When you pay $6.50 for a movie ticket, you know some of it ends up, at least theoretically, in the pocket of Kevin Costner or whoever is up there on the screen entertaining you. But when you pay $3.50 for a bucket of popcorn -- where does it go? Are there some farmers in Iowa whose kids are getting the best orthodontics and college educations that money can buy?
"Most people don't realize that it's the popcorn that keeps the theater's doors open," said Cathy Kasberg, concessions director for the United Artists movie chain, the nation's largest. "Most of -- the price of a movie ticket goes to the film company. On an opening week, film companies can get 90 percent of the box office [receipts]. That's why we have to make our profits on concessions."
Indeed. Popcorn, among the cheapest of snack foods if you make it yourself at home, and the soft drink you need to wash it down are both wildly marked up at movie theaters -- about 80 percent by one estimate. But, like hot dogs at the ballpark and cotton candy at the fair, popcorn is such a part of the movie-going experience that consumers continue to spring for it. That makes theater owners happy, and their books a little better balanced.
"There is no concession known to man that has a mark-up like popcorn," said Tom Kiefaber, owner of the Senator Theatre. "It's such a high profit item . . . in fact, the wax-coated cup that it comes in costs more."
Even as fewer people are going to the movies these days -- what with video rentals and cable TV keeping them at home --concession sales "pretty much have stayed consistent," said Mandy Pava, spokeswoman for the National Association of Concessionaires. Snack Food magazine estimates that moviegoers buy $350 million to $400 million of popcorn every year.
The cost of popcorn and other concessions, long a grumbling point among moviegoers, has led some to sneak their own snacks into theaters.
Several local theater owners say they allow patrons to bring their own popcorn or candy, but draw the line at more distracting and odoriferous fare -- potato chips in noisy crinkly bags, for example, or fast food from nearby restaurants.
"There was a Sunday matinee a year ago, all my employees remember this, when two characters brought in fish sandwiches. We took them out, but the odor remained," Mr. Kiefaber recalls. "Then we had another gentleman who came in with a pizza in a box under his shirt. We put it in the popcorn warmer for him and let him eat it in the outer lobby during intermission."
But Mr. Kiefaber's worst experience with surreptitiously eaten food came some years ago, when he was working at the old Boulevard Theatre. "We once found a bag filled, very neatly, with the shells of a dozen steamed crabs," he said. "Can you imagine sitting in a theater and eating a dozen crabs?"
Theater owners are well aware of the fact that many consumers find their concessions expensive. Mr. Kiefaber said his theater offers a small popcorn for $1 and has found that it's one of the most popular sellers at the stand. (Other sizes of popcorn range from $1.50 to $3.50.)
Scott Cohen, whose family owns the Reisterstown-based R/C movie chain and has been in the theater business for three generations, said he tries to offer occasional promotions to lessen concession costs. Sometimes, customers will be offered both popcorn and a refillable drink for a flat fee of $2 or $3, he said.
"But I don't feel that our regular prices are that high," he said. "Our popcorn is popped fresh. If you bring your own, it's not popped within 20 or 30 minutes of when you eat it,and it's just not the same."
Like other theater owners, Mr. Cohen is broadening the types of food sold at his concession stands -- some theaters in his chain sell nachos and hot dogs, others sell frozen yogurt.
Pizza is becoming more popular -- UA's Movies at Harbor Park is one of 10 theaters in the chain that has added that to its menu.
Mr. Kiefaber is planning to introduce fruit juices and "other yuppie food" to meet customers' requests for healthier fare, both for themselves and their children. (Although you still can get real butter on your popcorn, he added.)
You might also see hot or iced cappuccino at your local cinema soon. That's one of the products being pushed at a current national convention in Las Vegas, where theater owners are being wooed with everything from star actors and directors touting their new movies to food and equipment companies peddling their drinks and eats. In fact, most of the people interviewed for this story were contacted at that convention.
Fancy coffees are being pushed,Ms. Pava said, but she thinks they may be just a passing fancy. Most moviegoers still go back to the standard: "Popcorn and soda -- that's not a trend," she said. "It's part of the experience. The same proportion of people is always going to buy popcorn and soda."