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Popcorn shortage looms as movie theaters look to make up pandemic losses

June 2, 2022, 3:31 PM UTC

Top Gun: Maverick has given the movie industry a slingshot start to the summer blockbuster season, filling theaters to capacity. And there’s plenty of optimism for the months to come in terms of entertainment.

But when it comes to the snack supply, theater owners are worried. Supply-chain issues with popcorn could bring about a concession crisis that cuts deep into their profit margins.

The Wall Street Journal reports that farmers are growing less popcorn these days, focusing instead on soybeans or other types of corn, which they can sell for more money. That’s not an immediate problem, but could become one as we get deeper into summer.

One company is already paying growers more to encourage them to keep the popcorn corn planted.

It’s not just popcorn. The liners of popcorn containers that keep the grease from coating people’s pants as they hold the bucket or bag on their lap are getting harder to find. And the tight labor market is making it harder for some theaters to adequately staff concession stands.

Popcorn is an enormous profit driver for theaters. It’s a movie-time staple, but the costs are inflated a ridiculous amount, which patrons don’t mind paying. Theaters are less in the movie business than they are in the popcorn business, since the film industry takes such a big percentage of the box office returns.

At one point, movie theaters were making as much as 85% of their profit on concession sales.

Audiences who are returning to theaters are chowing down, too. Per-patron food and beverage revenue at AMC (which courted individual investors just a year ago with offers of free popcorn) jumped from $4.76 in the first quarter of 2020 to a record $7.37 in the same period in 2021.

“Clearly, guests returning to our theaters are eager to participate in the full theatrical experience,” Adam Aron, CEO of AMC, said on an earnings call. “More people are going to the concession stand, and they’re buying more things when they get there.”

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