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People purchase tickets at a kiosk at Queensway Cineplex Cinemas, in Toronto, on Aug. 18, 2020.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

As Canadian moviegoers return to the cinema for the first real summer movie season in three years, some customers of the country’s largest theatre chain will notice an unwelcome new charge tacked onto the cost of their ticket.

This month, Cineplex CGX-T implemented a $1.50 booking fee for tickets purchased online and on its mobile app. Guests who buy tickets in-person at theatre kiosks, box offices or concession stands will not be charged the fee, while members of Cineplex’s Scene+ rewards program will pay $1 a ticket, and members of the company’s upstart CineClub monthly subscription program will have the fee waived entirely.

In a statement, Cineplex’s Sarah Van Lange, vice-president of communications, content marketing and social media, said that the new charge was needed to “further invest and evolve our digital infrastructure.”

The surcharge arrives as the Canadian theatre giant, which operates 1,640 screens across the country, looks forward to a season full of buzzy new blockbusters including Thor: Love and Thunder and Minions: The Rise of Gru, but also a consumer base wary of inflation.

Last month, Cineplex’s chief executive officer Ellis Jacob told The Globe that, as gas and grocery costs continued to rise, there were no plans to raise the cost of a movie ticket.

“I think our guests would be more than happy for a nominal price increase, but I’m not rushing to do that,” Jacob said. “I want to make sure that we get our guests back. … We look to keep the movie experience affordable.”

In her statement, Van Lange noted that online booking fees “have been in place for many years with our exhibition counterparts globally” and are commonplace in other ticketed entertainment venues, including those hosting concerts, plays and live sports.

Landmark Cinemas, Canada’s second-largest exhibitor, is currently “evaluating the impact” of Cineplex’s new fee and “determining what will be best for our business,” according to CEO Bill Walker.

The move to reduce the cost for Scene+ members and waive fees for CineClub subscribers speaks to Cineplex’s desire to further deepen its ties with consumers. CineClub was launched this past August, with members paying $9.99 a month (less than the cost of a single ticket) for one free screening every month, plus admission and concession discounts.

Meanwhile, Cineplex and the Bank of Nova Scotia earlier this month welcomed Empire Co. Ltd., the parent company of grocery chain Sobeys, as the new co-owner of Scene+. When the hit sequel Top Gun: Maverick opened last month, 50 per cent of Cineplex moviegoers used a Scene+ card to purchase tickets and concessions.

One extra charge that Cineplex customers won’t see, at least not yet, is “variable” or “dynamic pricing” – a potential game-changer that AMC Entertainment AMC-N experimented with this spring when the U.S. exhibitor charged more for tickets of The Batman than other, less anticipated movies.

“The way we do variable pricing is with our premium offerings: If you go to see a movie in IMAX, in Ultra AVX, you pay a premium,” Jacob told The Globe in an interview this past May. “We haven’t gotten to the point where we have premium pricing because it’s ‘X’ product. We will look at that and do it if we see it works. But for us, it’s driven by the experience we’re offering you.”

Cineplex is now more than two months into fully normalized operations across the country, with no vaccine passports or other public-health restrictions. Last month, Cineplex reported that it had narrowed its first-quarter loss to $42.2-million, or 67 cents a share, compared with a loss of $89.7-million, or $1.42 a share, in the prior year.

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