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The Classic Dinner and a Movie Date Costs Parents Too Much

Pondering the true costs of a night out at the movies

Marketing professionals really want me to go on movie dates. The pressure is always there and worse during Oscar season when marketing professional are allowed to insinuate that going on movie dates would help me better myself in some way. And, look, they might. Date nights are wonderful. Friends say so. Scientists say so. Therapists say so. Figuring out how to maintain a connection or restore a connection with your spouse when your “free” time is largely spent wrangling, feeding, and bathing children is vital to a marriage. I’ll grant the premise. I just won’t grant the premise that a good movie — something with four stars and a decent performance and maybe a little bit of wit — is worth it. It’s not.

I’m happy to go on a movie date, but the movie better be spectacular. As a parent, I deserve that and, what’s more, I demand it.

Here’s the hard truth about date night: One of the reasons Americans have so little time with their children is that, lacking a social safety net, we have to spend an inordinate amount of time working to keep them in pampers, shorts, and eventually jeans, which limits the time we have to ourselves. We know this and so we splurge sometimes, but we often don’t do so strategically. We indulge slightly and in predictable ways rather than really trying to focus on our fleeting hedonism. Movie dates are a normalized placeholder for romance. But movie dates are not — unless the movie is profoundly amazing — a cost-effective solution to the broader problem.

In New York City, a regular movie ticket ranges anywhere from $12.65 to $15. That’s far higher than the national movie ticket range of $8.67 but $8.67 isn’t nothing either. And that’s just for bullshit 2D (a 4D movie ticket, by the way, costs $30.90). So let’s say there’s two of you attending a movie to which you have driven or taken a subway. That’s about $20 baseline and $30+ in the city.

Now, traditionally, date night is dinner and a movie. But for the sake of argument and financial probity, let’s forego the dinner. Doesn’t mean you don’t need snacks. Going to a movie theater without buying snacks is like going home for Thanksgiving and not getting into a fight with your brother-in-law. You’ve only half-lived the experience. AMC’s standard prices for a small popcorn range from $6.09 to $7.09. And though you can — and probably should — share the popcorn, the soda not so much. Small sodas cost between $5.09 – $5.29. (And of course, none of these prices are factoring in future healthcare costs related to obesity and diabetes.) If we’re keeping a running total, you’ve already spent somewhere between $40 and $82.47.

But here comes the real mamma jamma. Our kids are 4 years old and 6 years old. The little ones can’t very well watch themselves. And so here we find ourselves, looking around for a babysitter for, what with the length of movies inching ever longer — not to mention the seeming endless mic-clearing trailers and sponcon featurettes — will be no less than five hours.  According to a recent survey, babysitter pay ranges $11.81 in Youngstown, OH to $16.68 per hour in San Jose, California. The nationwide average is $13.97. suggests an extra dollar per child, which seems impecunious to me, but whatever. Kids can be nightmares. So can capitalism. On the high end, you’re pushing $200.

And, yes, it would be less expensive to bring the kids. So, when studios like Pixar can be relied on to deliver pretty exciting family films, you’ve got to think about that as well.

I’m not saying movies can’t be worth it. I’m just saying that the bar is genuinely high and that, to be worth it, movies have to be exceptional. The list of movies nominated for the Best Picture Oscar expands annually, but the number of movies that justify an evening out for parents isn’t increasing at the same rate. Hollywood grades itself on a curve defined by culture vulture twentysomethings and corporate climbers who have to know about the latest thing to survive trips to movie studio water coolers. Thus my annoyance with all the hype around good films, much of which seems to emerge from the offices of aging writers content to mollify businesses bigger than their papers or magazines. Thus my annoyance with low-level enthusiasm.

Four stars isn’t good enough. Good isn’t good enough.

When you’re a parent considering a trip to the cineplex, you must demand spectacular. You must ignore the notion that this is a thing you should do. There are plenty of concerts and plays and parks to stroll through. You owe Hollywood nothing. What do they owe you? If you’re willing to front the money and put your butt in a seat, something transporting and memorable. Something that you’ll want to talk about on the way home.