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How the Cost of Movies Made Us More Patient

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was released Nov. 22 and made more than $864 million worldwide during its initial run as the biggest movie of 2013. So why was a 3:30 p.m. showing of it on a Sunday in Portland packed nearly three months later?

Because the market reset the price a $3 for a matinee showing at the second-run Laurelhurst Theater in Portland, and that market is more than willing to wait.

If it wasn't, the deal between Comcast and Netflix to ensure speedy video streaming and lots of broadband access wouldn't have been necessary. If it wasn't for that audience performing cost triage on theatrical releases and deeming them worthy of a first-run ticket, second-run screening, on-demand rental or spot on the streaming queue, Verizon wouldn't be considering a similar deal.

The recession and Netflix have made the moviegoing public a lot more patient and a lot less inclined to just throw money at whatever features studios decide to release. Perhaps nowhere on the movie calendar is this more true than in the movie industry's winter "dump months" leading up to the Academy Awards, when studios unload their smelliest garbage and hope that there's a Dumpster-diving treasure such as The LEGO Movie in their piles of wretched refuse.

The miserable truth for movie studios is that, after a brief uptick in movie ticket sales in 2012, movie audiences retreated again last year. The number of tickets bought fell 1.3%, to 1.34 billion, according to BoxOfficeMojo. That's the seventh downturn in ticket sales within the past decade and only moderately better than the post-recession low of 1.28 million tickets sold in 2011. It's also well below the industry's peak of 1.58 billion tickets sold in 2002 and roughly the same amount of tickets that the industry parted with in 1996.

Since 1996, the average price of a movie ticket has jumped to $8.13 from $4.46. It's the only reason the industry hit a record U.S. gross of $10.9 billion (compared with $5.9 billion in 1996), but that's also roughly the price of a month's worth of Netflix streaming. When the choice is one new movie at that price or unfettered access to a huge library of older movies at that same price, moviegoers are choosing to wait in far larger numbers.

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