‘I Spent $60 for Popcorn’: Collectible Buckets Are Turning a Tidy Profit for Movie Theaters

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“Mean Girls” Burn Books, “Wonka” hats and those “Dune” worm buckets are making millions for chains like AMC


Rachel Woodall had never spent $60 in a single trip to the concession stand at a movie theater. But she did just that in January when she saw that her local AMC Theaters location had a special popcorn tin made to look like the infamous Burn Book from “Mean Girls.”

“I knew I needed the Burn Book tin right when I saw it,” she said. “If it had been just a bucket shape, I may have been able to resist, but the fact that it’s book-shaped and so versatile for reuse sold it. I didn’t even eat popcorn out of it.”

Before seeing the Burn Book, Woodall said she didn’t even know theaters were offering collectible popcorn buckets. That makes her the sort of moviegoer chains increasingly hope to appeal to.

Over the past year, theater chains like AMC have turned to special collectibles, which they can sell for higher profit margins, to maximize sluggish theatrical revenue from ticket sales as the domestic box office struggles overall.

So far, they are paying off.

In its 2023 full year financial report released Wednesday, AMC reported $1.67 billion in food & beverage revenue, as well as $452 million in “other theater” revenue. Of that other revenue, $54 million came from movie-themed merchandise such as collectible popcorn buckets.

“Moviegoers are showing a greater willingness to spend more at theaters, so why not see how far they’re willing to spend?” Boxoffice editor Daniel Loria told TheWrap. “With a ‘Barbie’ tin that costs $35 that costs $25-$30 per unit to buy, the profit margins are much higher than the one or two dollars that come with just a normal bucket of popcorn.”

AMC’s admissions revenue in 2023 hit $2.69 billion, 19.5% down from the $3.3 billion the chain grossed in 2018. F&B and miscellaneous revenue, meanwhile, is on par with that pre-pandemic year, suggesting that while many moviegoers haven’t returned to theaters since the COVID-19 shutdown, the ones that have are more likely to spend on concessions, merch, and special items that movie theaters are selling to differentiate the theatrical-watching experience from home viewing.

Films that have climbed to the top of the box office charts have come with collectible popcorn buckets and beverage cups. Among them are a hat-shaped popcorn bucket for “Wonka,” a “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire”-themed bucket featuring the gross-out mascot Slimer, and the infamous “Dune: Part Two” buckets designed to look like the giant worms of Arrakis but which, as a viral “Saturday Night Live” sketch pointed out, look like something far more explicit.

When paired with the right movie, these buckets can fly out of the multiplex. AMC sold out of 25,000 limited edition “Barbie” popcorn tins shaped to look like the pink convertible that Margot Robbie drives in the film. Earlier this month, Cinemark CEO Sean Gamble noted in an earnings call that his chain’s locations sold out of a Ghostface-shaped popcorn bucket released for “Scream VI” last year.

“We were able then to extend that to an online offering and direct consumers to go purchase them online because they were no longer available in our theaters and we sold a ton of those online as well,” Gamble said.

Collectible popcorn buckets aren’t anything new. They have been a part of promotions for family films for decades now, with studios licensing IP to third-party vendors that manufacture the collectibles. But theater chains are starting to expand their use to lure patrons to tentpole films like “Dune: Part Two” in an effort to win over more than just kids, Loria said.

Collectibles are risky for some theater chains

While national chains like AMC and Cinemark have the cash reserves to invest heavily into collectibles, the cost of buying into them can be much higher for smaller companies. Larry Etter, SVP of Food & Beverage at the southeast regional chain Malco Theaters, said that the sort of moviegoers willing to buy premium collectibles haven’t shown up at the chain’s locations in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi.

“I’ve had movies where I’ve bought these collectibles at $12 each and have to sell them at $18 minimum to turn a profit, and our patrons balk at that price,” Etter said. “We did have a plush popcorn bucket for the recent ‘Trolls’ film we bought for $6 each and sold well at $10, but that’s because parents will buy those for their kids.”

Etter did try recently to venture outside of family films by buying collector popcorn buckets for “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour,” exploring whether the pop star’s devoted fans would be so excited to watch the concert film that they would buy other merch. The answer was a clear “no.”

“I was giving some of those buckets away,” Etter said. “We had to give it a try to learn more about the audience for those kinds of films, but we learned that they are just interested in the film, not any merch.”

Etter, along with another F&B exec who spoke with TheWrap on background, pointed out other challenges with collectibles, such as needing to order them six months in advance because they are manufactured overseas. That was the case for the “Dune” popcorn buckets, which Etter chose not to sell at Malco because there was no indication that the film or the buckets would gain the sort of pop culture traction seen in the last couple of weeks prior to its release.

“Sometimes it’s clear that something like ‘Barbie’ or ‘Minions’ is going to be a huge merch seller and it’s worth buying in,” the F&B exec said. “But if I’m not convinced I’m going to sell most of these collectibles on opening weekend, I can’t buy, because they don’t stack easily and take up a huge part of our storage space.”

Andi Ortiz contributed reporting for this story.


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