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Why Do Movie Theaters Sell Popcorn?

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Channel: BrainStuff - HowStuffWorks
Categories: Economics   |   Society / Culture   |   Social Science  
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For millions of moviegoers, the idea of visiting the local theater automatically conjures memories of popcorn. But this wasn’t always the case – so why, out of all snacks, did popcorn become the #1 snack for film?

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How, of all the snacks on earth, did popcorn become the mainstay of movie theaters?

It starts with a bit of history. See, popcorn has been around for ages, and it was a popular snack at 19th century fairs and carnivals, especially after the invention of the first steam-powered popcorn-popper back in 1885. People loved the crunchy, salty, inexpensive snack.

And movie theaters hated it. During the era of silent film, these companies followed many of the same rules as traditional theatres – and they didn’t want to be associated with a loud food that could distract from the show.

Additionally, there was a little bit of a class consideration here. Since audiences had to read the dialogue on screen, they had to be literate. AKA a “better” sort of people, with superior education. Allowing popcorn inside was, in the opinion of these theater owners, kind of like throwing sawdust on the floor and saying “Yeah, sure, spit wherever.”

Talkies, or films with spoken dialogue, emerged in 1927, and this brought movie theaters to the common folk. Suddenly anyone could cough up some change, grab a seat and understand what was going on. This was also the time of the Great Depression, when Americans from coast to coast pined for cheap, escapist entertainment.

So the average Americans finally found the cinema, and they brought their snack culture along. And the Depression affected theaters, as well – theaters with the best chances of surviving were the ones that gave customers what they wanted.

At first, independent vendors sold popcorn outside the theater, profiting from the casual passersby as well as from future movie patrons. Since corn kernels were dirt cheap, popcorn became even more - wait for it - popular.

Anyway. Things, as the internet likes to say, escalated quickly.

Movie theaters allowed vendors to sell their wares in the lobby for a small fee. Eventually, they cut out the vendors entirely, acquiring their own poppers. During World War II, popcorn sales saw another bump. Sugar was rationed, which made many conventional sweet snacks and drinks, like soda, more expensive. (At least, that is, when they were available at all.) Popcorn, on the other hand, only required salt and popcorn kernels, neither of which were hard to come by.

By then the association between movies and popcorn was firmly established in the mind of the American public. This association continues today, but there’s another wrinkle to the story. “Ben,” you might be saying, “sure, popcorn was cheap in the Depression or whatever, but what happened? When did it become so expensive?”

That’s a great question. The price hike really kicked in, not just on popcorn, but on all concessions, back in the 1970s. Contrary to popular belief, your local movie theater doesn’t actually make much bank off the films it screens. Instead, theaters use concessions to stay in business.

According to the Stanford Business School, concessions comprise only about 20% of a theatre’s gross revenue, but 40% of its profits. This makes sense when we consider how theaters have to split ticket revenue with movie distributors, but can pocket 100% of whatever they manage to sell at the snack counter. The bulk cost of the ingredients is laughably small, and the profit margin is huge. And let's not forget that this stuff is addictively delicious.

Thanks for watching. What’s a snack you think more movie theaters should sell? Is there anything that could replace popcorn? Everyone who said whiskey, let’s hang out later. In the meantime, stay tuned for more BrainStuff.


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