A Tale of Capitalism, Control, and Snacks
Movie theaters have asked us to submit to search on entry or spend exorbitant amounts of money on popcorn — or to become food smugglers — to see The Fast and the Furious on a big screen. And we do! What does it mean to tie film to food? What would we gain if that changed — and what would we lose?
words by Marsha Gordon | art by An Chen | 6,359 words (a 26-minute read) | Winter 2022
It’s any given weekend in the early 80s, and my mother is prepping. She pulls the air popper out of the woodgrain kitchen cabinets, puts it on the white tile counter, and measures out a quarter-cup of kernels. The machine whirs and popcorn jitters down the chute into a stainless-steel bowl, some spilling onto the counters and floor. She portions the popped corn into three standard-issue brown paper lunch bags — one for her, one for me, one for my younger sister — neatly folds their tops, and secures each one with a single central staple.
She loads a canvas tote bag with three cans of juice, bendy straws wrapped in flimsy white paper napkins, and the bagged popcorn before announcing that it’s time to go. She doesn’t bother to conceal the tote’s contents; should anyone ask to look inside, the cat — and the popcorn — will already be out of the bag.
We pile into the car to commit our first petty crime of the day. We’re going to the movies.
My mother refused to participate in what seemed like a trap: you pay to enter a space for one experience (a movie) and are encouraged, perhaps even compelled, to incur an even greater cost for another (eating and drinking). Buying concessions — or sneaking them in — is now fully wedded to the act of moviegoing. It’s a presumed part of the experience despite the fact that it’s a distraction from the reason we’re in a theater in the first place. We fully associate the sensory experiences of smell and taste with the sights and sounds of watching movies, even though we sacrifice a degree of appreciation for each activity for the sake of the combined pleasure.
This was not inevitable. Buying a movie ticket wasn’t always an upsell opportunity, a chance to exploit decadent impulses in the permissive darkness of the theater. You might say that the movie industry, over the course of almost a century, exerted its influence over our minds, bodies, and pocketbooks to convince us that watching and eating were twinned activities. You might also say that we, the watchers and eaters, were complicit in our gradual descent into the snack bar rabbit hole.
The push-pull between making moviegoing about seeing movies — projected on a big screen, in a comfortable or even luxurious setting, in the midst of others with whom we laugh, scream, and cry — and making moviegoing about nachos and super-sized sodas may have reached its breaking point. As streaming services keep more people at home than ever before and when going to the movies remains tinged with the risk of contagion (and seems likely to be for the foreseeable future), what will happen to the seemingly indestructible marriage of movies and snacks consumed by groups of people in a public space? Will movie theaters survive, with or without concessions? And if we lose the ritual of moviegoing, what else will we lose?
Movies have always promised to transport us to other universes. Going to see a movie is a break from daily life without the effort, time, and expense of travel— a vacation in a seat, usually within minutes of where we live or work. It’s an unusual combination: a transportive, emotionally immersive activity achieved with little effort and at minimal cost. The temporary break from reality feels even more like an occasion when accompanied by food we don’t normally eat, in excess of amounts we usually consume.
Before the lobby concession stand became an architectural component of every movie theater in America, going to the movies involved food and beverages purchased outside of the theater, or — are you sitting down? — did not involve food at all. In the nineteen-teens and twenties, ticket buyers might have stopped by a local confectionary, drug store, or street vendor to buy snacks that they would, usually without subterfuge, bring into the theater. As increasingly luxurious theaters tried to class up moviegoing over the course of the 1920s, especially in cities, popcorn, peanuts, and hot dogs were barred. These snacks were associated with “low-class” amusements like fairs, burlesque shows, and circuses, and they made a mess. Who wants to pick chewing gum and peanut shells out of their velvet seats?
The increasingly sophisticated experience big-city theaters were cultivating didn’t jive with the habits of many moviegoers. In early 1932, a Mr. J.E. Harris wrote a chiding letter to the editor of the New York Times in which he schooled the newspaper’s citified readers that at movie theaters in the “Middle West,” from whence the writer originally came, people regularly brought in bags of popped corn bought for a nickel from street carts or drug stores. Harris mocked New Yorkers for not having “the wit” to sell popped corn for this purpose, if not for their own enjoyment then for the sake of the many “Middle Westerners there hungry for the homey smell.” New York City was, for once, behind the curve. But movie theater operators there and everywhere soon joined in the concessions act; popcorn, as Mr. Harris predicted, became the star of the show. As theaters sought to make money during the sustained financial hardship of the Great Depression, all but a few holdouts began selling inexpensive food for profit, starting a slow but decisive transformation of the movie theater from a place in which to watch a movie into a business that is as much about selling food and beverage as it is about anything else.
Many movie theaters began their concessions game modestly with a lobby candy stand or vending machine selling sweets to customers on their way in, or by contracting with popcorn vendors who set up shop just outside. Eventually, candy “jobbers” or “butchers” started paying theaters for access to their customers and strolled the aisles hawking treats during the show. It didn’t take theaters long to realize that there was more money to be earned by making and selling concessions themselves — a small tradeoff for the inconveniences of machine maintenance and additional staff. Movie theaters embraced the cheap-to-produce, lucrative universe of popped corn, along with soda, chewing gum, cigarettes, hot dogs, and eventually much more. In 1932, the industry magazine Variety reported that in Birmingham, Alabama, a dime bought a ticket, a “handful of popcorn […], a cup of coffee and a ham sandwich” — dinner and a movie. Five years later, the magazine announced that food and drink sales had “grown to be an important and widespread adjunct of theater operation” despite the fact that local merchants, whose businesses relied on selling these items to moviegoers, were crying foul. The ecosystem that had developed between movie theaters and outside food sellers broke down as theater operators awoke to the dazzling profits of the concession stand; nearby retailers were left out in the cold.
Some fought back. In the late 1930s, a coalition of Austin, Texas, businesses claimed that movie theaters had illegally exceeded their operations licenses by selling candy, popcorn, peanuts, ice cream sandwiches, and soft drinks plus a litany of other things even less related to watching a movie: ashtrays, canes, umbrellas, clocks, dolls, aspirin, perfume, razor blades, records. Lobbies were starting to look like drug stores, although the theaters weren’t paying chain store or vending machine taxes. Theaters even found revenue streams in the restroom, installing penny machines for paper towels, electric hand-drying, perfume, and sanitary napkins. If they could sell it, they did. Theater proprietors had, in other words, gotten hep to the fact that they had a captive audience. During the darkest Depression years, savvy theaters dramatically dropped admissions prices “just to get more people in to buy popcorn,” as one manager recalled. Thirty years into the history of showing movies to audiences, the prioritization of the sale of something other than film was complete.
Today, there is no food more associated with an activity and place than popcorn is with movie theaters. When we see a lighthearted movie and want people to know that we know it was for pure entertainment, we need only say that we took in a “popcorn movie.” Popcorn, the flagship profit item for movie theaters, is staged to assail our senses. Popping always takes place just before and between showings to maximize the tantalizing aroma greeting patrons as they walk in the door. The staccato pitter-patter of pops and the sight of those aquarium-style machines conspire to trigger a dopamine response that urges us to get in line as we imagine the pleasurable crunch and Flavacol™-enhanced taste, butterier and better than butter itself.
My mother’s modus operandi was to conceal our healthy, unbuttered, low-cost movie snacks in her maxed-out tote bag, held close to her body, and walk confidently into the movie theater with her two smiling but slightly anxious kids in tow. The tote always contained that air-popped-just-before-departure popcorn and cans of unsweetened juice to wash it down. On special occasions — a home run in the softball game, a new merit badge on the Brownie sash, a report card littered with A+s — a homemade carob chip oatmeal cookie or health-food store fruit roll-up requiring beef-jerky-level gnawing made it into the mix.
My budget- and health-conscious mother would scoff at the suckers waiting in the long popcorn line as we sashayed past. She tried to convince my sister and I to pity the patrons who had grossly overspent their hard-earned money on toxic garbage. But for us kids, moral superiority and economizing were a poor match for envy. I wonder how much time we spent thinking about what the kids around us got to eat — was that rustle behind me a bag of M&Ms or a box of Whoppers? — instead of watching what was happening on the big screen forty feet away.
Unlike everyone else, we had to wait for the theater to be dark, trailers in progress and sufficiently noisy, before unrolling our bags crinkle by crinkle as ushers strolled the aisles, alert for smugglers. We held our snacks low in our laps, never sure that we’d escape detection. Our modestly portioned brown bags contained cold, dry comfort that we ate while marinating covetously in the theater’s butter-flavor haze.
Although theater operators initially had concerns about selling food and beverages, it was often customers who complained. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, patrons protested in 1940 “that the atmosphere of the [motion picture] houses was contaminated by the odor of popping corn and melting butter, the aroma of varied spilled drinks, the smelly crunch of peanut shells and a haze of drifting cigarette smoke.” Later in the decade, a group of Oregon state senators tried to legislate concessions out of movie theaters by introducing an anti-noise bill proposing a whopping thirty days in jail or $100 fine for owners who allowed eating in their theaters, ejection without refund for snacking offenders, and refunds of triple the admission price for annoyed patrons — all in an effort to stem the tide of distraction caused by “popcorn and peanut munchers.” The bill was killed in committee, but the point was made: eating was at cross purposes with the reason people went to the theater in the first place.
But by this point, concessions were most theaters’ revenue driver. Not only did movie theaters not collectively decide to limit food consumption, they did everything they could to amplify it no matter the impact on the viewing experience. The successful 1940 run of Gone With the Wind was partly to credit (or blame) for the mainstreaming of intermissions. Necessary because of the movie’s almost four-hour runtime, it became a great way to sell a second round of snacks. Intermissions were so successful at driving patrons to the snack bar that theaters started adding them regardless of a film’s length, chopping up films never intended to have a pause. One Milwaukee theater got so greedy that they added a second intermission during regular features, driving patrons to demand a stop to all intermissions. But intermissions, along with substantial breaks between double features, were too lucrative to give up and so became part of the experience — eating changed the way people experienced movies. As one theater owner told Saturday Evening Post readers in 1949, “we allow plenty of time in the break between shows for people to come out and get their second boxes” of popcorn. On-screen ads and animated shorts encouraged people to open their wallets and fill their bellies. Drive-in patrons weren’t exempt either — their customers spent even more money on concessions than regular theater patrons, liberated by the ability to indulge with abandon in the comfort and relative seclusion of their own cars.
In the 50s and 60s, as post-war, middle-class white families beat a retreat to suburban living rooms and televisions — complete with stove-popped popcorn and TV dinners — movie theaters got more aggressive about driving up snack sales for those who were still coming in the doors. Two United Artists theaters in Los Angeles experimented with inserting the words “Buy Popcorn” in their features to test the efficacy of subliminal messaging. Others installed candy vending machines or stands in the back of the auditorium to facilitate spontaneous purchases. If machines were lit with the recent innovation of fluorescent lights, they would not “detract from the illumination of the screen” or “distract persons actually seated and watching the screen,” theater owners were advised, an admirable if delusional goal.
Concessions eventually became so successfully linked with moviegoing that most people accepted that there was no alternative — you ate when you went to the movies and unless, like our family, you were willing to risk possible humiliation or ejection by bringing it in yourself, you purchased whatever was on offer.
My mother came by her D.I.Y. concessions praxis honestly: popcorn smuggling ran in my family. She’d been raised to live a life of careful thrift by parents who came of age during the Depression and believed that food was never to be wasted. Fish heads from my grandfather’s catch on Lake Erie fertilized the vegetable garden, apples were eaten down to seeds and stem. My grandparents used mayonnaise for as long as a decade after its expiration date without worry (theirs, not mine) or adverse consequences.
When I was a graduate student at the University of Maryland in the mid-90s, I took a road trip to Ohio to visit my grandparents, during which I ate some of that vintage mayo on a Waldorf salad before going to see Mission Impossible with my grandfather. As we headed out the door, I was mortified to see him carrying a very large plastic bag of bright yellow store-bought popcorn, no doubt purchased on clearance based on a calculus of how many years of movies it would last. By very large, let me be clear: we’re talking three feet high by one foot wide. My mother’s brown paper bags seemed restrained, even respectable, by comparison.
My grandfather was unabashed. I can picture him — his close-shorn silver hair and goatee; thick-lensed, unfashionable, brown plastic glasses over steely grey-blue eyes; guayabera shirt with white ribbed tank top and institutional black shoes, one an inch taller than the other because of a horse-riding accident in his teens — casually walking up to the ticket window. He placed the popcorn silo on the ground to buy our tickets, then picked it up to waltz past the teenage ticket-taker and into the theater with his flagrant policy violation.
Nobody said a word.
In an effort to staunch the losses incurred at the hands of smugglers like us, patrons were routinely subject to bag searches in the 1970s and 1980s. This invasion of privacy was the non-monetary price ticket buyers had to pay for the experience of seeing a movie in public. In our present age of terrorist threats and mass shootings, we are routinely compelled to open our bags, go through body scanners, or undergo physical inspection to gain access to spaces and experiences, ostensibly for our safety. But we’ve been primed to accept this by movie theaters hoping to disincentivize people from opting out of the concession stand.
Rules about what can or cannot be done in commercial spaces have long coexisted with theater-goer subterfuge. In late-1930s Los Angeles, the City Council was in the midst of a heated debate about the fate of the all night “flop” movie theaters lining Main Street. After a long day wandering the city, homeless men (mostly) and women could pay a nickel for a ticket that granted them a seat to sleep in, with movies running like an externalized dream (or nightmare) all night long and an usher selling ice cream sandwiches and popcorn for an additional five cents. Dinner, movies, and a place to sleep, all for a dime. When the City Council threatened to shut down the theaters to break up the concentration of “bums” and “indigents,” profit-minded theater operators argued that the 5,000 people who paid their nickel to get off the streets every night had nowhere else to go. Plus, they maintained, going to the movies wasn’t against the law, even if people weren’t actually watching them.
Movie theaters — like malls, public libraries, parks, and subways — provide a place for people to pass the time with relative safety. Dino Everett, the Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archivist at the University of Southern California, was raised in the 1970s by a single mother who worked all day on weekends. She’d drop him and his sister off at the Bedford Mall in Goffstown, New Hampshire, with $5 that had to last the entire day. $3 went for movie tickets, and the remaining $2 for a box of popcorn and “the worst tasting soda you ever imagined.”
Dino and his sister bounced between the theater’s two screens watching and re-watching films until they “couldn’t stand it anymore,” and then cruised the mall until pickup time. Like the 1930s Angelenos who took refuge in movie theaters, Dino and his family relied on the theater as a safe haven, utilizing it in unintended ways. Theaters were always meant to be commercial but totally accessible to the public, notwithstanding exclusionary, discriminatory policies at various points in history. They are love nests and homeless shelters and babysitters and more.
Such uses have little or nothing to do with appreciating the movies on offer and don’t contribute much to theaters’ profitability, so it’s not surprising that there were occasional examples made of rule-breakers. In November 1981, one Colorado couple’s “cost saving move to smuggle their own popcorn into a movie theater cost them $103” — in bail money. Protesting the “high cost and general low quality” of theater popcorn, the couple “were repeatedly warned that a house rule prohibited anything but concession stand popcorn inside.” When they refused to give up their home-popped corn, four policemen arrived and arrested one of them for disturbing the peace. Both were charged. After a four-day trial, they were found innocent.
Some theater chains, like Carmike, were firm about their no outside food and drink policy, though they urged employees to be diplomatic when dealing with customers, with no desire for the spectacle of police officers descending on patrons. Others tolerated outside food in their lobbies, as General Cinema explained to employees in a training video, produced around the time of the Colorado couple’s arrest:
John Munson, who ran the Rialto theater in Raleigh, North Carolina, a single screen that dates to the 1940s, cut his teeth in the 70s and 80s at a chain theater with a “very strict, zero tolerance policies on outside food.” When he managed the Rialto in 1990, Munson’s policy was that “if you were discreet and did not abuse my indifference, you generally got a pass.” Some patrons were pretty brazen, though, bringing in whole pizzas, foot long subs, or full pasta-and-salad combos, none of which could be concealed under clothing or in a handbag. Signposted warnings about “No Outside Food and Drink” and “Bags Subject to Search” were an adequate deterrent for most people. When confronted with accusations about the perceived anti-family unfairness of these policies or the high price of concessions, theaters have long maintained that they need every nickel to stay afloat. Plus, their rules and costs are no different than that of sports stadiums, concert venues, or theme parks, so why pick on them?
But in addition to theaters being quasi-public spaces, movies themselves are a kind of community property. “Did you see Star Wars last weekend?” “The Blair Witch Project was horrifying—I didn’t breathe!” Or, as my grandmother put it a diary entry from 1938, went “to see Robin Hood this afternoon!! A splendid picture also in technicolor. A marvelous production!” Historically, we have shared the experience of going to the movies with friends, family, and strangers; it is part of the fabric of our memories. Characters and lines from films become part of our cultural shorthand, like society-wide inside jokes.
We pay for the privilege and the pleasure of this experience, and we used to have no other alternative than to buy a movie ticket if we wished to have the experience at all. Now, with ready access to vast quantities of streaming content at home, only a small fraction of which are actually movies (whatever that means anymore), that sense of a shared cinematic imagination — from “There’s no place like home” to “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse” to “Wakanda Forever!” — has fractured and become significantly more diffuse. Should we wish the shows to go on, at least in shared public spaces, we have to consider how we contribute to the cost of making movies and of maintaining the places in which we see them. Nine dollars is a hefty sum for a bucket of popcorn, but a small price for social cohesion and a break from the isolation of our couches.
For the record: when I go to the movies, I buy drinks and popcorn. But I always — always— feel guilty about it, as if I’m squandering some essential aspect of my inheritance.
In 1949, an Indiana theater owner told Life magazine that “Poor quality popcorn hurts business more than poor quality movies.” Over the arc of the past hundred years, popcorn sales have done an extraordinarily good job of cushioning the financial blows caused by mediocre movies that few people went to see and recessions during which fewer people could afford movies no matter what was playing. In April 2013, Boxoffice Pro magazine reported that Americans ate 16 billion quarts of popcorn every year (“that’s 51 quarts per person”) with the bulk of those kernels being consumed in movie theaters. Popcorn is the industry’s bread and (fake) butter.
In the early 2000s, movie theaters were charging nearly thirteen times the cost of materials for popcorn — corn kernels, oil, flavorings, paper containers — to offset routinely handing over anywhere from 55% to 80% of box office receipts to producers and distributors. Starting with Return of the Jedi in 1983, studios demanded ever-higher percentages of ticket sales; theaters had to raise ticket prices and make more off food and beverage sales to keep the lights on. The concession stand became the only way theaters could actually make money — no concessions success, no movie theaters. Markups on popcorn now regularly average 1,275%.
For those who can’t pay inflated concession prices or find anything they’re willing or able to eat on offer, there are two choices: abstinence or smuggling. When film studies professor Carlos Kase was in middle school, he’d get dropped off at the Shoppers World Mall in Framingham, Massachusetts. He and his friends would stop at the drug store to load up on candy and soda, stashing the goods under their jackets or in their pants before entering the mall’s movie theaters. He wouldn’t have known, at the time, that this was how eating at the movies began, minus the concealment. By the 1970s, this reverse shoplifting was attributed largely to cash-poor teenagers, who were blamed for the bulk of movie theater smuggling and, one suspects, received the most surveillance-level attention.
Up in New Hampshire, Everett, too, had figured out that he could go to a candy store and make $2 go farther buying licorice ropes, chocolate bars, and candy cigarettes that his sister would hide in her purse, along with collapsible Cub Scouts plastic cups for free drinks from the water fountain. I did a version of the same when I segued into my San Fernando Valley mallrat days in the mid-to-late 1980s. Despite the fact that these were the years of purse-search-on-entry, the policing did little to dissuade my friends and I from maximizing our entertainment dollars. I can only recall being caught on one occasion, my candy confiscated at the door. I imagined the ticket-takers divvying up the loot at the end of a shift the same way I’d later imagine TSA screeners enjoying their bounty of perfumes and mini-bar booze in the early post-9/11 period.
Collectively, we were the industry’s worst nightmares. This was a bigger problem than bad movies — at least those still sold popcorn if the right people were in the seats. Boxoffice sounded the alarm in 1979 during a short-lived recession when only one out of every six movie patrons was buying refreshments. The magazine predicted that “unless theatre owners quickly awaken to the realities of their own totally predictable futures, their end may be at hand.”
There was another doomsday scenario that Boxoffice may not have seen coming, but that also took its toll: the ever-expanding ubiquity of diet cultures and the growth of restrictive styles of eating, whether medically necessary (for example, to manage Celiac disease or high blood pressure) or by choice (Weight Watchers, Atkins, South Beach, Paleo, and other popular eating plans that cut out entire food groups, especially carbs). Diet sodas are relatively easy to throw into the concessions mix; ice milk and apples are harder to imagine.
When she lived in New York City in the 1990s, screenwriter Margaret Maloney was enrolled in Weight Watchers and knew there were no theater concession options low in points, the WW-calculated values of foods that adherents used to guide their eating decisions. “Eating Milk Duds would blow all your points for the day and leave you ravenous, so we’d each bring an entire bag of 94% fat-free microwave popcorn in a Ziploc bag,” which cost a mere three WW points. Because she and her girlfriends were “nervous concession criminals,” they’d go to one of the big multiplexes carrying extra-large purses, the popcorn stashed beneath wallets, makeup bags, and the forcefield of bulky pashminas. They also put on a performance in the lobby, talking volubly about what they planned to buy at the concession stands while their tickets were taken with the hopes of avoiding the dreaded bag search, which worked every time.
Most movie theater employees witnessed a shift from casual, small-item smuggling to more and different kinds of food over the course of the 1980s — candy, diet food and sodas, bags of fast food for the whole family, Tupperware containers of homemade spaghetti dinners. The resulting food waste would have mortified the picture palace operators of Hollywood’s Golden Age. For theater employees, it meant no more fast sweeping up of popcorn and candy wrappers between shows. As Everett, who graduated from all-day screen jumping to managing a fourplex in Orlando, Florida, told me, “we had to attack the theater between showings with brooms, mops, and air fresheners.” Theatergoers became increasingly brazen: Everett remembers a man who walked into the lobby holding a can of Vienna Sausages (an Atkins dieter, perhaps?). When the ticket taker informed him that the can could not accompany him into the theater, the man peeled open the lid and quickly placed each of the dripping little meat tubes into his mouth. He “sucked the remaining juice off his fingers and tossed the little can into the waste bin and then used those wet slimy fingers to hand the ticket to the poor teenager, who simply replied ‘Theater Three on your left, sir.’”
In recent decades, movie theaters have reshaped themselves to sell more foods to more people, trying to capture the total evening’s expenditure for dinner, drinks, and a movie. This move towards a combination of classed up, all-inclusive, and more costly experience started in earnest in the 1990s, when chains like General Cinema Corp. launched its Premium Cinemas concept. Its first location, in a Chicago suburb, offering luxury concessions, promising that “guests can enjoy good champagne, fine wines and gourmet food.” Their Washington, D.C., Mazza Gallerie location was conceived as an “upscale, exclusive theater … a place where fashion meets the movies.” Lower down the epicurean scale, Loews began offering gourmet pizza and popcorn shrimp for grown-ups and Coke-branded Beanie Baby Snax Paks for kids. Like the fast food restaurants they were emulating, movie theaters encouraged kids to beg their parents for their “free” toy.
The upscaling of menus came with a significant increase in expense for the consumer, wresting the moviegoing experience farther away from the realm of low cost, family friendly entertainment. Maybe this was always in the cards; Sid Grauman, who built Hollywood’s opulent Egyptian and Chinese theaters, unveiled plans for a chain of theaters in the 40s meant to draw an increasingly suburban crowd with reserved seats, live music, and restaurant-quality food. “Where others sell their audience peanuts, I will provide a theatrical dinner,” he told the Los Angeles Times. More recently, the Alamo Drafthouse chain has rethought the underutilized space in movie theater lobbies to create full bars, café seating, and gift shops (in addition to providing seat-side service during screenings). This is a significant reinvention of what had been a fairly stable space, and remains so for many multiplexes: ticket window on the outside, ticket takers on the way in, lobby with concession stand. It’s increasingly common for theaters to sell cocktails, craft beer, and wine in addition to meals and snacks.
Popcorn is now one of many options, available with flourishes like parmesan cheese or truffle oil. The price tags are commensurate with the upgrades.
Movies are meant to hold our attention and keep us in our seats. Everything about concessions works against that.
The sounds and smells of eating take us out of the world of the film we are watching. Getting and consuming snacks is disruptive, as is the inevitable aftermath: What happens when you run to the bathroom and come back to realize you’ve missed something important, or someone returning with a popcorn refill blocks the screen while squeezing by? You ask someone what happened, to the chagrin of everyone around you. We’ve all been shushed for this transgression, or been the shusher.
When he ran the Rialto, which has a history of showing art house and foreign films attended by cinephiles (in addition to boisterous Rocky Horror Picture Show screenings), John Munson “tossed a dude once for bringing in McDonald’s. Not for smuggling per se, but the rascal rustled his wrappers so loudly it annoyed the other patrons.” Even the diminutive bags my mother packed for us — intended to emulate the experiences of those around us, however poorly — had small openings that made conspicuous crinkling sounds no matter how carefully they were unfolded or how dexterously one tried to extract their contents.
Those Milwaukee ticket buyers and Oregon legislators were not entirely wrong. Although popcorn is relatively easy to consume in the dark, hand to mouth, it compromises the viewing experience. Anyone who’s ever sat next to someone with an extra-large tub of popcorn, a tray of nachos, or a bag of candy and a loud chew knows exactly what I’m getting at (if you don’t, you’re probably the chewer).
More interactive and raucous entertainments like circuses and live sports can incorporate eating and drinking without significant interruption. Experiences requiring quiet contemplation — museums, opera, classical music, dance— either exclude food or limit its consumption to set intermission times in designated areas away from the main event. This isn’t great for sales, but is deferential to audiences’ collective experience of the work.
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There are the popcorn movies, of course — the ones that have audiences laughing and screaming, films that are a party we’re all at together. But what about the many movies that tackle more serious subject matter and benefit from attentive viewing? It seems pretty obviously inappropriate to chomp on Reese’s Pieces while newsreel footage of concentration camp liberations play out, as audiences experienced at the close of World War II, or as a drama about families being wrenched apart by slavery, spousal abuse, or cancer unfurls on the screen. To indulge in food and drink while being immersed in a world of suffering undermines our ability to thoughtfully connect with human tragedy. And upgraded eating experiences are as much if not more of a disruption than a jangly box of Raisinets. As much as I enjoy a good cocktail, a good meal, and a good movie, I’m not willing to delude myself into thinking that when I indulge in these things simultaneously — servers coming and going, silverware clanking, trying not to drop a forkful of food on myself — I’m not missing out on at least some of the movie I came to see.
These gustatory indulgences over the course of a movie can also easily hit $50 with tax and tip. With servers coming around to seats before and during the movie, I’ve wondered about the implicit shame some people might feel if they just order a glass of water, or nothing at all. In a restaurant, it would be unthinkable to take up space that a paying customer would otherwise have. But people do have the ability to sit for two hours without eating. You don’t need fuel to make it through a movie, but there’s psychological pressure that may compel some people to either avoid seatside-service theaters or spend money they can’t afford to spend.
In 2019, I saw at least thirty movies in the theater. In 2020, I saw four. In 2021, it was one — an unprecedented year in the life of a usually-avid moviegoer.
I watched many dozens of movies these years on disc or by streaming. There I would be — in loungewear, curled up on the couch, looking at a not-too-big but not-too-small-screen, bowl of homemade popcorn at the ready and refillable with the flick of a pause button — incredibly comfortable but acutely aware that I was not seeing movies where and how I loved seeing them the most: in the theater. I had my cellphone, laundry, or an occasional package delivery to add to the list of things that took me away from the screen. I’m embarrassed to say that my intermissions now veer dangerously close to half a dozen per film.
The conditions for easy, if far from ideal, home viewing were all in place before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, when going to the movies ceased almost overnight. Streaming was already threatening the box office, not unlike television once did and VHS and DVD after that. At home, people can watch and eat what they want when they want to. But I am here to tell you that it is both not the same and nowhere near as good as going to see a movie on a big screen in a space meant for this purpose, surrounded by people with similar intentions. You really can’t get lost in a movie from the comfort of your own couch. Laughing aloud and alone is nowhere near the same as being part of a chorus of chuckles and smiles. It feels good to feel things with other people. Although both imperfect and illusory, social cohesion emerges from shared experiences, even when we complain afterwards (“was that whole movie really just about leading up to the sequel?”).
Movie theaters are reckoning with an uncertain future. In November 2021, AMC announced plans to launch mall kiosks selling its proprietary popcorn and other concession stand favorites independent of a movie. Their theaters will offer takeout and home delivery, and their branded microwaveable popcorn will be sold in grocery stores. One Washington D.C. theater owner, himself a financial beneficiary of concessions sales, saw the writing on the wall in 1953: “The over-emphasis on concessions has become a Frankenstein monster that will, in time — if it hasn’t already done so — take away all the glamour, all the romance of moviegoing and turn movie theaters into nothing more than glorified popcorn and candy joints with the film feature’s value based only on its appeal as an adjunct to selling concessions.”
Seventy years later, this moment has arrived. If you ask people to tell you about their memories of going to the movies, they almost always talk about concessions. The candy their grandmother bought them, how many pumps of butter flavoring they put on their popcorn, that time they ate so much they were sick, the snacks they sneaked in. Movie theaters are, indeed, about so much more than the movies we see in them.
Are we witnessing the final teeter in a century-long balancing act, a last gasp from a branch of an industry that is starting to imagine itself as a food purveying business? At best, it seems unsustainable to think of people paying movie theater prices for concessions-to-go; the nostalgia driving these purchases won’t exist in twenty years unless people keep going to and eating their way through the movies. Capitalism’s tug of war in the movie theater is facing down the endgame, the industry’s hopes resting on an Avengers-worthy rescue. Eating in theaters has its issues, especially in our seemingly never-ending age of masks. But we need to figure out what we’re all willing to do — and to pay — for keeping movie theaters alive, or we will lose another public space where memories are made.
Words by Marsha Gordon. Marsha Gordon is Professor of Film Studies at North Carolina State University, a recent Fellow at the National Humanities Center, and an NEH Public Scholar. She is the author of Film is Like a Battleground: Sam Fuller’s War Movies and Hollywood Ambitions: Celebrity in the Movie Age, and has co-directed three documentary shorts, Nesting, All the Possibilities… and Rendered Small, which have played at film festivals around the world She is currently completing a book about now-forgotten early twentieth century writer Ursula Parrott and the reinvention of the modern woman, which will be published by the trade division of University of California Press in 2023.
Art by An Chen. An Chen is a Taiwanese illustrator who enjoys using color blocks and shapes to draw. After graduating from Cambridge School of Art with a Master’s degree in Children Books illustration in 2019,her work has mainly focused on editorial illustrations, and she has also self-published zines and pop-up books.