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Sweep the theater floor

So, Oscar night came and went. Or as I like to refer to it: The Awards Ceremony for Films I Haven’t Seen.

Don’t get me wrong. Like most red-blooded Americans, I love going to the movies. I love the two-hour escape they provide from the everyday. I love the giant tubs of popcorn, replete with the faux-butter topping. I even love the endless stream of previews that make the most lame of pictures seem like another must-see.

But here’s what I don’t love: the price of admission.

At some point in my life, going to the movies simply became a luxury I could no longer afford. Actually, I know the exact point: when I moved from South Florida back to my native New York in 2010 and was suddenly confronted with the reality of tickets that can run nearly $15. Add in those $7 tubs of popcorn (and those $5 cups of soda) and the total cost for my family of four to see a flick is now in triple-digit territory. With various discounts, I can see a play (albeit an Off-Off-Broadway play) or even a major-league baseball game for less.

Which led me to ask: What kind of deals can I score for the movies?

First, however, it’s important to understand why the price of tickets has gotten so high. Actually, “high” is a relative term: For starters, the national average is $8.13, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners (the other NATO). (In other words, perhaps the easiest way to save on tickets is not to live in a high-rent city). It’s also worth noting that looking over the long run (say, 40 years) the cost of going to the movies has not outpaced inflation—in fact, the association says the average price of a ticket should be well above $9 if adjusted for inflation.

Also see: Do Oscars matter at the box office anymore?

Still, the hikes in recent years have been particularly dramatic for a reason. Essentially, movie studios and theater owners are facing higher expenses (the cost to convert theaters to digital projection was $3 billion alone, the association says) and dwindling attendance because of advances in home entertainment options (since 2002, the number of tickets purchased has dropped by 26% to 1.16 billion, according to The Numbers website). Do the math and the money has to come from somewhere—namely, your pocket.

But that doesn’t mean you’re literally at a complete loss. Here are six strategies I’ve uncovered to beat Hollywood at its own game.

Seek all the obvious discounts

I think most of us know the standard ways to save, but even I like to remind myself of these things—just in case I’ve forgotten any. Clearly, you can score a discount for being a senior (and it’s worth noting that some theaters consider 50 the “senior” age). You can also play the off-peak game by seeing a movie at a cheaper matinee rate or seeing a movie at a cheaper second-run theater after it’s been out for a few weeks. And you can buy blocks of tickets at a cheaper rate through such discount purveyors as warehouse clubs (think Costco) or the Entertainment book. (And don’t forget the occasional offers through deal-of-the-day sites like Groupon and LivingSocial.) Finally, you should make a point of signing up for theater loyalty programs and email/text alerts—both offer plenty of savings for tickets and concessions alike. (And by the way, the reason why movie-theater popcorn costs so much? That’s where theaters make their real money—most of the box-office take goes back to the studios.)

Buy a gift for yourself

As in a gift card. You can easily find gift cards for theater chains at discounts of 10% to 20% (and sometimes up to 30%) through various resellers. Go to Gift Card Granny to see the deals that are out there for such chains as AMC Theatres and Regal Cinemas. And needless to say, if you use your gift card for a matinee showing, you can further maximize the savings—it’s the cheapskate moviegoer equivalent of double-dipping.

See unlimited movies

Yes, sometimes the best way to save at the movies is to see them in bulk. That’s basically the premise of MoviePass, a subscription service that provides you access to countless screenings in your area. The cost: $25 for the initiation fee (and $4.99 for shipping of the membership card), plus a monthly fee that varies by market (in New York, it’s $35). There are a few catches to the deal: You can’t see more than a movie a day. You can’t see the same movie twice. And you can’t see any 3D movies. Still, if you see at least three movies a month, the math works out (once you get past the initiation fee). And if you see a couple of movies a week, you’re bringing your cost down to under $5 per flick.

See movies for free

There’s no arguing with the concept of free movies. And they’re there to be had, provided you can score tickets to advance screenings that studios offer to build buzz for certain pictures. Typically, these offers come through radio and TV stations and publications—and they require reservation codes that such outlets has a good guide to learning more about screenings and the requisite codes. But if there’s one site you want to familiarize yourself with, it’s Gofobo, which lists screenings in various cities and lets you print out tickets for some of them in a snap (you must register for the site first). The offerings are somewhat limited and the site is a bit hard to navigate, but after a few minutes, I was able to get two free passes for a screening of “Bad Words,” a soon-to-be-released flick starring Jason Bateman. (And the theater was a block from my house, no less.)

Go on an Oscar binge

If you’re like me and haven’t seen any of the Oscar Best Picture nominees, AMC has a deal of sorts. You can partake of all nine pictures this Saturday for $60, which works out to less than $7 a movie. The obvious drawback is it’s a lot of viewing in one span (16 hours and 39 minutes, to be exact). And since AMC doesn’t allow theatergoers to bring in outside food and beverages, you may eat up all the savings in popcorn, too. Other “binge” deals are also available.

Sweep the theater floor

No, I’m not talking about becoming a full-time theater employee. But the Star Theatre in Berkeley Springs, W.V., will let you see a picture at no cost—provided you help clean up the theater after the screening. The Star prides itself on its civic-minded approach and low, low prices: It charges $4.50 for tickets and offers a “super tub of the best popcorn in four states”—with real melted butter—for $4, according to co-owner Jeanne Mozier. But if that’s still too much, the cleanup option remains. Mozier says that “several individuals” regularly partake of the deal.

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