Break even points for movie theatres

I saw a movie last night (Cloverfield) where the cinema was maybe 10% full and I started thinking about the economics of the movie theatre business. Obviously, theatres are built to accommodate peak audiences and because it’s fairly cheap for each additional marginal showing, it still makes sense to continue showing it for far smaller audiences.

But at what point does the cost of screening the movie exceed the revenue from movie tickets/popcorn etc. What are the main costs for each marginal screening? Wear and tear on the film? Hiring staff to clean up afterwards?

I’ll bite.

From my standpoint as a projectionist (many years ago), the only thing I cared about was if I was going to have to stay later because it was the longest running film in the house.

Some factors here…

The theater is paying 100% of ticket sales to the distributor in the beginning for any decent film. Their contracts typically allow the theater to keep an increasing percentage of the take after a certain number of weeks. At some point, it may be all going into the theater’s pockets, so even 10% attendance would be great.

There is little cleanup to do in a theater that had three people in it.

There are typically a dozen theaters in the building, so the same cleanup crew hits them all. No theater would have a dozen loser films running at once.

I always started films on time, even if there was nobody in the theater. The film could certainly take it; films do not wear out during first run.
The projector is designed for thousands of hours of use between service. The one thing that does have an hour counter is the xenon lamp. Those lamps are quite expensive ($500-$1000), but they last a long time (typically a year or so). Over that length of time, it really doesn’t make much difference if you scrimp on the showings.

I guess you could factor in the HVAC costs for the empty theater.

Whenever I wanted to go home early and I had a really long show (e.g. “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” ended at 12:30am, while all the others ended at midnight), I would turn on the house lights immediately on the first line of credits, and then start jacking up the volume to pain levels until everyone left :smiley:

So even 1 or 2 people in a theater would be worth it to the owners financially? Hrmm… say I got a group of 5 or 6 friends together, do you think the theatre owner would be open to giving us a private screening provided we go in one of the dead times of the day? Have you ever heard of that happening before?

Sure, if you all promised to buy large popcorn, large drinks, and large boxes of candy. :slight_smile:

Concessions are where almost all theater profits are made. The profit margin on a $5.00 drink is, to a good first approximation, $5.00.

A friend and I had become regular customers of a local, indie art theater, and got to know the owner/manager in an amiable way. He offered to run films at off-times just for us more than once, but at times that he would have been at the theater anyway (no driving there to open the place up just for us).

is it true that bucket costs more than the popcorn and butter combined?

I don’t think so. The individual theaters aren’t sitting idle while the whole building is open for business. There is usually somewhere around half an hour between the end of one show and the start of the next. That’s when you thread up the machine. Your private showing would have to be before the noon showings or after midnight, and the manager wouldn’t want to hang around for that.

I think the most important factor is the negative incentive if you do skip shows regularly: it is important that theatergoers be able to expect that the film will always be running at the scheduled time. If they show up twenty minutes late and you never started the show because no one came, but you can’t start it now because it would bump into the next showing, they would lose confidence in your schedule.