Why Movie Theaters Originally Banned Popcorn

posted by ThrHistoricalSociety on July 6, 2017 at 5:01 pm

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From CinemaBlend.com: Movie theater popcorn is a staple that moviegoers take for granted these days, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, while the snack was an on-the-go staple thanks to street vendors, early theater owners refused to allow popcorn in their venues—mostly because movies early on were seen as highbrow entertainment. Andrew Smith, the author of Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn, has said that popcorn was out early on because owners were trying to keep the carpets clean. According to Smith:

Movie theaters wanted nothing to do with popcorn because they were trying to duplicate what was done in real theaters. They had beautiful carpets and rugs and didn’t want popcorn being ground into it.

So what changed? Why are we now capable of consuming the buttery, salty goodness at most movie theaters? The answer is that the average movie consumer changed, especially during the Great Depression. Back in the silent era of movies, people dressed to the nines to see films on the big screen. They were also a highbrow medium, as literacy wasn’t nearly as high around the turn of the 20th century and the audience needed to be able to read to really enjoy silent films. However, as sound was ushered in, movies became a medium for the masses. And with the newfound era of moviegoing came snacks. Lots and lots of snacks, including popcorn. But at first that popcorn wasn’t even sold by the theaters.

According to the Smithsonian Mag, popcorn was a cheap snack that could still be afforded by the masses during the Great Depression. However, most theaters didn’t have the ventilation required to pop its own snacks. Vendors would sell popcorn on the streets as people flocked to the theater, and theaters would charge the vendors a fee for “lobby privileges”—essentially selling to the patrons of the theater. Later, the middle man wasn’t needed. As theaters realized they could make more money if they sold their own snacks, theaters began selling popcorn and other concessions. That’s when theaters really began to see their profits soar.

There’s more to the history of popcorn. During WWII, when sugar was rationed, popcorn was still a treat on hand. And popcorn has stayed popular in theaters over the years, for good reason. Theaters reportedly get to keep 85% of what they make on concessions, and that counts for nearly half of movie theaters' total profits. Movie theaters have been quietly making a fortune on popcorn over the years. Back in 2014, AMC and Regal both saw increases in revenue, mostly thanks to popcorn. (Although the advent of higher ticket prices and 3D movies has certainly helped.)

Theaters have changed a lot in recent years, adding comfortable seating, dine-in options, alcohol and other gimmicks. But one thing remains the same: popcorn, and its high price tag.

Movie theater popcorn is a staple that moviegoers take for granted these days, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, while the snack was an on-the-go staple thanks to street vendors, early theater owners refused to allow popcorn in their venues—mostly because movies early on were seen as highbrow entertainment. Andrew Smith, the author of Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn, has said that popcorn was out early on because owners were trying to keep the carpets clean. According to Smith: Movie theaters wanted nothing to do with popcorn because they were trying to duplicate what was done in real theaters. They had beautiful carpets and rugs and didn’t want popcorn being ground into it. So what changed? Why are we now capable of consuming the buttery, salty goodness at most movie theaters? The answer is that the average movie consumer changed, especially during the Great Depression. Back in the silent era of movies, people dressed to the nines to see films on the big screen. They were also a highbrow medium, as literacy wasn’t nearly as high around the turn of the 20th century and the audience needed to be able to read to really enjoy silent films. However, as sound was ushered in, movies became a medium for the masses. And with the newfound era of moviegoing came snacks. Lots and lots of snacks, including popcorn. But at first that popcorn wasn’t even sold by the theaters. According to the Smithsonian Mag, popcorn was a cheap snack that could still be afforded by the masses during the Great Depression. However, most theaters didn’t have the ventilation required to pop its own snacks. Vendors would sell popcorn on the streets as people flocked to the theater, and theaters would charge the vendors a fee for “lobby privileges”—essentially selling to the patrons of the theater. Later, the middle man wasn’t needed. As theaters realized they could make more money if they sold their own snacks, theaters began selling popcorn and other concessions. That’s when theaters really began to see their profits soar. There’s more to the history of popcorn. During WWII, when sugar was rationed, popcorn was still a treat on hand. And popcorn has stayed popular in theaters over the years, for good reason. Theaters reportedly get to keep 85% of what they make on concessions, and that counts for nearly half of movie theaters' total profits. Movie theaters have been quietly making a fortune on popcorn over the years. Back in 2014, AMC and Regal both saw increases in revenue, mostly thanks to popcorn. (Although the advent of higher ticket prices and 3D movies has certainly helped.) Theaters have changed a lot in recent years, adding comfortable seating, dine-in options, alcohol and other gimmicks. But one thing remains the same: popcorn, and its high price tag.

Comments (26)

Norm Lindway
Norm Lindway on July 7, 2017 at 3:12 pm

The first theaters in the Cleveland area to sell popcorn were the neighborhood theaters. The downtown first run theaters did not. When downtown theaters decided to sell snacks they only sold boxed candy. Later on they finally decided to sell popcorn but they did not pop their own corn. they brought in bags of pre-popped corn. Neighborhood theaters popped their own allowing the aroma of the popping corn to entice customers to purchase the popcorn.

Trolleyguy
Trolleyguy on July 7, 2017 at 3:25 pm

In the late 40s, my neighborhood theatre wouldn’t allow soda pop in the auditorium. It had to be consumed in the lobby.

curtmor
curtmor on July 9, 2017 at 7:21 pm

That’s very interesting Trolleyguy! I thought my local theater was the only one with that policy!

moviebuff82
moviebuff82 on July 10, 2017 at 7:42 pm

Nowadays AMC sells gourmet food in addition to popcorn to increase sales at its theatres.

Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez on July 11, 2017 at 5:16 am

I think Loews was the last hold-out on soft drinks but gave up in the late fifties.

Norm Lindway
Norm Lindway on July 11, 2017 at 8:00 pm

When soda pop was first served in theaters, it was via a dispensing machine. You put your money in a slot and a paper cup dropped into place and was filled with your choice. You had to stand by the machine and consume your drink. No taking your drink to your seat. The area around the machine was tiled so you would not spill your drink on the carpet.

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on July 15, 2017 at 5:54 pm

Norm Lindway is correct: at the Strand Theatre in Quincy MA, up on the mezzanine lounge level, there was a soda machine circa-1950. You put your dime in the slot, pressed your selection of soda, a paper cup dropped in place, followed by a sluice of ice, followed by the soda itself. Then you drank it right there, gassy fizz and all – no taking it to your seat. This machine was in addition to the concession stand in the inner lobby, which sold fresh popcorn and candy.

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