The Summer Popcorn Wars: How Movie Theaters Prep for the Busy Season

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It takes a veritable village of vendors to make a movie theater as appealing as possible, and if ever cinemas need to sparkle — from floors to seats to bathrooms to you name it — it’s now, as the summer box office gets underway. The one-two punch of the pandemic and Hollywood’s labor wars created a perilous slowdown in content that, which means 2024 will have a very tough time matching the $9 billion grossed last year. Without a big Marvel to kick off the season over the May 5-7 weekend, revenue is lagging badly over last year. But there’s still plenty of opportunity for improvement.

Foot traffic is everything for theater owners. While their profit margin on a movie ticket will be 33 percent, that number shoots up to 56 percent on a concession, according to one industry executive with access to data. Popcorn remains king and represents 30 percent of all concession sales, says Chris Dammann, executive vp of the National Association of Concessionaires. But to entice people to buy snacks requires not only stocking the latest treats, but also keeping your cinema in shipshape order.

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Cinema operators work with hundreds of third-parties to get the job done, and are always on the hunt for the shiniest new enticement, such as a robotic cotton candy machine that let’s customers chose not only custom flavors, but custom designs. “Theaters partner with a wide array of vendors who are doing some really exciting and interesting new things to update every element of the theatrical experience,” National Association of Theatre Owners president-CEO Michael O’Leary says.

The Hollywood Reporter takes a look at some of the vendors involved.

The Summer Popcorn Bucket Wars

Collectible popcorn buckets commissioned by various movie chains are going to play a starring role at the summer box office, especially when you have Deadpool on the case. Ryan Reynolds is determined to outshine and blow away the infamous Dune: Part Two popcorn worm bucket that unintentionally invoked comparisons to genitalia by requiring users to stick their hands down a rubber top. Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige recently revealed that the popcorn bucket for July’s Deadpool & Wolverine will be “intentionally lewd and crude.” Zinc, a market leader in this arena, isn’t doing the Deadpool bucket, but is the home of the Dune sandworm and worked with 20th Century and AMC Theatres on a custom bucket for Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, which opened to a better-than-expected $58.5 million domestically and $131.2 million globally over the May 10-12 globally. It features a lid and hidden keychain in the shape of the window Caesar drew in the first film, which has become the symbol of ape freedom in the franchise. These collectibles can cost anywhere from $25 to $50, although many are on the lower end of that range. AMC CEO Adam Aron estimates that custom popcorn buckets have brought in $54 million in revenue in the past few years. Zinc is also doing a snazzy custom bucket for Pixar’s June tentpole Inside Out 2, and imagine the possibilities for other 2024 tentpoles, including Universal’s July tornado action-adventure Twisters.

Kevin Costner’s Movie Theater Coffee Campaign

Amid all the soda, food and (yes) even alcohol sold in movie houses, there’s a glaring omission: a hot cup of joe. But thanks to the Dr Pepper and Keurig merger, coffee is now being sold to hundreds of theaters. Better yet, Keurig has a powerful ally on its side — Kevin Costner. He’s peddling his own dark roast, named Horizon by Keurig, after his two upcoming summer Westerns, the first of which makes its world premiere in the coming days at the Cannes Film Festival. Ed Meade, a sales rep at Horizon, says coffee has always been a tough sell at theaters because it’s incredibly hard to keep warm without growing bitter. “There’s a reason why coffee sales aren’t higher,” he says. “If you come in and ask for a coffee, you might be the only one the whole show. And they always ask you, ‘Is it fresh?’ ” Dammann with the National Association of Concessionaires hasn’t heard about coffee becoming a thing, but he is curious as to whether a growing trend in baseball parks — deep-fried grasshoppers — will come to movie theaters. Ditto for edamame, a staple in cinemas across Asia.

No, Mushroom Popcorn Isn’t Part of Psilocybin Treatment

A family business founded in 1925, the Reist Popcorn Company is a leading supplier of popcorn to cinemas. One product that more and more theaters are ordering? “Mushroom” kernels. No, you won’t get high from eating them. What you will get is near-perfect round kernels that resemble mushroom caps — a sturdy and desirable shape for caramel corn, which has become a popular alternative in some cinemas; it was a hallmark of the now-shuttered ArcLight Hollywood. “Regular popcorn has too many jagged edges,” says Reist’s Christine Williams. Mushroom popcorn is also the go-to shape for kettle corn, popcorn’s slightly sweeter cousin. Whatever the type and whomever the seller, approximately 30 percent of concession sales at theaters include popcorn, according to NAC. (Soda is No. 1, but not by much.)

Let No Movie Seat Go to Waste

Tim McMahan’s dad and two brothers started installing seats in movie theaters and other venues after World War II. The California Seating & Repair Co. is still in business and based in the San Fernando Valley. He and his team are experts in installing new seats for third parties and then refurbishing seats no longer in use. Quentin Tarantino used the company when he bought and reinvigorated two historic L.A. single-screen theaters, the New Beverly and the Vista, and it was hired when Imax overhauled the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood (the company works all over the West). Luxury recliners have become all the rage in recent years, and chains like Regal sell McMahan their inventory. “That opens up a lot of opportunity for us, and we resell a lot of them to smaller chains and mom-and-pop theaters.”

Making Complicated Cleaning Easier

Dory Howell of ProStar Industries, a cleaning supplier, says there’s nothing worse than the sticky floors in theaters caused by using too much chemical solution. “You may deal with an 18-year-old who thinks the more the better,” she says. ProStar’s system premeasures what goes into buckets and containers, to make it easier on movie theater employees. It has also developed powder pods for other cleaning needs, which saves hundreds of thousands of dollars in shipping costs, since ProStar no longer has to ship liquid. Royal Corporation, another huge cleaning supplier, has developed kits (on display for theaters to buy in bulk, above) addressing areas that need attention, from recliners to grout, to name just a few.

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