The economics of movie popcorn pricing

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 25, 2005

In the past 5 years, I've probably been to a theater an average of once every two weeks to see a movie. Even though it costs a small fortune, I almost always get a soda and popcorn (topped with "butter"[1]) to go with the show. Many of the larger chains offer a deal if you purchase a large popcorn and a large drink together. This "Super Combo" costs a lot less than ordering a L popcorn and a L soda separately from the menu but often it will actually cost you less than a L popcorn/M soda, M popcorn/L soda, or even a M popcorn/M soda (?!??). Why such a steep discount when the theaters make so much of their money on concessions? I've developed a few theories over the years but would like to hear your thoughts before sharing them.

[1] The proper way to butter movie popcorn is to fill the bag half full, apply butter, fill the rest of the bag and apply more butter. This results in fairly even application of butter to kernel throughout the bag. Due to a lack of focus on service and an increasing number of theaters moving to DIY butter application, it's getting more and more difficult to buy a good bag of buttered popcorn at the movies.

Reader comments

KyleJul 25, 2005 at 11:53AM

My theater charges $10.50 for a M popcorn / M soda, and $10.00 for a S popcorn / M soda. Buying these individually would add a few dollars to the total. These items are so overpriced that even a 20-percent "discount" doesn't take the sting out. The house always wins.

Maybe next time I'll just order a pizza and let the delivery in the fire exit.

DerekJul 25, 2005 at 11:53AM

As far a buttering the DIY way, there is a solution.

1. Purchase popcorn
2. Pour half the popcorn in the trash
3. Apply butter to remaining popcorn
4. Go back to concession stand looking sad
5. Say, "I just tripped and spilled my popcorn. Can you fill it back up for me?".
6. Enjoy.

TaylorJul 25, 2005 at 11:55AM

Well my guess would be that popcorn and soda both hardly cost anything (including those paper bags theyve mostly switched over to from the glorious tubs) so by giving you a ginormous popcorn/soda at a 'steeply discount price' makes you feel better about spending $8 on 75 cents worth of food.

So you feel good, and they now have $8 of your money instead of just $4 on a soda.

WirthyJul 25, 2005 at 11:56AM

How about filling up a separate container with butter and dipping each individual kernel into the butter - like lobster?

Then enjoy your movie and eventual heart attack.

Luke LanchesterJul 25, 2005 at 11:58AM

I only ever get a bucket of popcorn, if I get a drink I'll need to go halfway through the film and I always, always miss one of the best bits. The combos at our place (UK) are pretty cheap though, also it's cheaper to buy two mediums than a large combo. Must just be the American way.

Paul SantosJul 25, 2005 at 11:59AM

I disagree--most movie popcorn is in fact corn, not some synthetic processed starch food. I used to work at a movie theater.

Alexander MicekJul 25, 2005 at 12:00PM

They're going to be scientific about pricing; so (as was said) there has to be a very good reason for this. My bet is, "studies" showed that people bought either popcorn or pop/soda and this price point of both popcorn and beverage was the best way to grab the consumer's extra couple of dollars.

CrazymonkJul 25, 2005 at 12:02PM

The real question here is why do they try so hard to get you to upgrade from a medium soda to a large soda for a quarter more? Whenever I'm asked this, I almost always respond with an incredulous "No."

Brian GilhamJul 25, 2005 at 12:03PM

I'll confirm what Santos said, I used to work for a chain here in Canada called Cineplex Odeon (Now called Cineplex Galaxy). The popcorn is indeed real corn.

RKBJul 25, 2005 at 12:04PM

When I buy the large popcorn, I actually request a half-full bag. This serves two purposes: first, it forces them, typically, to scoop out some fresh popcorn from the machine instead of giving me an old bag. I then it to the self-dispensing "butter" machine, and am able to do some good bag-shaking to get butter over all of the popcorn. Which brings me to the second purpose: walking back and asking the same person who originally helped me to now fill the bag to the top.

My theory on the combo nature, though, is that people rarely buy popcorn alone, although they might be tempted to just buy a pop. So it's easier for the folks to upsell you with the combo, since the drink and the popcorn natually go well together, "and it's only an extra X dollars" to get both.

StevenJul 25, 2005 at 12:07PM

One time I walked into a movie theater and I saw a delivery cart that body-bag sized bags of popcorn kernels stacked high on it. Sure looked "expensive."

AndrewJul 25, 2005 at 12:10PM

Having worked in food service, I can tell you that soft drinks and drip coffee have the highest mark-up of anything you buy -- it often costs more for the cup than for the soda it contains. Popcorn is also very cheap. And when bought at the huge volumes that movie theaters do, the cost of both is so low as to be nearly free on a per-serving-sold basis. It's practically pure profit, whether they sell a small popcorn or a large one. The biggest difference is how much profit they make.

What the combo offers is a perceived value to moviegoers, who may buy a combo when they might not have otherwise. So even though it's cheaper than the smaller selections, the theater is picking up revenue with the Super Combo that it otherwise wouldn't have received.

Also a factor, many theaters have a policy of throwing out unsold popcorn at the end of the night (some will bag it and mix in day-old popcorn with freshly made at the beginning of the shift.) By selling more larges, even at a discount, the theater is able to avoid waste -- which may (I don't know) have to be accounted for on the books as a loss.

EricJul 25, 2005 at 12:16PM

Does anybody actually order "Medium" drinks or popcorn at the movies? It seems to me that you're either a person who loves the stuff and goes for the biggest tub available, or a person who'd like something to munch on, but is quite frankly a little scared by the size/price of even the "Medium" sized tub and resorts to ordering the small (or, if available, "Junior"). Medium seems like a concept that doesn't really have a place between these two extremes, and the "Super Combo" just serves to reinforce this fact.

hyJul 25, 2005 at 12:17PM

There's no need to eat food in the cinema... are people not capable of going without food for two hours? Serves people right that the food is so expensive in cinemas

beerzieJul 25, 2005 at 12:19PM

I'm not as hard-core as Ty, but Event Food -- whether at the movies, the cinema, or a school carnival -- are a rip off. I sneak in food if I want to eat.

JenniferJul 25, 2005 at 12:39PM

I used to work at a movie theater, although it was back in 1997-98, so things have probably changed a bit. The following applies only to my particular theater during the time period stated. Your theater may or may not implement these policies, but chances are they do at least some of the following.

My theater would push a combo of: buy 2 medium drinks and one large popcorn and get free raisinettes. Of course, some people bought the popcorn and drinks anyway and refused the candy, in which case the employees ate it (had to be moved out of the drawer anyway to keep inventory on track). We also pushed the upsell of a larger drink for "just a quarter more".

They don't really tell you the reasons, but I do know that popcorn and soda are insanely cheap. I mean, do you know how much they waste?!

Anyway, it probably really is some empirical study that said that when people think they are getting a deal, they buy more even if they don't want/need it. Like you probably won't drink all of the extra-extra large soda, but they got more money off you by charging that extra .25 cents. .25 cents is probably more than that whole amount of soda cost anyway.

As for the guy who thinks he's getting new popcorn when it's from the machine, I hate to tell you, but sometimes that isn't fresh either. Any leftover popcorn from the night before was put in the warmers, and any that didn't fit was put in a giant (previously unused) trash bag so that the popping machine could be cleaned. In the morning the stuff in the bag was put back in the popping machine and maybe one small batch of new stuff was made to mix in, as well as provide that tempting aroma of fresh popped popcorn (which studies have shown people prefer. This is the reason why theaters pop their own corn. Smelling the popcorn generates more sales than when the stuff is bought pre-popped and therefore lacking that smell). But until mid-afternoon, unless it was very busy, you weren't getting new stuff. Sometimes when it was very busy we had pre-made bags of popcorn, but often we made them as we went, and that had little to do with the freshness. Sometimes the stuff in the warmers was just as new as the stuff in the popper--and STILL some people would INSIST on the popper stuff.

We did the buttering though, and I was always more than happy to oblige and fill half-way, butter, then fill rest of the way. In fact this was the way I ALWAYS did medium and large bags, unless someone said "only on top". This method doesn't work well on small bags, as it is too much butter and makes the bag leak.

Oh and I'm not sure how they inventoried popcorn and soda. Certainly they counted the 50 lb bags of kernels and the cases of soda, but so much is wasted for various reasons, not to mention we were allowed all the free popcorn and soda we wanted on the job, that it's probably very hard to tell exactly how much. I think this is why they were sticklers for taking inventory of cups and bags--for this reason we were not allowed to give out extra cups or popcorn bags w/o charging full price--they used these as the main indicator of items sold. This pissed off many people, but if we gave in, we'd hear about it from management. The best we could do was give out tiny dixie cups and cardboard boxes.

Oh and FYI, after seeing what the butter looks like before it goes in the butter warmer/applicator, I NEVER put it on my popcorn anymore. It starts out in this plastic jug in a mostly solid/semi liquid fat state. And if you spill any of it, it takes several scrubbings to get rid of the greasy feel. It's pretty nasty.

ChrisJul 25, 2005 at 12:41PM

In the 2 years I worked at various movie theaters I always buttered corn that way. It's the right thing to do...

As a concessionist there was pressure to sell large everything due to the high margin. At one point I started offering "Purple Combos" which was a large popcorn and large drink for $7.50. The bag and cup were purple and most people never bothered to look at the price board once I did this suggestive sale. The catch was $7.50 is what you paid for a large popcorn and soda no matter what. People thought they were getting a deal though.

heatherJul 25, 2005 at 12:45PM

i used to work for a theater, too, and all I can say is do not eat that popcorn. only pre-packaged foods are safe from bugs!

Jason MJul 25, 2005 at 12:47PM

I think Alexander Micek and Andrew have got it right.

When it comes to fast food (and concessions), the cost of the food pales in comparison to the infrastructure necessary to deliver the food to the consumer. If the difference in cost between a small and large Coke or popcorn is negligible, the difference between a small and large fries or a burger and a double cheeseburger is *approaching* neglible. This is why we are seeing portions grow in chain restaurants -- a much greater perceived value at little additional cost. Mom-and-pops and one-offs have to keep up, though increased portion sizes impact them more. It's the Wal-Mart effect. The end is near!

SummerJul 25, 2005 at 12:50PM

Modified from Derek's, without having to (whitely) lie...

Instructions for Texas, where butter-your-own kiosks and buy-the-large-and-get-free-refills-promotions are present:

1. Buy popcorn.
2. Dump out half.
3. Butter IY.
4. Ask for a free refill.
5. Repeat step 3.

PeterJul 25, 2005 at 12:51PM

Here in Manila, large popcorns range from P60-P70 (US$1.50) while tickets costs about P100-P130 (US$2.25) and there are some cinemas that offer bottomless pop corn and drinks with the movie P399 (US$8.00). Oh, and that $8 also lets you seat in lazy boy chairs instead of normal cinema seats.

In general the combo is about 2 medium popcorns give or take a few pesos. Although I'm with Kyle here, I'll just order a hotdog or a bag of lays with that movie.

(re: beerzie) Has anyone brought home made popcorn into the cinema?

ElliottJul 25, 2005 at 12:53PM

It's all a matter of perceived value- the same as combo meals at fast food chains. For a seemingly insignificant increase in price (a $.25 more), you get more bang for your buck. what a lot of people don't realize is that what they're selling costs next to nothing to buy, so it is almost all margin and every extra quarter adds up to the movie companies. And the upsell tactics are sooo hilarious. At AMC theatres in Louisiana, the board says '#1 combo...Save $.50!'. Of course no where does it display the original cost, or the 'reduced' price of the combo. They're wisely assuming that people are, for the most part, to slow to do the math and figure out what it costs, too scared to ask, or not interested in bothering altogether, and just doing what the movie theatre suggests you do...

I've read somewhere that concessions is where the movie theaters make their money, and the high-ticket cost only covers the licensing and marketing costs of the movies themselves. That's a whole 'nother bean counting exercise.

And BTW, anyone notice if you order a value meal at BK, they ask you 'do you want medium or large'... there is a small combo, at a lower price, and their hoping you're too stupid to notice, or question them... yikes

BenJul 25, 2005 at 12:53PM

I have a friend who manages a cinema megaplex here in Australia (we have a functional duopoly here - Greater Union and Hoyts are pretty much the only shows in town, with even almost all the "independents" being wholly owned subsidiaries). As such the specific microeconomic forces at play may be different than in the US, but the way he tells it combo deals are just extensively market-tested upselling tactic, as other commenters have already suggested. Postmix is virtually free from his perspective (though he did freak out a bit when one of his employees was stealing boxes of the stuff as a 10 litre box creates 60-85 litres of soft drink), with the minimal labour involved accounting for most of the costs incurred by the business. He also confirmed that concession stands are cinemas' economic lifeblood and he went on to say that this is even more the case in the States due to tighter margins.

Hope his insights are of some use!

Steve TJul 25, 2005 at 12:53PM

I often bring my own food. Its always a fun challenge to see what you can sneak in to the theater. Once we got 5 cheeseburgers, several bottles of coke, and a large pizza in. Not bad for 3 people. Haven't tried to make my own popcorn at home and steak that in yet though... hmm...

John FrostJul 25, 2005 at 1:00PM

I too did a stint in the movie business... er movie theatre business. Can't find much to disagree with the other theatre workers above (Especially heather).

This post has led to an interesting distribution idea for those independent film producers who want to break into the big theatre chains, but don't want to use a major distribution company. As theatres get most of their revenue from the concessions instead of tickets, turn that relationship around. Distribute your film free in digital cinema format (recover production costs by selling sponsorship, previews, and/or prod placement at the start of the film). Just require that the cinema give a free medium drink and popcorn with every pair of tickets. Your customers are happy, they get something free, the theatre is happy, they get the ticket price plus any other concessions sold, and you're happy because you get wider distribution for your film.

It's a thought, anyway.

tomJul 25, 2005 at 1:03PM

Note that Clearview Cinemas (my old job) also gives employees a 20c bonus every time they sell a Super Combo, or any of the other Combos. The franchise theaters don't collect profit directly from popcorn sales. Oh, and the reason why employees are reluctant to butter halfway through is because they are paid literally minimum ($5.50) wage.

JamesJul 25, 2005 at 1:03PM

If you saved all the money you spent on going to the movies latley you could buy yourself a nice entertainment center and watch movies that you'll actuall enjoy at home. Also, if you are at your house you can eat anything you'd like. You could even lightly butter each individual kernal.

BenJul 25, 2005 at 1:04PM

Killer idea John Frost - I'd be lining up!

DanielJul 25, 2005 at 1:05PM

Our movie theatre is in the mall, so I usually just go get some chinese food, put in a bag from a different store (because they usually don't check those for food), then I have a FEAST in the theatre.

Robert DuffyJul 25, 2005 at 1:11PM

Two things --

When I worked at Sony/Lowes Theatres 5-6 years ago, you did get a very small, VERY SMALL commission for selling combos.

Also, when I worked there the sizing scheme was changed. "Small/Medium/Large" became "Child/Regular/Value". Same amount of popcorn/soda, just used some Jedi Mind Tricks to get people away from the smalls and into the values...

HarshJul 25, 2005 at 1:25PM

The idea is to get the maximum possible $ amount out of a guy who makes a trip to counter. Quantity of food/drinks he leaves away with does not matter (Since its just corn & pop).

So if you price singular items less than say 15-20% price of combo, customer is more likely to take combo. They will loose $/customer If price of M soda/pop is considerably less than that of smallest combo.

This way most will simply opt for a combo, and at the end of the day you get an increase of ~15-20% revenue with same staff hours, machines, promotions, rentals, cups/plates, hydrobill, etc.. All you got to do is sensitively mark the first combo cutoff. Then price all single items slightly lower.

Mike CJul 25, 2005 at 1:28PM

I almost never buy snacks at the movie unless I skipped lunch. If I do buy a soda, it's never more than a small or I'd have to pee before the movie is over, especially if it's more than 2 hours. I usually just get some water at the fountain before the movie starts.

janelleJul 25, 2005 at 1:38PM

i also recommend asking them to shake the half-filled, buttered corn for better butter distribution. not much you can do about the top half, though.

waylanJul 25, 2005 at 1:39PM

I considered getting something from the conssesion stand once, checked the prices and decided against it. I have never even paused while passing by since. No, I'm not one of those people who try to sneak my own food in. I just go without. If they want me to buy something, they'll have to offer it at a reasonable (competitive with other local establishments) price.

EricJul 25, 2005 at 1:41PM

To open another thread of international inquiry: Which countries allow / encourage the sale of alcoholic drinks at theatres? I purchased a nice glass of beer at the last movie I saw in Japan, and while it was marked up as much as anything else you'd get at a movie theatre, I was overjoyed to have any alternative to the horrifying sweetness of soda!

LanceJul 25, 2005 at 1:44PM

As another ex-movie theater employee (and ex-assistant manager, AKA AssMan, too boot!) re: the freshness or not of popcorn at my establishment (a United Artists 6-plex) was dependent entirely on the manager. I worked for three different dudes during my tenure there and they all paid extraordinary attention to concession sales because they got a piece of that action, so the more they sold, the more was in their paycheck. Sadly, that's not true of anyone else, but the result was that one guy made sure that there was ALWAYS fresh popcorn every evening and ALWAYS new hotdogs grilling and the Coke was never going to run out because he wanted to provide the best possible movie-going experience, figuring that patrons would be more likely to return and buy something at the counter if they remembered having a Good Experience(TM). He threw out whatever popcorn was left in the bins every night and also threw out any candy past its sell-by date. He also insisted that theaters be cleaned and "blown out" (he bought leaf-blowers and ushers 'flushed' the floors) after each showing. He, however, was the exception.

The other two cut corners in order not to spend too much in supplies and make every popcorn kernal, nacho chip and wiener count. In the end, I don't think it made much difference either way -- people come for the movie, not the snacks. And much of what the other guy did was never witnessed by the public, but I bet they noticed the difference.

But I, too, must have popcorn and a Coke while viewing a film. And I only butter if it's real butter (Landmark Theatres) and not butter-flavored coconut oil substitute.

EricJul 25, 2005 at 1:46PM

Or, on the same subject sort of, why not provide anything even slightly healthier than soda as an alternative? I mean, if my local theatre that sold unsweetened iced tea instead of soda, I'd be right there with the Double Big Gulp crowd! Or why not fill up one of those big self-serve candy bins with Granola or mixed nuts? I'm sure the Hershey conglomorate could provide those in bulk? I suppose the cost would be prohibitive though. It might "look bad" if all the filler-filled candies were $2.50/oz and the pure, plain nuts were $4.00/oz. Oh noes!

formerUAemployeeJul 25, 2005 at 1:52PM

Here's an even easier process to save money:
- Download movie onto computer (free or cheap)
- Pop some air-pop popcorn and use molly mcbutter
- Plug computer's "TV-Video out" and Headphone out into TV's aux in
- Watch movie, eat popcorn

Total Cost: very little. Boycott the big chains and create your own movie-going experience!

AndrewJul 25, 2005 at 1:53PM

Wait, wait. You eat how much "buttered" popcorn and soda? Kottke, give yourself a break, man. Why not save those insane calories and salt for some *good* food? Ten bucks and a zillion calories could at least translate to a fantastic sandwich somewhere.

Or, take five minutes before you go to the theather and pop some popcorn yourself and stick it in your backpack.

JenniferJul 25, 2005 at 2:01PM

Ooh more stuff I can append to my previous comment.

Eww don't get me started on the hot dogs. If a lot were sold that day, you were in good shape, but on a slow day, the ones on the grill that were unsold went back into the fridge and were put out again the next day. They looked dark and shrively in comparison to the fresh ones.

Our theater did offer alternatives to the soda--we had two types of tea--regular unsweetened, and a raspberry flavor. We also sold bottled waters. However, despite these alternatives, they didn't sell nearly as well as the sodas. We even had some "healthier" candy, which also wasn't a big seller. Most people seem to like to go to the theater to eat popcorn and/or nachos and drink soda. Eating healthy just doesn't seem to factor in with most people who stand in that concessions line.

JayJul 25, 2005 at 2:07PM

And BTW, anyone notice if you order a value meal at BK, they ask you 'do you want medium or large'... there is a small combo, at a lower price, and their hoping you're too stupid to notice, or question them... yikes

Elliot - that's hilarious. My wife and I have a running joke going with the teens that work at our local Dairy Queen. They have three sizes of Blizzards, but when you order one, they ask if you'd like "regular or large." Of course, by "regular" they mean "medium" and ignore the fact there's a small (which is plenty big enough for my tastes). We finally got one girl to admit to us they're trained specifically to "upsell" by asking that way, and we annoyingly make a point of bringing it up every time we visit (she loves it).

A few weeks ago, we stopped in on a busy evening. We ordered the usual (my wife gets the same thing everytime - a small Cookie Dough Blizzard made with chocolate ice cream with added pecans), but neglected to say "small." She asked her usual, and I said, "regu ... OH NO YOU DON'T! I'll take a small, you sneaky thing you." She rings us up, takes our money, then goes to wait on the next person (others actually make the items). She actually winks at me and says "watch this" as the guy steps up. He says, "I'll take a hot fudge sundae, please." She replies, "Regular or large?" He says, "Regular," and it's all the three of us can do to stifle our guffaws.


Ryan MahoneyJul 25, 2005 at 2:07PM

As far as understand it (my pops used to be a projectionist), the theater makes *nothing* on ticket sales. They only how movies at these places so they can sell you over priced soda and candy. If the could find a way to get you to buy the junk food without showing any movies they would!

essJul 25, 2005 at 2:14PM

I am an unrepentant food smuggler! If it all possible, my popcorn is made at home (popped in coconut oil, seasoned with real butter/cheese) and sneaked in with my beverage of choice which may very well be beer so that I am not only violating the rules of a private establishment but also possibly real-live laws.

People like me are probably one of the reasons why prices are so high.

As Andrew says, the theater's cost is not significantly different for large or medium, or even small (remember, you are not only paying for the soda and popcorn but the full economy of the concession stand is part of the pricing for any serving.)

It's all about the image of value. The theater wants you to believe, deep in your heart of hearts, that they love you enough to give you a special deal. And they want other people to see you enjoying that love and thinking that they, also, could use a big tub o' love.

Additionally, promo tubs and drink cups are usually in the large size and that's another factor.

Why anyone at Regal would want to provide patrons with chum to toss at the screen during "The Twenty" is beyond me.

Abbas HalaiJul 25, 2005 at 2:26PM

For the most part, it's not butter anymore. That's why they ask "Would you like topping on the popcorn?", instead of the regular "Would you like butter on the popcorn?"

alanaJul 25, 2005 at 2:30PM

will somebody who works at a theatre, or worked at one tell me what exactly is in the popcorn/butter? i used to get a small one, or eat some of friends, and i always got a headache. usually that only happens when i eat something with MSG. (like the popcorn really needs more salt)

my routine now is to go to a drugstore with a big assortment of candy, there's always one near a big theatre. i bring a big bag, buy a soda and enjoy my cheap snacks in the theatre. sometimes i'll get an icee, since i can't really sneak that in!

speaking of alcohol in theatres, i've been to a few independant ones that serve beer, one even has a kitchen and can make you pizza. (the parkway in oakland, ca.) the theatre in point arena, ca. in mendocino county has a cute little theatre and they make fresh popcorn, with fresh butter, and it's a $1, because it's POPCORN, it costs like 15 cents to make! and the sodas are 75 cents.( and they show good movies. )if any of you are ever up there, i highly recommend it.

RobJul 25, 2005 at 2:31PM

Our movie theatre is in the mall, so I usually just go get some chinese food, put in a bag from a different store (because they usually don't check those for food), then I have a FEAST in the theatre.

Most people I know get quite offended by the smell of hot food in movie theatres, especially of the Chinese variety. It's quite close to odor pollution.

pannyJul 25, 2005 at 2:33PM

i don't know if anyone has suggested this yet, but here's how you get butter thru the whole bag of popcorn on your own:

grab a straw and stick it about 3/4 the way into the center of the bag of popcorn. put the top end of the straw under the butter dispenser. fill with butter, then slowly pull the straw out. voila - butter travels thru the whole bag of popcorn.

Frankie RobertoJul 25, 2005 at 2:45PM

How can anyone actually eat a large tub of popcorn (which come in bags the size of small vats) and actually drink a large 'soda' (which is what, a kilo of coke)? I'd pass out before I could consume that lot.

Why do people find the need to eat and drink whilst watching a film at the cinema anyhow? Isn't the film entertainment enough?

steveJul 25, 2005 at 2:54PM

Be careful sneaking food into theaters. Learn from this guy's mistakes

DarrelJul 25, 2005 at 2:54PM

What bothers me the most these days is the fact that a lot of places won't give you a cup of water. Even if you buy something. You either need to buy a 'large pop and we'll fill it with water' or the $3.75 bottled water.

As such, I've actually started refusing to go to theaters that refuse to hand out a water.

I remember as a young child how embarassed I was when my dad would bring his own popcorn to the theater. Now I think it's a wise man. ;o)

Also, I've never understood the high prices period. Whenever I go to the $10 theater + $10 concessions, the place is MAYBE a 5th full. Whenever I go to the $2 theater where $5 will get you a large popcorn, soda and bag of candy, the place is nearly always packed. It seems like the latter model is a better way to make money.

tempJul 25, 2005 at 3:01PM

The movie ticket itself is a rip off and added to that is the overpriced food. I usually eat and go to the movies, otherwise, I buy a small pocorn/soda. I hate the stupid combos - I am not stupid to believe in discounts at theatres. I only buy what I can eat. I don't care about 'buttering up' either - it's good if they butter my pop corn and it's even better if they don't. I do buy popcorn once in a while when I go to the theatres sometimes I only buy the small drink - just in case I am thirsty. I do not count calories, but at the same time I don't gorge on food like a pig. I like to munch on something while watching TV. Just because I bought the food doesn't mean I am going to eat/drink them fully. I might just eat half/even less and leave the rest. People might think I am wasting money - but I am not. I know how much I can eat and that's it. I do not believe in sneaking food into theatres. After all you are there to enjoy - don't complain about food being overpriced - you pay for it if you want it - no one is compelling you to buy! Quit complaining and watch the movie. Otherwise wait for a few months and dip your popcorn bag in a drum of cheese and eat it at home while watching the DVD. No one cares.

jkottkeJul 25, 2005 at 3:10PM

grab a straw and stick it about 3/4 the way into the center of the bag of popcorn. put the top end of the straw under the butter dispenser. fill with butter, then slowly pull the straw out. voila - butter travels thru the whole bag of popcorn.

This is genius! We've almost got enough buttering tips for chapter 1 of O'Reilly's upcoming Movie Theater Hacks book.

HillaryJul 25, 2005 at 3:29PM

Due to a lack of focus on service

Or due to a lack of theater employees being paid anything more than minimum wage, possibly.

Shawn LeaJul 25, 2005 at 3:32PM

The best deal: Get the kid pack. Salty, sweet and cheap. (And at the theatre I frequent you can even get a frozen slush Coke for the same price as the regular drink.)

yiJul 25, 2005 at 3:38PM

you are actually paying for the paper cup, not the government subsidized corn or corn syrup in the cup which is so cheap it's practically free. 2 extra inches of paper cup can cost you a good fifty cents.

i agree with getting the kid snack pack deal. it has just the right amount of munchies without feeling sick after you finish.

DanJul 25, 2005 at 3:56PM

Has anyone actually had their food sneaking attempts foiled? I *always* bring food into the theater and I have never had a problem. I try to be descrete, but sometimes that is impossible.

Last week at a Regal in Union Sq, someone ahead of me was holding a large McDonald's soft drink and a brown McDonald's paper bag as he handed the ticket taker his ticket! Nothing was said.

I am beginning to believe that the theaters (or rather their employees) don't care.

DaleJul 25, 2005 at 4:00PM

There is quite a bit of media coverage at the moment about the low earnings for the box-office in the last couple of years...Piracy is of course a major cause but I think many will also say that ridiculous over-pricing of simple snacks such as pop-corn and drinks is also part of the reason folks are staying away.

I find that even after being aware of how much movie theatres are going to rip me off, they still manage to get away with it. I find that the prices are never properly displayed and what ever I ask for, they always tell me it would be 'cheaper' to go for the bigger deal...we need to break up the duopoly that exists down here in Australia...

not a movie personJul 25, 2005 at 4:27PM

If I went to the cinema I would bring my own popcorn and drink.

AdrianJul 25, 2005 at 4:37PM

They don't butter the popcorn here, which I'm quite glad about. Salted popcorn is the only way go. I can feel my arteries clogging up just thinking about the butter.

The combos here are marginally cheaper (like 25p on £6), so I can only suppose the idea is to make people think they are getting a deal. For popcorn that is pre popped and reheated + coke from a machine, I reckon their profit margin is well over 80%. Which is shocking, but those of us who like the movie experience pay those ridiculous prices. When you consider a movie with coke and popcorn for two is near on £30 and you can get 2 DVDs for that, it'll be daylight robbery.

It'll be interesting to see if the cinemas change as people go less and less and watch more and more at home, with home cinema. Maybe we'll land up with less mass market chains and more niche cinemas like The electric in Nottingham

Here is London BTW.

DaveJul 25, 2005 at 5:15PM

I think the combo helps people make faster decisions and keeps the line moving quickly. If a movie is about to start and you have a long line, some will bail out on the munchies.

Halvard HalvorsenJul 25, 2005 at 5:31PM

There was an article in The Times (London) a couple of years ago on UK multiplexes and how they made their monies.

The percentage markup pr Kg (from base product to end
product to the customer) for popcorn is the highest of any product if I remember correctly. Higher than diamonds and higher than cocaine. Popcorn-corns are extremly cheap to buy in bulk, are legal to transport and processing is cheap. You basically just inflate your product with air and watch the price increase with 1000% or so.
The percentage might not be correct, but The Times showed the value for cocaine as well, and popcorn was way ahead.

I guess the same goes for the soda sold.

So the cost to the seller is probably pretty much the same - say 15p,17p and 20p for the different sizes. In the end the only thing which matter for them is HOW MUCH of your money they get.

So why don't we all become popcorn sellers? Well, to take advantage you need a multiplex. And not everyone got one of those ...


"Popcorn" was of course also the title of an early electronic music by Gershon Kingsley (and probably the first example of electronic popular music I heard).

Listen to an extract of Popcorn at AmazonRøyksopp's new album carefully cites Kingsley's "Popcorn" on one of the tracks.

lavonneJul 25, 2005 at 5:40PM

I think it's legal to bring your own food into the movies now [at least in the U.S.] Back in the 80s, a guy in Colorado was prosecuted for it and acquitted. Not sure if that set a precedent, but I assumed it did and started bringing my own chips and soda from then on, even popped my own popcorn once or twice. I always make a small effort to conceal the goodies [I have the world's biggest purse] so as not to tempt the fates, but even when I've brought in fast food in its own bag, nobody has questioned it.

StevenJul 25, 2005 at 5:59PM

I once worked in a movie theatre, and the managers who oversaw my concessions sales were paid commission based on overall sales. The large sizes were marginally more expensive to the consumer, but we lured quite a few with the offer of free refills; the cost of that was mostly in labor, since an additional lackey was required on weekend nights to man the refill station (but at minimum wage, still a bargain). Soda and popcorn are incredibly cheap, and as several people have already mentioned, the price is mostly markup. A word of advice: do not eat movie theatre butter! It is not butter, nor anything close to it, and in California it gives lab rats cancer. The popcorn is cooked with salt in cheap oil (which I imagine is loaded with trans fat), and those should give you enough flavor by themselves, while you will keep your hands somewhat cleaner.

MariaJul 25, 2005 at 6:10PM

Here in Toronto, they charge you an extra 50c or so to put butter on the popcorn. And they don't serve popcorn in tubs but in those paper bags. They also got rid of the "small" popcorn, they only have "regular" and "large" (maybe also extra-large, I'm not sure).

Robert D.Jul 25, 2005 at 6:32PM

"Butter"? There are virtually no theaters any more which allow you to top your popcorn with butter. These days, it's all some mysterious "topping", which looks remarkably like fresh motor oil. It's probably just partially hydrogenated ____ oil and high-fructose corn syrup.

Thankfully, right near me there's a great little indie theater which still has butter for their popcorn. I go there wnenever I can, because real butter tastes a whole lot better than that motor oil stuff at the theater chains.

Andrew DavisJul 25, 2005 at 6:40PM

The cup is worth more than the soda that is poured into it.

CtyJul 25, 2005 at 6:40PM

I tend to save the money I would have spent on tickets ($10) and snacks (about $10+ for popcorn/drink) and pay for Netflix instead. I can air pop my own popcorn and spend less than I otherwise would for one movie on a whole month of movies.

schianoJul 25, 2005 at 7:03PM

Am I the only one who likes his movie popcorn without the butter?!

jgJul 25, 2005 at 7:16PM

No schiano, I also think the butter ruins good popcorn. Maybe it helps bad popcorn, but good popcorn is perfect alone. You actually taste the popcorn and not the butter. Plus, it's much better for you.

As for the topic the answer is in the question:

"Why such a steep discount when the theaters make so much of their money on concessions?"

You're still being ripped off. The price is still way above costs. But with the "steep discount" it makes you feel better about your purchase, so it's easier to hand over your money, thinking you got the discount, and get ripped off.

Ben BrophyJul 25, 2005 at 7:22PM

10 years ago I worked at the at the Brattle theatre in Cambrdige, MA, slinging snacks. We were alwasy told that the popcorn and soda cost next to nothing - they are nearly pure profit. In fact we were told we employees could eat as much popcorn and drink as much soda as we wanted, at a 100% discount.

By the way the Brattle still uses fresh popped pocorn and pure melted butter. And thought I used do a little grown inside everythime someone asked, i routinely put butter in the middle for people. It's the place to go for popcorn. And if you don't let popcorn, you can bring food in. We used to laugh at the people carefully hiding their sub sandwiches outside the theater, when they could walk right in with a large pepperoni pizza if they wanted to.

SusanJul 25, 2005 at 9:27PM

My husband and I help to organize a movie theater in the Midwest where all the workers are volunteers. It's a community project that's been going strong for over five years. The population of our town is about 900, but we draw from about a 40-mile radius.

We charge $3 for an adult movie ticket and $2 for students 17 and under. Our movies are usually about a month out from the release date -- we had Betwitched the weekend of the 22nd of July. Our upcoming features are War of the Worlds, Fantastic Four, Herbie (kinda old, but the kids will love it), and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Our concession stand special is a large popcorn (85 ounce tub) and two large sodas (22 oz. each) for $4. The tub costs approximately 20 cents, while the cup and lid costs about 5 cents (6 cents with a straw). A 5-gallon canister of soda is $12 (that works out to 1.9 cents per oz. or 41.8 cents per large cup). Most larger theaters probably use box pop, which is about half the price of canisters, plus a lot less storage and mess. Don't ask my why we don't use box pop -- I can't remember that battle any more -- I think it has something to do with taste. The butter is expensive -- it adds about 20 cents to the cost of each tub of popcorn. The cost of the popcorn is about a nickel per tub. We pop the corn coconut oil, which runs about a nickle a batch. Throw in a penny for a napkin and you're looking at a cost of about $1.42 per special.

This is an extremely low-volume operation. We have between 200 and 300 customers on an average weekend -- we show the movie four times. We also do a little overkill with our popcorn. We pop it in seasoned coconut oil, which is scary fattening, but delicious. You would NOT need to use butter with our popcorn -- in fact the folks in Sioux City who sell it recommend that you don't butter it. However, try telling that to the movie-going public. So, we add butter that we buy from a local dairy farmer. If you know your butter, you know that butter has quite a bit of water in it. To get a really superior popcorn topping you have to remove that water. When you do that, you have butterfat. That's what we use and it's ridiculously expensive. It's tasty, no doubt, but does cut into our profit margin.

I'm not sure how relevant this is for all you big-city folks, but if we can make a go of it, you have to know that the big theaters are making a KILLING.

Donovan PhillipsJul 25, 2005 at 9:36PM

I can do without theatre popcorn. But I can't seem to stay away from those hotdogs!

Brian GilhamJul 25, 2005 at 10:02PM

Just for reference, I remember it costing the theatre only 3 cents per bag of popcorn made and sold.

Jacob HarveyJul 25, 2005 at 10:17PM

Normally I get something to eat. A few times I've snuck in whole meals from fast food places.

What usually happens when I go with my family to the local theater, which if you include dates equals 7+ people (my parents like a crowd I guess), is buy the combo with 2 sodas. You get unlimited refills, and the place will give you small tubs so you can distribute the food and drink around. Just hope no one has a cold or anything.

The big problem, with so many people it's usually for somewhat guaranteed good movies, it's hard to get someone to leave in the middle for refills.

WadeJul 25, 2005 at 10:45PM

Eric, some movie theatres in the US sell beer for consumption during the movies. An independant called The Flicks in Boise does this. (They also have a full menu and a small restaurant-like eating area.) I assume as long as the owner/chain's willing to get a liquor license and deal with all the things that come with that, it's fine in the US.

The only limitation at The Flicks is that you get a plastic cup before you go in, for the obvious reason that glass cups and darkness don't mix.

KirkJul 26, 2005 at 12:05AM

Popcorn and pop cost next to nothing to make. Popcorn is mainly air, and pop is mainly water. If the theater can convince you to step up to the next size for $0.20 cents more (which most people will do [i do!]), then they've just made an extra $0.17 off of something that costed them $0.03 to make. I wouldn't doubt if large popcorn and pop costed them under a dollar to make, but they charge eight times that much. The bag and cup probably cost more than the product

filchyboyJul 26, 2005 at 12:15AM

Yea what Harsh wrote...I don't have the patience to read the rest. The vendor, at least here in the states, makes their profit from that opcorn , candy, and pop. They pick a price point per sale and all the actual prices/item are a function of that price point.

Mike D.Jul 26, 2005 at 1:16AM

Didn't read all the comments so I may be repeating information here, but two things:

1. The official name at most theaters is "extra buttery topping", which must be described as such because it cannot be sold as "butter" when it contains no butter. Interestingly, the word "buttery" is fine because it can mean "resembling butter" (or "unpleasantly and excessively suave").

2. Regarding the pricing equation, it's simple: Both soda and popcorn are so cheap that the paper containers which hold them are almost more expensive than the contents. As such, how much consumable content goes inside of each doesn't really matter much to the theater. It's all about raw gross cash intake. To maximize raw gross cash intake, you do everything possible to encourage the purchase of *both* food and drink. This takes the form of the "deep discount combo".

And to think all I learned from working in a movie theater was how to fake illnesses...

Richard AndersonJul 26, 2005 at 1:28AM

Which countries allow / encourage the sale of alcoholic drinks at theatres?

As noted by someone already, the US. The independent theater in Shepherdstown, WV sells beer and wine. In a glass no less. They also sell real butter and the popcorn is popped *nearly* to order and butter half-way up. All sodas come in bottles -- no fountain.

In France it is generally possible to have a beer at the cinema. (I've not noticed lately where it is not.) It would also be illegal to call what is sold in most cinemas as topping for popped corn, "butter". (They don't butter their popcorn anyway; it's in two bins, salted or sugared. It is often very nasty stuff.) Portions of everything have started to grow to match the efforts in the US.

Let's look to the bottom line though. Absurd sums of money are being spent to make many films today (although this not need be the case; we regualrly go to cinemas showing classics and it is amazing what one can do in making cinema with little). Theaters are often running films to empty seats. That tickets are incredibly expensive and are being noted above as just covering costs is pathetic. I keep waiting for the entire system to come crashing down.

AaronSJul 26, 2005 at 1:47AM

It can't explain the Large/Medium price difference but The Armchair Economist has a detailed examination of the economics of high prices at movie concession stands.

Matt SchinckelJul 26, 2005 at 2:15AM

My favourite response ever heard to a query:

Customer: I'll have a Coke, no Ice.

Bartender: You do realize the ice costs us more than the Coke?

(And I wasn't the customer, honestly.)

Scott JohnsonJul 26, 2005 at 10:24AM

I have never worked in the theater business and know little about their pricing models. I do, however, agree that concessions are the majority of a theater's profit here in the US. My solution is to sneak in a 12oz. can of my favorite carbonated beverage or a small bottle of water. I never pay for concessions at theaters.

Phil GyfordJul 26, 2005 at 2:30PM

I've often heard that movie theatres make most of their money from concessions, rather than ticket sales, and so at the end of last year I did a little digging to find out if it was true. Here's the relevant links I found last December:

AMC Entertainment annual report, 2001
"Revenues for the Company are generated primarily from box office admissions and theatre concessions sales which accounted for 67% and 28%, respectively, of the Company's fiscal 2001 revenues."

Survey of Exhibition Industry Practices, 9 December 2002
"The London-based publication Screen Digest recently completed a sophisticated report on cinema concessions sales worldwide. They estimate that concessions accounted for 20% of the gross revenues of U.S. exhibitors in the year 2000. They further estimate that those sales accounted for approximately 40% of profits."

UK government Culture, Media and Sport Committee, 17 June 2003
Search for "cinema opened" to find the bit where Stelios Haji-Ioannou talks about opening his new chain of budget cinemas in the UK, and the financial costs.

Moviegeek: Why is popcorn so expensive?
A more general, anecdotal piece.

annabelJul 26, 2005 at 3:20PM

I often take food or drinks in with me. It started when I was a kid - my mum forced me to take home-popped popcorn (with icing sugar!). I never wanted to do it because it was embarrassing that my mum made me do it, not because I thought you weren't allowed.

StacieJul 26, 2005 at 3:34PM

ok, now I'm ready to hit the movies, who's with me? It's time for Popcorn!

NateJul 26, 2005 at 3:43PM

Forgive if I am repeating someone else's thought - I couldn't make it through 87 popcorn commments.

Many times the super sized cups and bags are branded by advertisers. It might only cost you an extra $.25 to upgrade, but the theatre actually pays less per transaction if you use a branded/subsidized container.

More sales also improve their exposure numbers thus making it easier to sell in other partners for more money.

JonJul 26, 2005 at 4:56PM

I worked at a museum and got a new manager who was the NE Regional Manager for Leows as his previous job. He said that the invention of the "combo" at the concession stand, like 10 years ago almost now, created an increased spending of $.25 per person who entered the theatre. As the studios, distributors and all others with their hands in the ticket sale cookie jar, that means "pure profit" for the cinema. Also, as other have pointed out, the cup costs more then the soda in it. Personal Note: Hate the DIY butter, especially as the pre-filled popcorn bag has been sitting there for who knows how long

Dan DiemerJul 26, 2005 at 5:18PM

We snuck 3 bags of five for five arbys sandwichs in to a theater.
not as impressive as the dude with the pizza.

LeahJul 26, 2005 at 8:14PM

I rarely if ever get anything at concessions in the US . . . but concessions in Spain are another story. They're actually decently priced! I went to movies in Spain and bought the concessions and called that my dinner b/c it was cheaper than going out to eat in most of Madrid.

GeneJul 26, 2005 at 10:08PM

Another example of the bizarre pricing model -- and not limited to theatres -- is the relative price of soda and water. In most cases, I've found that a bottle of water costs more than the equivalent amount of soda... which defies explanation in the real world because soda is 99% water itself. I'd hazard a guess that with all the ingredients, mixes, etc. involved in making soda, that it must be more expensive to produce, right?
Except that everyone knows bottled water is bought by rich people like myself, who are more willing to spend the big bucks.

RutgerJul 27, 2005 at 5:02AM

I had a friend working at a cinema (here in the Netherlands) and he would get us some popcorn for free. However, we had to put the popcorn in cheap little plastic bags instead of the fancier paper ones, because the packaging was more expensive than the popcorn. The manager wasn't concerned about employees giving away popcorn, but giving away the boxes...

As a sidenote: popcorn and other snacks in cinemas are equally expensive here as in the US and buttered popcorn is not sold here.

PJJul 30, 2005 at 11:26PM

Hollywood is done. There was a guy outside the burrito restaurant I went to yesterday with DVD boxed copies of most of the first-run titles in the theaters, next to the usual Mexican music cd's.

The cover graphics looked professionally made, and they were shrink wrapped and stamped with a price. I understand this is normal for Hong Kong or NYC, but in San Jose?

I think they keep raising the price of popcorn and drinks because less people are paying to see the movies.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.