Blaming Popcorn For Hollywood's Troubles

from the makes-about-as-much-sense-as-piracy dept

An anonymous reader sends over a blog post from The Telegraph suggesting that the real issue for the movie industry isn’t “piracy,” but popcorn. The basic idea is that the theater owners drive the success of the movie industry and the theater owners make their money off of popcorn, so they only want movies that fill seats with young people who buy lots of high margin popcorn. And that leads to bad movies. Or something. Honestly, the line of thought from popcorn to movies sucking isn’t entirely clear. The article does mention that box office sales are actually up (though fewer tickets are being sold), but leaves out what that really means. Of course fewer tickets are being sold: there’s more competition and theaters, for the most part, have been slow to create a better experience. Rather than demanding crappy movies that they think will attract lots of young popcorn buyers, they could have (and should have) focused on making the overall movie-going experience better (which, by the way, might even include not pricing the popcorn quite so high). There are lots of reasons why some of the big movie studios are struggling, but popcorn is a pretty small part of it… as is “piracy.” The failure of the movie industry and the theater industry to recognize that they’re in the business of selling an overall experience is a much bigger problem, and one that the industry hasn’t shown much indication of figuring out yet.

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Comments on “Blaming Popcorn For Hollywood's Troubles”

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Jon Lawrence (profile) says:

Here's their new business model

I want to see, whatever movie I want to see, with my friends, at my local theater.

Old movie, new movie, indie flick, studio flick.

Movies long-term success is driven by fans – give the fans a way to organize and share their favorite movie experiences IN theaters. 🙂

sehlat (profile) says:

Actually, He Has A Point

The theaters and the movie studios aren’t in the same business. The theaters were originally owned by the studios, which, as Thomas Sowell pointed out, gave the latter a powerful incentive to make the whole movie-going experience a good one. The equation was simple: audience==studio income. However, as a result of “United States v. Paramount Pictures”, the studios were forced to divest on antitrust grounds.

So the business became business(es). Studios make films, and theaters show them to the audience. Because the studios have a government-protected monopoly on the films they make, they arm-twist the theaters into giving them essentially the entire revenues of a film early in the run, often for several weeks. Unless a picture is still going strong after the first few weeks, the theaters get zero from the film. How many films lately can you think of that are still doing well after more than about three weeks?

What does that leave the theaters? “popcorn” and candy and soft drinks. And yes, that creates a powerful incentive for theater owners to pack people in and sell them junk food at robbery-with-violence prices. That means they want popular, gosh-wow films which will dazzle the audience with bullshit rather than baffle them with brilliance.

jupiterkansas (profile) says:

The price of popcorn doesn’t keep me from going to the movies. It just keeps me from buying popcorn.

However, this implies that theatre owners control the content of the movies. They have no say in it. The simple truth is that teenagers go to movies more often than any other age group – mainly as a way to get out of the house – so more movies are made that will entertain them.

Adult movies are made but adults wait for it to show on cable, because they’re already paying $100 a month for cable and they tend to like staying home and enjoying their little castles.

The studios would prefer to crank out family fare that attracts kids and adults, while most serious filmmakers only want to make adult films. Our best filmmakers rarely make box office smashes, but they also tend to know how to keep their movies cheap.

out_of_the_blue says:

But Mike, isn't selling popcorn the point?

Free admisssion for all! Make money on the concessions! — No more tickets! Just needless expense of seller, door check, and paper. — Isn’t that *exactly* what you say is a viable model for musicians?

The argument of the link seems pretty simple: If theaters don’t maximize the number of patrons with fare that attracts the largest likely bunch then they’ll go out of biz.

Sneeje (profile) says:

Re: But Mike, isn't selling popcorn the point?

Yes it is the point, but I’m not sure why you believe the implication of Mike’s post is your first sentence. Popcorn (or food) is one part of the experience, the movie, the location, the seating, etc. are others. But the issue discussed here is partly that theaters are focusing so greatly on generating revenue through the popcorn that they are forgetting to balance the popcorn with all of the other elements of the experience that they control.

This means that if you just keep jacking up the price of popcorn w/o improving everything else–you’ll just end up collapsing your own revenue stream.

So Mike is just saying that the overall experience must be considered, along with all known constraints (the movies you can choose from to show), rather than just focusing on food (popcorn).

yogi2200 (profile) says:

Salty Popcorn Greed

Watching a movie with popcorn was a necessity except that at movie theaters they put so much salt that you have to buy a drink… but so much that you have a mouthful of popcorn and right after a mouthful of drink to washout the salt, it was stupid.

Now, while at the movie theater, i don’t buy either thanks to greed but i still have popcorn with just the right amount of salt watching movies at home 😀

Anonymous Coward says:

Experience is key

I expect to see ticket sales continue to fall until theaters start blocking the cell signal. Apparently people aren’t able to go for two hours without texting someone. I enjoy the movie experience except more and more the experience is ruined by those inconsiderate clods that must use their phone in some way. My favorite was the time a guy pulled out his laptop and tuned into his stock trading app FOR THE WHOLE MOVIE. Management was aware and did nothing. No reason to pay extra for that kind of experience.

Joseph K (profile) says:

Variable Pricing

I used to work in a theater for a market research company, getting people to watch movie trailers and give their opinions. One of the questions offered was: “Would you pay more money for a better movie going experience” or something to that effect. I didn’t think too much of it at first since most people said No. But at one point I thought, “There really are movies that are worth the $10-$14 dollars you pay for a movie ticket in New York City, and there are movies that aren’t. Why not use variable pricing.” I had a lot of idle time on this job, so I thought about such things. Big budget movies could be sold for higher prices and cheaper romance/comedy/drama type movies could go for cheaper. Even better, theaters could add responsive pricing. If a movie is selling particularly well jack up the price, like airlines do. Every time a movie sells out you could’ve made more money by selling tickets at higher prices, and every time it doesn’t sell out, you could’ve made more money by filling more seats. Enhancing the experience would help a lot too, but strategic pricing is a good idea.

Richard Kulawiec says:

The movie theater is truly a miserable experience

…which is why I’ve made it a point to avoid it as much as possible.

First, there’s the cost of tickets. Then, as has already been covered, the 1000% markup on concessions.

Then there’s the staff, who are — without exception — sullen, bored, slow, illiterate, incoherent and entirely unhelpful.

Then there’s the theater itself, dirty and kept at meat-locker temperatures.

And the endless stream of pre-movie commercials (and I don’t mean the previews) and the occasional panhandling for some bogus charity or another that are forced down the throats of a captive audience.

Then there’s the presentation itself, which often features ridiculous volume levels and incorrect optics.

Let’s not forget the insulting treatment of patrons, any one of which might be of course trying to pirate the dreck that’s up on the screen. (Why?)

Speaking of dreck, mainstream films are almost entirely crap. They’re either 90 minutes of fart jokes, remakes of TV/comics/whatever because of course nearly everyone in Hollywood is far too stupid to have an original idea or to recognize one when someone else does, or 90 minutes of CGI crashes. Every now and then something thoughtful and interesting and beautifully scripted and so on comes along…and lasts about 10 days in the theater.

Don’t even get me started on the other customers, who are busy playing with their electronics or having ongoing conversations or talking back to the film.

The entire experience is just miserable. I’d much rather spend the money and the time to have a pleasant dinner at a mid-range restaurant, then go home and watch something from the comfort of the couch and quiet of the home. It is a superior experience in every possible way, and until theater operators can compete with it, they won’t be seeing any of my coin.

Titus says:

Re: The movie theater is truly a miserable experience

I am willing to bet that you, like me, are over 30 and have a place to go to watch a movie. Unlike in my teens when I tried to get out of the house and have somewhere to go that was teen friendly. Another poster essentially wrote that up already. The difficulty the theaters are dealing with is attracting people who have options, or know better that the experience at home (on my 50 inch lcd with surround sound) is better than the inconveniences and generally disgusting theaters.

The problems theaters face is that they have nothing to offer us because the producers hold all the cards. My local theaters are offering up simulcast of opera, and some special arrangement movies (like movies for people with small children to keep them separated from the teen/adult crowd). They need to innovate and have reason to attract people like me, and it is a hard sell.

Ironically, my wife and I plan on going to a movie today, the first in 6 months, as a cheap date. Sometimes the big screen has some magic to offer. I hope that the people around me are not jerks (btw, one of our theaters rewards tattletales and has a zero tolerance policy of electronic use; the other local theater actually suggests you text management if someone else is annoying you…).

Reminds me of the horse carriage business, and the sub businesses like whip makers, complaining and trying to outlaw horseless carriages. They did not adapt and thus were doomed to the footnotes of history.

ofb2632 (profile) says:

entire experience

We have 3 movies theaters in our area. My friends and family only go to one of them. The ticket prices are actually a bit more costly and the refreshments are way more expensive. We go there because of the overall experience. This Regal Cinema goes the extra mile. The people are all very helpful, the place is very clean, the seats are all stadium style and very comfortable. We had one issue with a movie and it started 10 minutes late, they gave every audience member a free ticket to see another movie.
Expensive popcorn may be a very small contributor to the decline of the movies, but if you treat the movie goers well, people will always come back.
The other two places suck and we will never go to them even if they have a movie we want to see that Regal does not.

Gene Cavanaugh (profile) says:

Popcorn and business

Good article. I thought at first, “not more about trivia!”, but this is really about long-term business strategies.
True, I don’t buy popcorn when I go to the movies. But, as you pointed out, indirectly, I don’t go at all due to the juvenile (I won’t say crappy, just childish) quality. Meanwhile, if I needed another reason not to go, it is the noisiness and littering of the “popcorn-buying” younger set. If they want me back, they will have to take movies to a higher plane (essentially what you said, of course).

victor Krueger says:

I never did much like the whole movie theater experience. I used to put up with it to get to see the movie. I bought a vcr in 1987. Since then I have been to the theater maybe 4 times. I remember Robin Hood, Men In Tights; Matrix 2; and Kick-Ass. There was probably one before that. I only saw Kick-Ass at the theater because my employer gave us gift cards for one of the local theaters, and thats what I chose to use it on.

Anonymous Coward says:

A couple of points on some of the previous comments.

Free movies? Theaters don’t make any profit from selling movie tickets, but if they didn’t charge admission, they would be in an even bigger hole and would have to sell even higher priced popcorn.

Variable priced tickets for better movies? Why would anyone pay a higher price ticket when they could buy a ticket for a bad movie and then just go watch the higher priced movie? Younger kids do this for R rated movies, why wouldn’t they just do it for cheaper tickets also?

SLK8ne says:

Dodos and dinosaurs

I agree that the movie theater is probably on the endangered species list. I went to see The Book of Eli. My old Sony Trinitron NON HD tv has way better color and resolution. And my surround sound (thrift store find, Bose speakers added on, m/)has better sound. The question is can the theaters make the experience worthwhile enough for the consumers?

I doubt it. They have way too much overhead. A/C, maintenance, staff, insurance (probably very high) etc.

A good analogy would be the demise of drive in theaters. When indoor theaters came along with air conditioning the drive-ins couldn’t compete. They went under in droves. Well, now indoor theaters are facing the same extinction. And the same logic holds. People chose air conditioned indoor theaters over the sweltering heat of a parked car because of comfort and convenience. Well, the comfort/convenience of the indoor theater is being surpassed by the comfort/convenience of home theaters with surround sound. As soon as the experience becomes not worth the extra money, people will abandon the theaters. And that point is fast approaching. While there may be a handful of theaters that actually get it, most are poorly run, and staffed by people who don’t care.

I don’t know if they’re dinosaurs caught in a turn of events they won’t comprehend or a bunch of dodos too stupid to understand that circumstances are hunting them to extinction.

SIlver says:

They need to innovate, and I don’t mean in the ‘3D/4D’ experience, I mean in blocking cell phones, having ‘adult-only’ time slots even with PG movies like Shrek, making ever seat a good seat – even if a 7 foot tall football player sits in front of you, pricing popcorn and drinks reasonably, blocking wi-fi signals, and making it policy that any usher has the right to remove anyone from the theatre if they disrupting the movie for ANYONE for ANY REASON – including a whiny baby.

People pay good money to see the movie, they don’t pay to listen to a whiny brat cry, to hear someone yapping their mouth off on the cell phone, or to see a light from a cell phone turn on in the movie – we can go to the food court to see that.

Ryan Diederich says:

The Movies Suck...

The movies suck because popcorn is $8.00 for a large and I dont know whether or not my 20 dollars will be worth spending and my 3 hours worth wasting.

The movie industry has got it all wrong. The theatre owners are simply compensating for increasingly sucky movies. If sales are down 20%, whats the last thing you can do? Oh, raise the price of popcorn, and the people who still attend movies for the social aspect rather than the movie aspect still buy.

Sales fall again? Cut into the last remaining “movie” goers. Keep the socialites, sell the popcorn, keep the money.

4kMilesAway says:

Hear Hear

.. So says one of the many who will go to lengths to smuggle drinks and food into a movie.

1 person experience with ticket, popcorn, food & drink exceeds $20, … 20!!! add driving, driving time, Gas, parking time, waiting.. and friends/family/children and it’s expensive, very. Then to be blown away by a dirty foul smelling theater with a small screen, staff that look at you like stupid criminal sheep to be told you can’t carry in your own drinks, then led and fleeced by theirs.

Bah. I’ll get my tickets online, cheaper thanks, and smuggle better, healthier food in, call ahead to see which are playing on their 1 good screen and go when nobody else does. That’s a better experience. Can you emulate it Theater owners? Sure you can. Offer more food (actual food not hot dogs and a bag of grease with a cup of carbonated p!ss, lower prices see your sales increase, have friendly unobtrusive staff, show decent movies at off-peak hours… indie movies, pre-releases, dark-room showings, sell some vip passes.. blah.. you know make people feel special and make some $$ by thinking about a market strategy, advertise why you’re different, keep the place spotless, demand that your staff do so, place signs in the toilets to ask people to report when there’s a turd on the toilet seat, have staff check everywhere regularly. it is possible to have a recipe, you already do but yours is for financial failsauce disaster pie. When you could have more, much more.

People like to be entertained for a fair price, we still breathe air, have friends and social needs that go beyond our ability to provide all in the living room, get your act together or die, please.

out_of_the_blue says:

Summary: you people want "good" movies, in a posh palace,

without those pesky noisy kids around, for the same price, or lower — while complaining about the lousy service from those paid minimum wage. Not going to happen, because you won’t *pay* for it. The decline of the fun in going to movies isn’t just price of admission, though, it’s societal decline, too complex to go into here, but directly relates to letting *money* become the one standard of success.

To whoever can’t understand my prior comment on FREE admission and selling the “extras” (concessions I said, not *just* popcorn) being exactly like Mike’s new “business model” for musicians, well, think on it. Merely muddling my point doesn’t get you clear of the logic.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

To: SLK8ne, (#28, Dodos and dinosaurs, Nov 13th, 2010 @ 8:45pm)

In the first place, you have your facts twisty. Movie theaters were one of the first commercial applications of air conditioning, starting in the 1920’s. By 1970 or so, in the South, air conditioning became fairly ubiquitous in nearly all aspects of life, including both home and automobile air conditioners, and at most a decade later in the rest of the country. Even if people did not air-condition their whole houses, they would have room air-conditioners in one or two rooms, and retreat to those rooms in hot weather.

See: Raymond Arsenault, “The End of the Long Hot Summer: The Air Conditioner and Southern Culture,” _The Journal of Southern History_, v. L, No. 4, November 1984, pp. 597-628.

Arsenault was, I believe, a professor of History at the University of Florida. There are textual references to people staying home and watching television, now that they had home air conditioning, rather than going to the public movie theater to cool down.

Now, here is a contemporary source from the drive-in movie era:

Larry Siegel and George Woodbridge (illustrator), “The Mad Drive-In Movie Primer,” pp. 39-41, in the _Mad Magazine Super Special_, #30 (_A 100-page Mad Look at Hollywood over the Years_), Spring 1980. Which I gather was originally published in Mad #89 (September 1964)

Obviously, you could not see a drive-in movie in the daytime. By the time it got dark enough to see a movie, the temperature would have fallen, except for a few of the hottest days in the year. The energy reference Siegel and Woodbridge provide is one of cold– running the engine to stay warm on a winter night. Some of the other themes introduced are children in pajamas in the back seat (supposedly asleep, but not actually (*)), the concession stand (“feeding time at the zoo”), and the drive-in as a place to go with one’s partner in adultery. An automobile was a kind of perambulating porch, part of the semi-private space attached to a house, but capable of going places. It was also a chromium codpiece, but that was another story.

(*) I live near a college football stadium, and the parking lots hereabouts are used for football parking– and tailgate parties. So if I walk to the store, it is often through the middle of a tailgate party. One football Saturday, I was walking past a large SUV. A bed had been made up in the back, out of sleeping bags. A little girl was curled up in the bed, and she announced, to all the world, and definitely to all of the parking lot, in a voice of a certain large assurance, “that when she was five, she had to take a nap!” So now we are six, it seems.

To understand drive-ins, both movies and restaurants, see if you can find a copy of the movie American Graffiti, George Lucas’s personal nostalgia film. The whole point of a drive-in was to display your wheels, as an assertion of your identity.

What happened to end the drive-in was that automobiles ceased to be objects of quite the same enthusiasm which they had once been. Now we have drive-throughs. Drive-throughs are conceptually devoted to what, in the middle ages, was called secret eating, that is, eating by stealth, with the intention to refuse to share, the opposite of food as communion. More pragmatically, you drive into the drive-through at a fast-foot restaurant, get your order, park in the parking lot, and eat behind the wheel, because you don’t think you would like the people inside, and you would prefer to avoid their company.


I think you have to ask yourself whether a movie is a kind of book, or a theatrical performance. I’ve gone for the book model. I expect to be able to buy a book outright for a modest sum, to keep it on the shelf indefinitely, to bookmark it, reread parts and skim over parts; and to sell or give it away if I see fit. One does not read the same book as every one else, at the exact same time. One maintains a certain emotional distance from a book, a state of mind of having an argument with the author, and it is perfectly reasonable to read a book while writing a critique of it. I transport my expectations to films. If that is unacceptable to the movie industry, my reaction is simply to read more books instead of watching movies. And no, I don’t think one has to watch a movie on a big-screen television. A computer screen does just fine. I think that when the movie studios get hungry enough, they will do the sensible thing, and put ten old movies on a single DVD, in MPEG-4 encoding, and sell the DVD at a paperback book price.

A successful theatrical performance has a communal quality, like a church service. It asserts the we-ness of the audience. It asserts that something is so important that everyone needs to listen to it. The state of mind of the audience is receptive, rather than analytic. If you take William Shakespeare’s audience, the youngest member were the London apprentices, destined for the more highly skilled trades, and the students at the Inns of Court, the national law school. They were young men who were in active training for the most responsible positions in society, graduate students in our terms. Shakespeare was offering them an explanation of how their world worked. A film-maker like John Ford was able to recapture something of this, but he lived in a different age from ours.

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