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How to save at the cinema

You shouldn't need a Hollywood budget to go to the movies.

film reel and two movie tickets
Soraya Asmar
Soraya Asmar
Last updated: 02 September 2019

A visit to the cinema is the most popular cultural pastime in Australia. Nearly nine in ten kids (88%) and seven in ten adults (67%) go to the cinema at least once a year, so it's clearly still an activity that many share and enjoy.

But the cost of a trip to the cinema has steadily gone up. Pricey extras to bump up profits, the bundling up of what used to be different ticket types and the closing down of many traditionally cheaper independents are just some of the reasons that going to the movies is becoming a 'sometimes' treat for a lot of people. We look at some ways to save money and enjoy the cinema – without the big costs.

The high price of going to the cinema

In 1982 the average cost of seeing a film was $5, and the most expensive ticket around was $6.50 – that $1.50 price difference is the equivalent of a $5.30 price difference today. 

These days it costs $14 on average to see a film, and the most expensive ticket is more than double that at $29. That's a $15 difference. A broad range of ticket prices means that where and when you go to the cinema can make a big difference to the cost.

Some of the prices are truly eye-watering. For instance, seeing a movie on a VMAX screen at Event Cinemas in Sydney (Bondi Junction) will cost an adult as much as $28, and leave a child relieved of their pocket money to the tune of $21. Add a medium popcorn and soft drink, and you'll be spending more than $150 for a family of four. Even with a Cinebuzz Family Saver discount, the cost only goes down by about $10.

With prices the way they are and four kids ... we can't do it often, maybe twice a year

Leah, CHOICE member

But NSW consumers aren't alone. Startled expressions are exchanged throughout the country as Queenslanders (North Lakes), South Australians (Marion) and Western Australians (Inaloo) all pay the same or similar prices for a family outing to Event Cinema VMAX sessions. Hoyts prices around the country are about the same, too – $19 to $24 for an adult watching an XTREME screen film in NSW (Chatswood), Victoria (Melbourne Central) or South Australia (Norwood).

So it's not surprising that when we asked our members whether they still thought of the movies as a cheap thrill, the response was a resounding 'no'.

"I don't take the kids anymore," says Sue Brooks. "Last time I took them it cost me $90 for tickets and food!"

Leah Anderson agrees: "With prices the way they are and four kids, it's a special day," she says. "We can't do it often, maybe twice a year."

But with a bit of planning and a willingness to do without the add-ons, there are ways of reducing the cost.

Cinema savings tips

The cheapest times to go to the cinema 

Finding cheaper times to go is one of the most straightforward ways to save money. If you have a flexible schedule, going to the cinema during off-peak mornings or weekdays will almost certainly make it cheaper. 

In 2018 Hoyts rolled all its tickets into one type, which means that when you go is now the primary way to save at those cinemas. A student, senior, child or adult all pay the same standard ticket price for the same movie session.

The benefit, for some, is that full-paying adults can find cheaper tickets that give them a discount they wouldn't traditionally qualify for.

The downside is that a senior, child or student wanting to see, say, a new release on a Friday night won't always get a concession.

CHOICE tip: To find cheaper tickets based on when you go, look for 'Saver' (about $12) or 'Super Saver' (about $14) session times, which tend to be during the day, weekday evenings, or when a film is no longer a new release. 

Cheap movie days

Most cinemas offer discounts on particular days of the week – traditionally Mondays or Tuesdays – when adult tickets can cost as little as $8.

Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace (NSW) has a Monthly Wednesday Morning Tea where all tickets are $12 and include a movie, biscuit and tea or coffee. With the cost of a coffee climbing ever-skyward in some city cafes, this could be a true saving.

Palace Cinemas have Cheap Mondays (some Cheap Tuesdays in Victoria and WA). United Cinemas have Cheap Tuesdays ($6 for all in Eldorado, Queensland). Event Cinemas also have $8 Mondays for students, and some Hoyts and Event Cinemas offer a $10 'Movie of the Week' for members. See our state-by-state list of some cheap movie days below:

As with most discounts, make sure you read the terms and conditions before getting too excited. Many cinemas charge extra for premium screens, while others don't discount these sessions at all.

Independent cinemas

Going outside the big cities and movie complexes is another way to save money (even if you spend a bit more on petrol or public transport). In fact, two adults can see a film at some smaller cinemas for about the same price as one adult would pay to catch a flick in the heart of the city. They may not always have the huge screens, but local and regional independent cinemas are generally cheaper and often have a great atmosphere thanks to a community feel and historic buildings. 

Our readers reported their satisfaction with several local cinemas. 

"I now almost always go to a small community cinema," says CHOICE member Peter Christie. 

"It is old and dusty and plays only a selection of latest releases. However, tickets are good at $8 to any session. I still think that the cinema is a thrill and have gone to the odd midnight premiere and totally enjoyed the experience with a group of complete strangers, some of whom still like to dress up."

I now almost always go to a small community cinema ... tickets are good at $8.

CHOICE member Peter

Outdoor cinemas and drive-ins have also had something of a resurgence. Some of our members say they're happy to watch from the comfort of the car, or from a picnic blanket or deckchair. A few of these cinemas are seasonal, but can be better value than their indoor counterparts.

For instance, two people in a vehicle pay $12.50 each to see a film at Sydney's Events Drive In Blacktown, and if you can fit more than eight people in a vehicle to visit South Australia's Coober Pedy Drive In, you'd be paying a remarkable $3 each! Seeing a film on the brown dirt slopes might also include guitar and singing beforehand, or Priscilla-themed cake contests. 

Saving on extras at the cinema

Even 3D pioneer and director of Avatar (2009) James Cameron says that seeing movies in 3D doesn't always add to the quality of the experience – but it can add to the price. Larger screens can cost more too, so if you're happy enough to watch 2D movies on traditional-sized screens, stick to these cheaper sessions.

soft drink, popcorn, bag of chips and snakes on red carpet

Cinema-bought snacks: $21.60

soft drink and a bag of popcorn, bag of chips and snakes

Supermarket-bought snacks: $11.55

The smell of popcorn has long gone hand in hand with the movie experience, but it may not be worth $9 for a tub, or $6 for a sugary drink. Avoiding the candy bar and eating before or after the movie can really bring your costs down.

To investigate the high costs of food in some cinemas, we bought a bag of snakes (180g), a packet of crisps (90g), one small soft drink (600ml) and a small popcorn at a Hoyts Candy Bar and compared the total with buying snacks from the supermarket. The candy bar food came to $21.60. Downstairs at Coles, identical or comparable items came to just $11.55 – almost half the price.

Some moviegoers come prepared and bring their own snacks and drinks to the movies. A number of cinemas have 'no outside food' rules, but many have more relaxed policies and are fine for you to bring your own snacks and water, provided it’s not hot food.

We buy our snacks from the supermarket near the cinemas, as it's much cheaper

CHOICE member Mel

We contacted 25 randomly chosen cinemas and asked if outside food and drinks are allowed. About half of them allow snacks and water, but no hot food; while the other half, including Dendy, Event and Palace Cinemas, allow water but not food. Hoyts don’t allow any food or drink, and only a handful of cinemas said that it was fine to bring any kind of food.

Given the variety of food and drink rules, it’s a good idea to call beforehand and check if you're not sure. 

Joining clubs and hunting discounts

Cinema rewards

To encourage customer loyalty and return visits, many cinemas offer their members discounted or free tickets, cheap days and snacks. 

Some schemes, such as Event Cinema's Cinebuzz and Hoyts Rewards Membership, cost nothing to join. 

Others, such as Palace Cinemas and Ritz Cinemas Movie Clubs, charge a small yearly fee, but this often pays for itself in the form of gift vouchers on joining and on your birthday. The Palace Movie Club costs between $16 and $18.50 for an adult, depending on which state or territory you're in, and they pay for your first ticket when you join – so you'll see your film and get a year's worth of member discounts for next to nothing in the first year.  

Some cinemas also have dedicated seniors', kids' or parents' clubs, some of which may be well worth joining – members of the Event Cinemas Seniors Club, for instance, pay $11 for movies, excluding Saturday sessions after 5pm. Senior members of Hoyts Rewards get $8 tickets any day of the week, excluding all sessions after 5pm.

Discounts and vouchers

If you're unwilling or unable to join up at the cinema, a third-party discounter may do it for you. Members of some motoring associations, telcos and health funds – including NRMA, RACQ, RACV, Telstra, Optus, BUPA, AAMI, Medibank Private, Community & Public Sector Union and Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance – are eligible for discounted tickets. The downside is that they generally have to be bought in advance from the third party, so you can't just rock up at your local movie house, flash your BUPA membership card and expect to pay less on the spot.

Websites such as Groupon and Scoopon often have movie ticket offers. For example, we found $13.50 for a regular ticket to Event Cinemas (usually $24), $11.50 for The Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace (usually $23) and $11.99 for Hoyts (usually $20). There are also booklets such as Entertainment Books, which have two-for-one offers and discounted movie tickets, although the membership booklet itself costs $60 or $70.

Cheap movie tickets app

There are also some apps that help connect moviegoers to cheaper tickets near them. Choovie is a fairly new Australian app that lets you search by movie, cinema, time and price, or by tapping a button to see 'On tonight' or 'Nearby', according to where you are. It's a handy way to discover films at independent cinemas at fair prices – generally $12 or less.

CHOICE tip: Check the fine print of all discounts carefully, as it may say you can't use them for all venues and session times.

We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.