Looking ahead for a weekend showing? Check the Tuesday listings. Tom Cooper/Getty Images
I've Always Wondered ...

How do movie theaters decide showtimes?

Janet Nguyen Aug 19, 2022
Looking ahead for a weekend showing? Check the Tuesday listings. Tom Cooper/Getty Images

This is just one of the stories from our “I’ve Always Wondered” series, where we tackle all of your questions about the world of business, no matter how big or small. Ever wondered if recycling is worth it? Or how store brands stack up against name brands? Check out more from the series here.

Listener Amy Ford from Suffolk, Virginia, asks: 

Why can’t I get movie times more than a few days in advance?

When many of us go to the movies, we’re aware of the amount of skill that went into the production. But we may not know a lot about the skill it takes to book that film for the theater screen.

“Film scheduling is an art, honestly” said Guy Austin, vice president of film and content acquisition for CMX Cinemas, which has locations in several states, including Alabama, Florida and Virginia. 

Setting movie showtimes — their exact times and how far in advance — is a delicate balancing act that takes into consideration the movie’s financial performance, the type of film, moviegoers’ needs and the agreements theaters have with the studios.

Weekend ticket revenue

“Theaters get most of their ticket revenue on weekends, so a lot of what determines showtime scheduling at multiplexes is the performance of films the previous weekend,” said Derek Long, an assistant professor of media and cinema studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

Long added that as of Thursday night, his two local multiplexes in Champaign had yet to set most screening times for next Friday. 

“That’s because they are waiting to see how their current films perform at the box office this Friday and Saturday, which helps them decide what films to drop in order to make space for next week’s new releases,” Long explained over email. 

Tuesday listings

When Jared Comess, vice president of marketing and public relations at Paragon Entertainment Group, gets questions about scheduling, he likes to advise people to look at the showtimes on Tuesday afternoons. 

“That gives us enough time to update the website, make sure all the deals went through,” Comess said. “We have what our complete schedule is for the upcoming weekend.” 

But there are exceptions, especially when it comes to big blockbusters, such as “Thor: Love and Thunder.” Showtimes might be listed a month before the initial release, Comess said. 

Austin of CMX Cinemas said that scheduling is ultimately a supply and demand issue: “The higher the demand, the earlier the film’s gonna go on sale.”

The size of the theater is another part of that equation. 

Sometimes customers will point out that a big movie chain has tickets on sale for a particular movie, Austin said, while wondering when CMX Cinemas’ theaters will have them. That’s because that bigger chain has more screens, which means it can gamble more on some of its titles. 

“It’s a gigantic puzzle that’s constantly changing,” Austin said.

Even if a theater knows it will carry a popular film in the upcoming weeks, it can’t guarantee showtimes too far in advance, Austin explained, because the theater has to consider other films it has to show. 

“So if you’re running a theater that has anywhere from six to 25 screens, once you add in films, you have to also build a schedule around the flow of traffic,” he said. 

You can’t have all your films showing at 7 p.m., one of the most popular moviegoing times, so you have to figure out how you’re going to spread them out, he added. Otherwise, there will be long lines at the box office, long lines at the food and beverage counters, and long waits for orders at dine-in theaters. 

It’s like when you go to Sunday brunch and you have to wait an hour and a half to get in, Austin said. But theaters can help mitigate the risk of everyone showing up at the same time. 

“In order to meet that crush of demand, that schedule then has to be reworked every single week to create an even flow so that it helps the customer have a more seamless experience, rather than dealing with crowds,” he said. 

The scheduling game plan

Studios and theaters regularly negotiate over show times.

“I like to say that it’s like a marriage that’s constantly in therapy,” Austin said. “[Theaters and studios] are always working things out together. It’s very relationship-based.”

Paragon Theaters — which has locations in Florida, North Carolina and Virginia —  generally assesses its schedule on a week-by-week basis like many other exhibitors in the U.S., said Comess, the Paragon Entertainment executive. 

Austin of CMX said every Sunday night, he sits in his office and looks at all the grosses from the weekend, taking note of the lowest-performing films. 

When new movies are released, the finite number of screens in a theater means the bottom-performing films may have to be dropped.

Sometimes he’ll rearrange the schedule so that the theater will play a movie at matinee times or on an alternating schedule. 

Every Monday morning is a battle between studios and exhibitors, Austin said — a battle between the studios wanting to keep a movie on screen and the theaters trying to bring in new films, and keeping every studio happy. 

“It’s not always easy to do,” Austin said. 

Sometimes, when he tells a studio he plans to limit a movie’s showtimes, it might say no, that would violate the “clean policy” the studio has in place (meaning the theaters can’t cancel showtimes to play something else). 

“So then I have to go back and rework it, or I have to talk with them and convince them that it’s the right thing to do,” he said. 

Studios will also argue their case — maybe they really want a movie to gross $150 million. 

“They’ll start saying, ‘OK, I know I’m No. 10, but can you get me a showtime here or there?’” Austin said. “[It’s] to keep themselves on screen because they know next week, there’s not going to be a lot of product. There’s a chance they can come back to either a full screen or more shows. And so a lot of their arguments are based on their calculations of the coming weeks as well.” 

While Austin negotiates with studios, the theater’s general manager is ultimately responsible for setting the schedules. What Austin does is give those managers guidelines, which also include recommendations like the best showtime for a movie based on how long it is and how many shows should play after 7 p.m.. 

“The general managers, effectively, are the ones that are driving that bus,” he said. 

That brings us back to Tuesday, the day some theaters say is best to look up weekend listings. 

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