket and concession prices continue to soar, it may actually make plenty of sense. Consider the cost of taking a family of four to the movies.

But what isn’t being mentioned in those stories is whether the current rental expiration dates will apply at those exorbitant prices. As it stands, when you start to watch a flick, you have 24 hours to finish, after which the file essentially self destructs. Family matters and other issues might intervene, and you’re apt to have to consider renting it again.

I’ve done that exactly once, for a $1 rental from iTunes. Most of the time, I just don’t bother and not because I’m a cheapskate. I just find the policy offensive and another sign of greedy movie studios ignoring the needs of the customer. After all, in the old days, where you physically rented a mo vie at a local store, you’d have several days to finish watching — for prices similar to what iTunes and other companies charge now. Netflix’s original business plan was to offer DVD rentals that gave you a virtually unlimited time to watch the film. When it was returned and received, you’d get another.

Today, Netflix digital streaming is unlimited. Nobody stops you from watching a movie again, or just stopping for two months and returning to it when you have the time.

Oh, and there is one more thing.

It appears that Apple is working on striking a deal with the movie studios for the sale of 4K movies to coincide with the expected release of a 4K Apple TV. So Apple reportedly wants the price to stay in the $19.99 range, same as HD movies. The studios would prefer $5 to $10 more for — well it’s not as if it necessarily costs more to release 4K movies. Sure, the file sizes are larger, meaning it will take longer to download a copy. But that’s on Apple, and if it doesn’t mind if its servers work harder, why should the folks at Warner Bros., Disney and the other studios?

Now when I checked the prices at Amazon for Ultra HD Blu-ray and compared them to regular Blu-ray, the prices didn’t make much sense. Take a super hero film, X-men: Apocalypse. The 4K Ultra HD version, which evidently includes a regular Blu-ray disc, was selling for $18.72. The regular Blu-ray? $28.75. Well, maybe you get more extras, but I didn’t bother to do a direct comparison.

The Martian: Extended Edition was priced identically in 4K and Blu-ray versions.

One notable exception was Mad Max: Fury Road, which sells for $9.63 in the Blue-ray vision, and $24.99 for 4K. Another is Wonder Woman, due for release on September 19th. The 4K version will be $29.99 and the Blue-ray will be $5 less.

Now granted these price polices may, in part, have been set by Amazon, or perhaps the studios are working with them to offer special deals. That Apple strives for simplicity explains why they’d want to keep the prices the same, and you just select the format that you prefer.

Honestly, I don’t hold out much confidence for Apple to succeed in its quest for similar pricing for HD and 4K. Apple has not been able to get the studios to loosen consumer unfriendly rental policies, so why should they have a ghost of a chance?

Now if those premium movie rentals do take off in a big way, maybe the theater owners will take a closer look at their pricing policies to retain audiences. Maybe you’ll be able to buy soda and popcorn for less than a complete meal.

I also wonder how such rentals will be reflected in box office receipts. Will there be a category for watching a movie via telecommuting?