The disturbing truth behind the concession stands

This is a scary movie story without stars or special effects. Just a tubful of kernels and a Goober or two.

Long before Porky’s or Babe, a trip to the movies already doubled as an excuse to pig out. Hollywood plies us with lust and greed—but gluttony may be the deadliest sin playing at the multiplex.

In 1997, Sony/Loews—then the nation’s seventh-largest movie-theater chain—sold 650,000 gallons of soda syrup, 3.5 million pounds of unpopped corn, and more than half a million boxes of Raisinets, Twizzlers, and Sour Patch Kids. Carmike, one of the nation’s largest chains, sold 943,000 gallons of syrup and more than 6 million pounds of kernels. Mix in the other major chains, and you’ve got more than 15 billion tubs of popcorn and an idea of why theater floors are so sticky.

What’s eating us? “Movie food definitely reduces anxiety,” surmises Dana Cowin, editor of Food & Wine. “You go to a scary film and you eat faster. Popcorn may be the ultimate comfort food.”

Especially if you own a movie theater. In 1997, concession sales amounted to $225 million in cash comfort for AMC, another movie-house behemoth, up from $169 million in 1995. With food accounting for as much as 60 to 70 percent of a theater owner’s profit, expect the multiplex of the 21st century to resemble a trough.

“Selling food is my job,” confirms the manager of a movie house in upstate New York. “I just happen to work in a theater.”

It wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time, the very idea of movie munching turned stomachs. Early in the century, theater owners prohibited eating: Their plush-carpet and gilded-chandelier palaces were no place for popcorn. “[Unlike vaudeville operators] they considered themselves high-class,” says Charles Cretors, president of C. Cretors & Co., whose family has been making popcorn machines for 113 years. “Food and drink weren’t part of that image.” But even then people could not resist the urge to snack. As a result, opportunistic horse-drawn popcorn carts and mom-and-pop candy stores sprang up around the theaters like weeds.

The prohibition on film food ended with the Depression. The movie houses that didn’t go broke were the ones that found alternative revenue sources. By the late ’30s, theaters like the Art Deco Tower in Fresno, Calif., were, for the first time, being built with candy counters. (It seems that those carts were the way to go: Popcorn took its place as the top cinema snack when sugar and chocolate were rationed during World War II.)

The concession calculus changed dramatically in 1948, with an antitrust ruling that required Hollywood to divest itself of theater ownership. From then on, owners essentially rented flicks from the studios and had to fork over a chunk of every ticket. Over the years this percentage has increased to as much as 80 percent (what Sony initially asked owners to pay for Godzilla‘s opening weekend), forcing further reliance on food to feed profits. With the recent explosion of multiplexes and megaplexes (with a concession stand every six feet and plenty of buy-in-bulk candy dispensers), there are as many candy counters as there are meteor movies. Notes Charles Cretors, “The economics of scale has taken off.”