It’s a very special day. You walk into the ornate carpeted lobby, marveling at the colorful life-size posters of latex-clad superheroes and computer animated dogs, and give your money to the attendant for your ticket into wonderland. As you walk towards the entrance to your theater, you stop, drawn by some unseen yet inescapable force to the colorful displays of boxes and boxes of delectable treats, savory morsels and smooth fountains of fizziness. You just can’t seem to walk by the concession stand without picking something out.
Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Millions of movie-goers experience the same phenomenon every time they visit a movie theater. For some reason, movie-snacking is an essential part of the experience, and the movie industry has learned how to exploit this to the fullest. According to the National Association of Theatre Owners, snacks make up about 40% of theaters’ net revenue, and over half of the profits. But it wasn’t always this way- movie theater concessions have had a long and colorful history before achieving the exalted position they now possess. An article published at Slate.com gives a great history of movie snacks. Let’s start in the early 20th century…
By 1914, almost 30% of Americans were going to to see a movie every week. (A number much higher than today’s average, I’m sure!) Concessions weren’t sold inside, but often snack carts were set up around the theaters, and independent vendors were allowed to hawk their goods in the aisles like at a baseball game.
The Great Depression shook everything up. As revenues fell, owners installed candy machines and leased lobby space to popcorn vendors. Then during WWII when sugar was rationed, the candy industry struggled while popcorn continued to flourish and become a staple of the movie experience. After the war and into the 50’s, attendance dropped dramatically due to the spread of television, however concessions sales increased by over 4000%. Sugar was back.
The rest is history. And since then, movie theater concessions have become more elaborate, providing a greater variety of options for any person’s film-related craving. Cooked food such as pretzels, nachos, hot dogs, and fries have become a regular item on many theater menus. Many theaters have begun catering to a more discerning, sustainable-minded audience by providing locally made, organic products. And, of course, some theaters like the Kabuki theater in San Francisco reserve space for the 21+ crowd and allow the purchase and consumption of the most popular concession- alcohol.
What is it about movie theater snacks that is so important to all of us, despite an average mark-up in price of over 300%? Just as movies are our escape from reality, the movie theater allows us to escape the pressures of daily life. Forget the diet, the green craze, the free-range commitment. At a theater, it’s the norm to gorge on junk food. For many of us, stepping into the movie theater is a step back into the special carefree days of childhood.
Without doubt, movie theaters and their concessions hold an important place in the hearts, tummies, and budgets of Americans. According to this website, the average American eats around 70 quarts of popcorn a year, while more than a billion Coca-Cola products are consumed every day. (Another fun fact: apparently Mickey Mouse’s first words were “Hot Dogs!” My little sister’s first word was “cookie.” Hmm.)
I was curious about the snacking trends of the people in my life, so I conducted a tiny little survey. Below are a few graphs showing the results of my questioning. For the sake of full disclosure: The respondents were 33 people all connected to me by two degrees or less.
Two things to note: Most people often bring in snacks from elsewhere, and the practically unanimous reason for this was price. It is becoming prohibitive, especially in today’s economic situation, for people to spend $4 on a candy bar. And Sour Patch Kids blow everything else out of the water. I have to agree. Yum.
As dedicated, informed foodies we of course all know how important food is to the culture of our world. Food often influences the course of history in unexpected yet undeniable ways. The evolution of movie theater concessions into a staple of the experience is just one more example of how foodies are taking over the world.