Credit crunch impairs theaters' digital vision

Mon Mar 30, 2009 3:51am EDT
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By Alex Ben Block

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - At the Carmike Encore Park Cinemas megaplex in Elkhart, Ind., box office receipts are way up this year. But the returns at the candy counter aren't so sweet.

In fact, sales last year of sugary snacks, popcorn and soft drinks barely reached 2007 levels in Elkhart, and this year could be worse.

"That city is at a high level of the unemployment rate and we've seen a little bit of stagnation in our per-capita growth in that particular market," says Fred Van Noy, COO of Georgia-based Carmike.

The slowdown isn't limited to Elkhart. The 289-theater Carmike chain recently launched "Stimulus Tuesdays," offering 16-ounce drinks and 46-ounce popcorns for $1 each in an attempt to boost concessions.

Even as the recession has caused a spike in theater attendance, a fear that more moviegoers are passing on $5 tubs of popcorn and sodas is just one of several concerns on exhibitors' minds as they flock to their annual ShoWest confab in Las Vegas this week.

"Frankly, this is something we are really worried about," says Thomas Stephenson Jr., president and CEO of Dallas-based Rave Motion Pictures, which has 475 screens in 14 states.

"Our concession sales are not up on a yearly basis as much as we anticipated they would be," says Dean Kerasotes, COO of Kerasotes Theaters, whose 100-year-old circuit has 933 screens at 94 locations. "It's hard to tell whether it's people's spending habits or the product, which has been heavily weighted toward more adult fare like 'Gran Torino' and 'Slumdog Millionaire,' which aren't big concession movies."

Overall, the exhibition business, despite years of predictions of doom, is doing just fine. Ticket sales rose 13.1% in January and February compared with last year, and North American box office receipts hit a record $9.8 billion last year, up 1.5% from 2007, according to the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO).   Continued...