Not many Americans care about classical music anymore, but there is still plenty of work for symphony orchestras and opera tenors because the fans who do care are willing to pay a lot per ticket.
In contrast, movie tickets are more or less fixed in price. So, every filmmaker is competing in the same game. Julian Schnabel and Wong Kar-Wai are going head to head against Michael Bay, and they're all being measured by tickets sold. (To be precise, that's not quite true -- films that do more matinee business, more senior business, more kids business, and run in cheaper towns, make less box office revenue per ticket sold on average, but it's not that big a difference.)
Is the single priced movie ticket eroding slowly? When I started writing this post, I figured there would be evidence that we are headed toward more stratified pricing. Yet, the more I think about it, the less evidence I see for it.
For example, for about five years now, the weekend evening movies at the Arclight on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood (the old Cinerama Dome location) have been $14. It sells reserved seats, which is a pretty stupid idea because you can stand in line to buy tickets for a half hour while the couples ahead of you debate over whether they'd prefer to sit on the left or right sides. Yet, the films shown at the Arclight are only vaguely more upscale than average. The movies it plays make it seem like more of a mass market Date Night destination than a place where the elite meet to seat themselves.
And, in general, "arthouse" tends to be a synonym for worn-down theatre on its last legs before it becomes a revivalist church for an ambitious preacher. The Laemmle arthouse chain in LA charges between $8.50 and $10 per ticket for prime times, which isn't above average for their expensive neighborhoods.
Nor is there all that much differentiation in DVD prices: the elite hit "The Lives of Others" is selling on Amazon for $14.99, while the mass market hit "300" is $13.99.
Anyway, it's kind of neat that movies remain a democratic institution with a simple-minded pricing scheme in an otherwise increasingly tiered and marketing-modeled America.
By the way, another reason live classical music survives is because it's prestigious to donate money to it. Woody Allen has somewhat adopted this model, as well. If you invest $10 million in a Woody Allen movie, you probably won't get a profit out of it. But you probably won't lose more than a few million because he never goes over budget and he has a loyal fan base. In the meantime, you get to tell all your dinner party guests that you and Woody are making a movie together. Then, when his accountant announces you're only getting, say, an $8 million payback, you write off $2 million as a business loss, although you were expecting it, so it's more like a charitable donation to the Foundation for the Making of Woody Allen Movies. It's a dignified way for an elderly auteur to get financing.
Update: In response, Ross Douthat points out that arthouses tend to carry more expensive gourmet concessions. In reply, various commenters object to my existence.