Sneaking Food into Movies

Dear Helena,
Is it wrong to bring your own snacks into the movies? I know there are sometimes signs posted saying you can’t, but I don’t appreciate being charged airport prices for Junior Mints. Nor do I enjoy nachos slathered in cheese product.
—Popcorn in My Purse

Dear Popcorn in My Purse,
It’s not surprising that movie theaters forbid outside food: Concessions are their single biggest revenue stream, says Richard McKenzie, an economics professor at the University of California at Irvine and author of Why Popcorn Costs So Much at the Movies and Other Pricing Puzzles. Theaters must share their income from ticket sales with film distributors and studios, while snacks and sodas have a high profit margin.

Raisinets and jumbo Cokes weren’t always part of the viewing experience. In the early days of cinema, theater owners discouraged snack consumption, feeling it clashed with the elegant atmosphere they were trying to create. “They had elaborate tapestries and carpeting and upholstery and didn’t want anything like candy that could get stuck to it,” explains Ross Melnick, cofounder of Cinema Treasures, a nonprofit devoted to saving the remaining movie palaces, and coauthor of a book of the same name.

Movie theaters began selling refreshments to boost revenue during the Depression, says Melnick. After the Second World War, when many moviegoers switched to TV instead, snacks became an even more important source of profit. In 1936, concession sales at movie theaters totaled $10 million. By 1949, candy sales alone were $50 million. As McKenzie explains, the concession stand was a major reason for the growth of the multiplex, where different movie starting times ensure there’s always a line for popcorn.

You’re not the only one to bristle at the prices. Most people suffer in silence, but after learning that outside food was forbidden (and being denied entry to the sci-fi movie Cloverfield because of it), Adam Glennon, a postman in Stockport, England, last year staged a protest in the street outside the theater, pressing free candy and price-comparison leaflets on passersby.

In his Ethicist column in the New York Times, Randy Cohen argues that when a business’s rule is grossly unfair, it’s fine to disobey it, and that the high price of movie popcorn justifies bringing in your own picnic.

I agree. If movie popcorn were delicious—organic kernels drizzled with real butter, for instance—then the sticker shock wouldn’t be so bad. But the truth is, it’s often stale. McKenzie explains: “Movie managers sometimes either pop the corn off-site or buy it ready-popped, but they have the popcorn poppers going [for show] when people are coming in through door.” Processed hot dogs and corn syrup–laden sodas aren’t likely to inspire an ecstatic Chowhound post either. As Glennon points out in an email, it’s wrong not to offer “healthy options for people who may have diabetes or weight issues. Are they banning fruit even though they don’t offer any?” And if you’re ecosensitive, you may cringe to see all those popcorn buckets and nacho trays stuffed into the trash.

So go ahead and smuggle in your own snacks. Staff will probably turn a blind eye. Wayne Woeltjen, lead assistant manager of Embarcadero Cinema in San Francisco, says, “It’s at the discretion of the staff, as long as it’s not disruptive.” As with eating on a plane, avoid hot foods, which have stronger aromas. For those bringing in their own popcorn, consider adding spicy cinnamon sugar or Parmigiano and black pepper. I like mine hippie-style, with soy sauce and nutritional yeast; Chowhounds have plenty of other suggestions. Just be sure to pack your popcorn in a plastic container, not in a crackly bag.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.