Multiplex experience takes a toll on moviegoers' wallets

The high cost of concession stand refreshments and snacks might keep moviegoers from frequent visits, but they are necessary to keep theaters updated and profitable.
The high cost of concession stand refreshments and snacks might keep moviegoers from frequent visits, but they are necessary to keep theaters updated and profitable.

Ed and Austin Ott are a movie theater owner's dream.

Austin, 15, was clutching a tub of popcorn filled to the brim, while Ed, 43, held a large soft drink also freshly refilled as the father and son left a recent matinee showing of Captain America at Rave Westfield Franklin Park 14. They spent a total of $26.50 for their movie experience -- $14.50 for the tickets and $12 for the concessions.

"The only reason we would get the larger size is to get refills," Ed said. "We'll take it home and it lasts."

Yet even the Otts, who are from Sylvania, say they can't afford to go to movies more than once a month.

"I don't think anybody could afford to do that," Ed said.

The high price of going to the cinema might be a concern for many moviegoers, but it's not entirely fair to blame theater owners --including Rave, which owns the three biggest local theaters -- especially for the cost of candy, popcorn, and Cokes.

It's no secret that movie studios gobble up 60 percent or more of box-office ticket sales for their films. Studios feast on the biggest revenue chunk during a film's more lucrative first few weeks in release and take less and less of a percentage as the film continues to play. The longer a movie plays in theaters, the more the box-office revenue works in a theater owner's favor. The problem for the owners is that usually several weeks into its run a movie is attracting considerably less crowds. This is especially true of the busy summer film schedule, when major new releases open weekly, if not head to head.

There are exceptions to the short box-office life of most movies, such as 2009's The Hangover, which stayed in the top 10 for nine consecutive weeks. Its sequel, released in late May, lasted only five weeks in the top 10.

With ticket sales such an unreliable form of revenue, movie theaters over the years came to rely even more on concessions to make up the difference.

"It's our source of profit," said Jeremy Devine, Rave vice president of marketing. "The actual film we share a great deal of that ticket [sales] with the studio. If we're going to operate 60,000-square foot buildings, and we're going to bring in the latest technology, whether it be digital projection and sound, 3D, or Xtreme, we have to find a source of income.

"The place that we retain the most money is from concessions."

Devine said Rave is mindful of the price of going to the movies as well as the struggling economy, and has lowered concession prices in its Toledo theaters by 50 cents along with free refills on large drinks and popcorns.

But the markup is steep, especially when compared to the average grocery-store price.

For example, a large 32-ounce drink at Rave costs $5. Compare that to the 66 cents it costs for two 12-ounce cans of soda -- as part of a 12 pack for $4 -- to fill that same 32-ounce cup along with a generous scoop of ice to cover the difference.

Cindy, a mother of three who declined to provide her last name, said she spent less on tickets for her and her family at a matinee showing of Winnie the Pooh at Westfield Franklin Park than she did on concessions, including a large popcorn and drink, along with a bottled water. The cost of going to the movies even has the West Toledo resident considering if it's cheaper for her to log the extra miles to Cinemark Woodland Mall Cinema 5 in Bowling Green, where adult tickets are $5 in the evening, nearly half the price at Rave.

But high ticket prices haven't affected movie attendance yet.

A representative from the National Association of Theatre Owners, an exhibition trade organization representing movie theatres nationwide and in more than 40 countries, said ticket sales are up overall this year from last.

"Although we were up for the second quarter and summer, we were down for the first quarter," said Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research at NATO. Corcoran said the difference in 2011's first-quarter numbers and 2010's is the blockbuster tandem of Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, which were released early last year.

"They basically accounted for the first quarter deficit we had," he said.

But box-office tracking site reported that June, with an estimated 128 million tickets sold, was "the least-attended June since 2000, and it was more than 10 percent below the average of this century."

While average attendance figures might be debated, consumers today cannot lay claim to the distinction of suffering the highest cost for a movie ticket.

In 2010 moviegoers paid $7.89 for a single admission, an average including matinees and other discounts, as well as 3D surcharges. This year they're paying $7.86. And if that still sounds too expensive, consider that the average ticket price of $1.55 in 1970, when adjusted for inflation, amounts to $9.03 this year and $8.71 last year, Corcoran said.

"The entire experience today is far better than it was in 1970, with digital sound, digital projection, stadium seating," he said. "I think it's just a better experience."

Contact Kirk Baird at or 419-724-6734.