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Why We Eat Popcorn at the Movies
These days, a lot of us would jump at the chance to spend $6 on popcorn at the movies.
The meet-cute story of popcorn and the movies is a lesson in knowing your audience and embracing new revenue streams.
In the silent film era, movie houses were set on replicating the ritzy experience of live theater. Silent movie audiences had to be literate, which meant a more highbrow clientele. Operators shunned cheap snacks like popcorn.
With the advent of talkies, audiences changed. Seats were filled with folks from all walks of life, and vendors saw the potential in giving them something to munch on while they watched. Here’s how one operator put it —
“Find a good popcorn location and build a theater around it.”
It wasn’t until the financial squeeze of the Great Depression that theater owners decided to start keeping more popped profits for themselves. In the 1930s, theater owner R. J. McKenna started selling popcorn in his theaters. Sales were so successful, the theaters actually lowered ticket prices to sell more popcorn.
So began the complex economic interdependencies of ticket prices and concessions that continue to this day.
In the last century, movie ticket prices have risen 66% when adjusted for inflation. Popcorn prices have increased 10 times that. Those excessive popcorn prices have been the subject of lawsuits and academic studies.
Why is popcorn so expensive now?
For starters, theaters don’t make much money on ticket sales. Hollywood keeps upwards of 70% of ticket proceeds. So, theaters break about even on tickets and lean on concessions, arcade games and other add-ons to increase profits. They put a major focus on marketing those concessions and use the profits to pay for IMAX screens, nicer seats and other upgrades to the theater experience.
Lots of people want that experience to come with a bag of buttery popcorn – and they’re willing to pay a premium for it.