The Popcorn Cost Conundrum: Is the price of cinema food too high?

We all understand the frustration at overpriced cinema food, but one man in America has actually decided to do something about it by suing his local AMC Cinema for what he considered to be overpriced movie snacks. It has been reported that Joshua Thompson of Livonia, Michigan became fed up of paying the allegedly high prices at his local cinema and sued the cinema in an attempt to get all cinemas to lower their prices for movie treats. It has been predicted that the case will be dismissed but it appears to have opened up a discussion on the whole issue of cinema food. This matter doesn’t just affect cinemas in the U.S. as the subject of the cost of cinema food in the U.K. has been researched also and found to be an equally contentious subject.

How did it start?

Apparently since 1912, cinema-goers have been munching on popcorn with their movies and throughout cinema history the popularity of the sugary or salted (whichever you prefer) treat does not appear to have waned. Despite the price having risen over the years, still the queue at the food kiosk is lined with happy faces, carefully selecting their drinks, hot dog fillings or the choice of chocolate treat. Some cinemas have actually banned people from bringing in their own food and this in itself has caused a fair amount of controversy. So if people consider the food to be expensive at the cinema, why do they still purchase it?

The Cult of Popcorn

Over the years, the smell and taste of popcorn have become a warm, salubrious reminder of the cinema and the experience of seeing a film on the big screen. Popcorn is wrapped up with the whole act of sharing food between friends, first dates, flickering images simmering in the dim light – a gateway to a new world with every film. Taste and smell are very important to us in recreating memories and even the smell of popcorn can make you remember a film you particularly enjoyed or disliked. Is this why people part with their hard earned cash, to take part in the event?

The Difference

nachosOf course cinema snacks are always more expensive than in a supermarket; when you go to a restaurant, even though you know that you could probably make the meal at home for a fraction of the cost, you still buy the meal. Restaurants have overheads in the same way that cinemas do. But why are the prices considered excessively high? The price of popcorn per 100g in cinemas in London can range from £4 to just over £6, whereas a bag of popcorn in your local supermarket could be around the £1 mark per 100g. This is roughly 400-600% of extra charges! While the price may seem steep, it could be considered that due to other factors, even the price of the ticket perhaps the cinema has to make money from selling snacks, as they may not make a great deal per ticket price after other costs have been deducted? Scant consolation to the customer admittedly, but from a business point of view, making a profit, or breaking even is imperative for the life of the business, and perhaps this is a way of clawing back some money?

Why is food from other outlets being banned from certain cinemas?

After checking to see the reason behind why no other food from outside the cinema was to be brought onto the premises; reasons given were that snack choices brought in by movie-goers weren’t always considerate and the policy was introduced to protect both the customers and the furnishings. To a certain extent, this seems reasonable. It’s probably best not to bring things into the cinema that could stain and spill or smell odious to other patrons as it spoils the experience. However, the tone of messages with phrases such as ‘It is our policy to not allow…’ tends to rile people up as they feel that they are being told what to do and can have the effect of making people act against it in defiance. Policing every item of food brought into the cinema would take a lot more employees, especially at busy times, and not everyone is considerate enough to bring in non-scented foodstuffs (as anyone who has ever worked in a close-knit office will tell you) or quiet snacks so a blanket ban over all foodstuffs outwith the cinema have been banned. Is it fair? Well, not particularly for the generally rule abiding citizens but if you have ever had to sit in a cinema with someone crunching loudly or eating popping candy – a ban on all non-cinema food seems a genuine delight.

espressoThis is somewhat harsh for those with specific dietary requirements as there may be nothing suitable for someone with nut allergies for example, or there may be no gluten free food which means that these customers miss out on a part of the experience. Again, trying to prove this to a cinema doorperson who has been given a specific set of instructions on what to allow and disallow could lead to a long drawn out conversation as not everyone would be so honest. A sad situation, indeed, that a rule has been imposed over the many because of a few people bringing in unsuitable items.

Not every cinema has this policy and so people have a choice in which place to view their favourite movies and what food to bring in, within reason. There are even some cinemas where an entire meal can be purchased and eaten while watching a film, proving that despite the high price, consumers will still engage. Also, if the price of the food went down, would something else have to increase in
price? Considering that the cost of visiting the cinema has soared considerably over the past twenty years, a rise in tickets further during this time of financial hardship may prove to be a blow to cinema trips in general.

The price of food in the cinema may seem unreasonably high, but the alternative is perhaps undesirable either. It will be interesting to see the outcome of the case brought by Joshua Thompson. And, if he is successful, how will this affect cinema in the future?

Written by Helen Henderson

Image © Home Cinema Sunday. Popcorn Sunday. by kozumel on Flickr (via Sprixi).

2 Responses to “The Popcorn Cost Conundrum: Is the price of cinema food too high?”
  1. akimynation says:

    food looks so relaxing

  2. mswilkinson says:

    Most people, whether beginners in the study of marketing or senior businessmen, when asked how prices are arrived at, will start from the cost of manufacture. The most common approach is ‘cost-plus’, or calculating the basic production cost and adding on a margin for profit.

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