None of the theater chains would comment on Disney's unusual leverage to demand preferential terms for "The Force Awakens," but there's no question they all agreed to lower margins on tickets than usual.
But that doesn't mean theaters are unhappy; "The Force Awakens" is still a massive win. Not only is the film drawing such hefty numbers of moviegoers that even at lower margins, theaters will end up in the black; perhaps more important, it's drawing massive audiences to spend big on higher-margin concessions.
And popcorn and soda are a significant part of theaters' revenue and an even bigger chunk of profit. In the third quarter concessions were 30 percent of Regal Cinemas', the largest theater chain. The margins for concessions are in the 85 to 95 percent range, Wold said.
"This is the type of film that will drive high traffic into a theater chain, and enable theater operators to sell high-margin concessions to those patrons," said Wold. "So even though you may not want to pay that high rate to a studio, it's worth it to get a film like this and drive that traffic."
There's another way theaters will benefit: "Star Wars" is attracting many people who haven't been to a theater in a while to see trailers. Six years ago "Avatar" was credited for driving higher moviegoing attendance over the following three to six months. And this time around theaters may see an additional benefit — returning moviegoers will see all the investments theaters have been making in upgrades, from cocktail bars, to plush chairs that recline.
So why are theater stocks down this year? AMC and Regal, the two largest chains, have both fallen more than 10 percent. Wold said it's in part because of concerns that margin pressure on theaters' cuts of tickets will continue, without the upside of a film like "Star Wars" that brings the purchase of high-margin "Star Wars"-themed snacks.
So, why is the media so focused on that top-line box-office number if it means different things to studios with each film? True, the box-office numbers reported each week do not reflect profitability — they don't take into account the size of a film's budget or the tens of millions of dollars often spent on advertising. And the U.S. box office which the media so frequently focuses on, is a shrinking piece of the growing overall pie. (Splits with theaters are usually less preferential for studios overseas, though the splits vary country by country.)