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Movie Theaters Have Found a New Way to Overcharge: 'ACX' and Its Equivalents

By Dustin Rowles | Film | June 17, 2024 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | June 17, 2024 |


Over the weekend, after the twins finished their last day of school, I took them and four of their friends to see Inside Out 2. I was surprised to learn that the tickets were $19 each. I know that prices have been rising since the pandemic, but even still, I am used to paying closer to $12 for a matinee and maybe $15 for a regular ticket. I didn’t immediately understand why prices had suddenly skyrocketed — had the theater employed surge pricing? — but I had promised to take the twins. Seats were filling fast, so I quickly reserved the tickets and didn’t think about it again until this morning when I read that Sony Motion Pictures Group chairman Tom Rothman was pleading with theaters to lower ticket prices in an interview on Deadline.

I think it’s not healthy. I understand why it happened, and that exhibition went through a terrible near-death experience with Covid. I get the instinct to raise prices. But I think overall, if you look for example at how every Tuesday in America, every single Tuesday is the biggest day of the week. Why? Because of the half-price tickets. It’s fundamental consumer economics: just lower the prices and you’ll sell more. You’ll make it up in volume, and concessions.

Having paid $148 (including an additional $15 in “convenience fees”) for seven tickets to a cartoon, I agree, Tom! Nevertheless, I looked back in an effort to find out why tickets were so much more expensive and discovered that it still only cost $15 per ticket for the other movies. After a little more digging, I discovered that the screening I attended, while labeled as “Standard” when I searched on Google for showtimes, was, in fact, labeled “Standard ACX” on the theater’s website.

What the f*** is ACX, and why does it cost $4 more per ticket?

It actually took me a surprisingly long time to figure this out because there is a small chain of theaters called ACX Theaters in the Midwest, and all of my Googling led me to those theaters. Not even Google’s AI could help me, and when I asked the staff here, they were similarly clueless. ACX typically relates to the Audiobook Creation Exchange, which is an Audible term, which led me to initially believe that ACX had something to do with improved audio, and I was annoyed because I apparently paid an extra $4 per ticket for imperceptibly better audio.

It turns out that’s not it, either. In this instance, ACX specifically refers to the “Apple Cinema Experience” and is exclusive to a small chain of theaters in New England called Apple Cinemas. Several of these theaters have ACX screenings. Because it’s not explained anywhere on the movie theater chain’s website, it takes entirely too much research to discover that the Apple Cinema Experience refers to “premium large format 4K laser projectors and the Dolby Atmos sound experience!”

I’ve been going to this movie theater for over 15 years, so trust me when I tell you that there is nothing about this experience that was discernibly different than any other theater experience I’ve had in the same theater, except that it cost $4 more per ticket. I am sure that there are dudes who spend thousands of dollars on their home theater equipment who might have been able to detect small differences, but I was at a complete loss and I suspect that the sold-out screening full of mostly families had no idea that they were even paying for a premium format, only that ticket prices seemed unusually expensive.

It’s a ripoff. I am not positive, but I believe ACX is the equivalent of several other premium formats: Regal’s RPX, Cinemark XD, and Dolby Cinema at AMC. They also cost a few extra dollars per ticket and, I’m guessing, only guys who spend a lot of time on Engadget could tell the difference (and would probably be happy to mansplain that to us). For $1 extra, I could have driven one town over to watch it in IMAX, but instead, I got an almost identical experience to the “standard format” by paying more!

A quick search of Boston shows me that AMC’s Dolby experience is $5 more than Standard, or the same price as an IMAX screening in the same theater, although it’s unclear to me whether that is a true IMAX theater or a LieMAX. I am guessing that the price is the same for both.

The point is, unless you’re the kind of person who insists on only watching things in 4K, many of these premium formats are not worth the extra costs. ScreenX might be worth it for those who like to watch movies on really big screens, while true IMAX is obviously worth it for the right kind of blockbuster action spectacle (Furiosa, for instance). Likewise, while there are no 4DX screenings in my area, I suspect it’s the kind of immersive experience that might actually be worth the extra $8-$10 for those who do not mind motion seats, wind, strobe lights, simulated snow, and scents, which sounds like fun, at least for the right kind of film.

But ACX and its equivalents? Bullshit. And during a time when it’s already difficult to bring audiences to movie theaters, fleecing them for a barely noticeable difference that should already be considered “standard” is no way to earn their trust. For $15, we should already get the best picture and sound quality. It’s bad enough we have to pay $9 for shitty, stale popcorn. Don’t add insult to injury. And if theaters are going to insist on charging us extra for a premium format, at least label those formats properly and explain exactly what those upgrades entail: “For an extra $4 a ticket, you get the smug satisfaction of telling your friends that there was slightly more clarity in Joy’s smile in Inside Out 2. It made all the difference to my 12-year-old!”