Popcorn dispute hits Turkey’s movie theatres

A dispute over discounted ticket prices has raised fears cinema releases could grind to a halt this year as Turkish production companies and movie theatre giant Mars Entertainment clash over their shares of box-office revenues.

What some call “the popcorn dispute” surfaced when Yılmaz Erdoğan, actor and the co-founder of the film production company BKM, announced last week that he had decided to delay the release of his new movie. 

Other major producers joined Erdoğan, complaining that their share in ticket revenues have remained fixed for years, despite increases in ticket prices.

The producers are particularly put out by campaigns offered by Mars Entertainment, which allows viewers to buy discounted tickets that include popcorn and drinks. Producers say their revenues have taken an even greater hit due to such campaigns. 

Mars Entertainment, which was bought by South Korean CJ CGV Group two years ago, controls some 884 movie theatres across Turkey, which production companies say has brought them a monopoly power over the sector.

“People used to go to movie theatres and buy their popcorn to eat while watching films. Now they go to eat popcorn and watch films on the side,” Erdoğan said in a radio interview with journalist Cengiz Semercioğlu on Dec. 29, referring to the way revenues are shared when customers buy discounted ticket, popcorn and drink deals. 

“This in time turned into a situation that threatens the movie industry, which may end with producers going bankrupt and unable to produce movies,” he said.

A new bill introduced by the Ministry of Culture, which is expected to be voted on in parliament this month, has also exacerbated the dispute. The bill aims to put limits on the time allocated for commercials in movie theatres and stipulates that ticket price campaigns should be implemented through an agreement between producers and distribution campaigns.

From the perspective of Mars Entertainment, the dispute stems from challenges Turkish producers face in complying with the rules of the global market. The company says discounted tickets are designed to increase the pleasure of viewers while watching films, allow them to access differentiated services easily, and to strengthen movie theatres’ competitive power against digital platforms, which have decreased box office revenues in recent years.

The company says their revenues also fall when selling discounted tickets as the producers and the company share the profits equally. The producers say their share from tickets remains at 5 lira ($0.90) and they want it to be increased to 8 lira ($1.40). The company, however, says the producers have in fact asked for 12.5 lira ($2.3).

Mars Entertainment says the main bulk of revenues for movie theatres come from commercials, and limiting the time allocated to commercials shown in theatres will harm the sector. 

Mars Group’s Corporate Relation Director, Aslı Irmak Acar said in an interview with Semercioğlu last week that the South Korean Company had made an $800 million investment in Turkey so far and planned to make additional investments worth $200 million over the next five years. She also said that in terms of seats, they controlled 34 percent of the market, while in terms of audience they had a 44.2 percent share. 

Acar said producers had no grounds to complain that the discounted ticket deals had caused their earnings to stagnate for five years, since the discount campaigns were launched only a year ago. 

Later on, Acar’s combative tone in the interview worsened the dispute when she said that only four companies had objected to the discounted prices and Mars would choose to work with others if those companies kept insisting on a larger share of revenues. 

“Are you saying, if there is no Cem Yılmaz, then new names like Cem Yılmaz will come,” Semercioğlu asked Acar, referring to comedian, director, and producer Cem Yılmaz. 

Acar agreed with the statement and pointed out that her company had provided 26 million lira ($4.8 million) in financial support to producers in 2018.

The director’s words were not welcomed by Yılmaz, who invited Acar to create new stars like him if she could and said he would release his films in coffee houses with free popcorn if need be.

Many other actors and producers joined Yılmaz on social media, expressing frustration at Acar’s words. A meeting between Mars Group and productions companies that had been scheduled for the next day was also cancelled after the interview.

Mars Entertainment Group on Thursday issued a long statement, explaining its arguments and calling on the ministry to review the bill in order to avoid harming Turkey’s movie sector with a decision it warned could curb investments. It also said its target was to make Turkey the world’s fifth largest movie industry following what it called the company’s vision of “a movie sector that would be the pride of the Turkish nation”.

While the ministry is trying to find common ground between the production, distribution, and movie theatre companies, not much consideration has been paid to audiences, who will have to contend with uncertainty about the release dates of many movies caused by the dispute. 

Ironically, many Turks who reacted to news of the dispute on social media complained that they found the noise of people eating popcorn during films so disturbing that they stayed away from cinemas altogether. 

Audiences are also angry with producers, accusing them of producing low quality movies to increase revenues and reacting to the situation only when it hit their pockets, while many smaller producers have been struggling for years to get their movies into theatres.