How many tickets does a movie showing need to sell to break even?

I occasionally go to movies during the middle of the day and there’s often only 4 or 5 people in the theatre with me. Occasionally, I’ve even been the only one in there. I always figured that cinemas basically want to keep utilization as high as possible since the marginal cost must be pretty low.

For a cinema, if you divide the marginal cost of screening a movie vs the profit it would make per ticket (including averaged concession profits and the like), just how many tickets does a showing need to sell to be worthwhile?

For the first few weeks of a major movies run, tickets provide very little income to the theater. They make their money on concessions. They get a higer share of the tickets as the run progresses, but then usually the attendance falls off.

Studios demand a bigger cut for “big” movies than little ones.

A half empty theater for a big movie opening weekend is a loss. A half empty theater a month later for a small film is a win.

If they sell a few tickets but the people buy a lot of soda and popcorn, they win. If they sell out but people stay in their seats and don’t buy anything, they lose.

In other words, there is no simple formula for guesstimating number of tickets vs. profit. If there was a formula, life would be a lot simpler for theater owners.

Theatre pay a percentage of admissions, not a flat rate. The movie is profitable* if even one person shows up, even if the profit is negligible.

*Not counting the fixed rate of building rental, utilities, etc.

Some twenty or so years ago, my son-in-law was manager of a medium size movie complex. He says that almost all of their profit was in concessions. For instance, he relates that their cost for a large bucket of popcorn was precisely three cents. It sold for $1.50 (remember, this was 20 years ago).

Our local theater would announce, if too few people showed up, that they would not show the film because it wasn’t worth it to them. Naturally, this taught the people who were going to this business to stop trying, and it closed. I have often wondered what they were thinking.

I hope you demanded your money back!

Like many have said it probably depends on concession sales. If 5 people sit in your theatre and each one bought a large popcorn and pop it’s a good day.
If 25 sit in your theatre and not a one stopped for concessions it’s probably a loss for you.

What a weird policy. No wonder they went busto. It seems that every movie I attend about half of the people don’t show up until after the credits and some after it starts. I assume they bought their tickets just before entering. How would the manager know how many folk would eventually show up?

Yes. Since the overhead is primarily there as long as the theater is open, the only added expense is the extra electricity needed to run the projector (and some slight increase in air-conditioning cost in warm weather). I don’t know if it’s still done, but the old process where an usher tears the ticket in half, gives you the stub, and throws the other half in a bin, was part of an auditing system to keep the theaters honest.

Watching a movie with only a handful of people in the theater is my preferred way of doing it.

I would have thought that the studio, distributor, etc. would collect some minimum amount of dollars for each projection of the movie. You’re saying it isn’t so?

The theater has the same expenses if the theater has one person in the audience as it does if it’s packed. Even a single viewer brings in income. Better to show the movie to a single viewer than to turn him away.

As a former projectionist at a large multiplex theatre, I can say that we never decided not to show a performance based on lack of attendance. So even if there is a break even point, it was never considered at that level.

Although occasionally, if a film was 20 minutes in to the show and no tickets had been sold, we would turn off the projector lamp and just motor the remaining film through, instead of actually projecting it. Xenon bulbs are very expensive and have a finite # of hours per use, and are probably the highest expense portion of showing a performance of a film.

Was that so you could start showing it again if someone arrived 30 minutes late? Wouldn’t it be easier & cheaper just to stop and rewind it? Or do you have a separate rewinder and needed to run through the reel? Did you start a second reel?

Yes OldGuy, if someone did arrive late, we would just turn the lamp back on and the movie would be at the correct time to maintain the showtime schedule.

My theatre used a platter system which did not require rewinding, nor did it use multiple reels. Basically, all the film’s reels are spliced together into one gigantic reel which is kept on a horizontal platter and threaded through the projector to an empty take-up platter. The film on the take-up platter is, by design, already oriented properly for the next show. With this system, it is much easier to just let the film run through and it will be ready for the next showing.

This page shows a bit of how a platter system works.

A nearby (now closed) discount theater did a similar hari-kari policy. When you bought your ticket, they then made you stand in line OUTSIDE the theater until they were ready for you, which seemed to be about 5 minutes before the movie time.

They wouldn’t let you in to the theater to buy concessions. Then, when they let everybody in, people would swarm the theater to get “good” seats. Now there’s about 2 minutes left before the previews start. So everybody rushes to buy popcorn. The mad rush to the concession stand created horrendous lines, making most people decide to skip the popcorn.

The theater closed within months of instituting this policy.


Everything I have heard is that that fees are to buy the film/reel (once for the entire run) and then all other fees are per ticket.

I have to imagine that the near-universal switch to digital projection has had the side effect of making small showings more profitable, by eliminating the costs of acquiring and powering xenon bulbs and powering a mechanical motor that drags film physically through the projector for two hours. Not to mention the end of frantic film-building shifts, liability costs from stolen and damaged reels, etc. There is some downside to the digital revolution but this is part of the good from the theater’s financial point of view.

They still have xenon bulbs, but every other part of this is true. Sony has instituted a program where they supply theaters digital projectors with a low initial cost and no interest, and a “Virtual Print Fee” program where the theater would get some of the savings the studios/distributors got from eliminating creating and shipping 35mm prints. And the studios love it because every time a digital “print” is shown, it requires authorization from the distributor, so a theater can’t sneak in an additional showing without paying.

You actually turned your bulbs off? huh. At my old theater (this was like 20 years ago), we turned the bulbs on before the first show to let them warm up a bit and left them on for the rest of the day. Turning them off and on would have caused more wear and tear than just leaving them on. When we wanted to black it out, we closed a physical “shutter” between the bulb and the film/lens.

The three-platter system you mention has other benefits, especially in an old theater like the one I worked at with only two screens. For one, you could play two movies in one theater, like a “kiddie matinee” and then a different movie at night. Say you had the G-rated movie on platter A and the R-rated movie on platter B, leaving platter C empty. You could run the kid movie and have it taken up on platter C, then run the adult movie and have it taken up on the now-empty platter A, leaving platter B empty, and so on, always having an empty platter for take-up. The system also worked well when the new movies came in; instead of having to stay late, break down the old movie onto 20-minute reels, then splice the new one together, you could splice the new movie on platter B while the old movie was running on platters A and C, then break that one down the next day at your leisure.

And we did occasionally, when a really popular movie came out, play it on both screens at once, by running the film first through one projector, then through pulleys on the ceiling and into the other projector. There was an elaborate pulley system to keep the film from being under too much tension. Pretty neat.