Let’s step backward and pause at 1929, the height of the movie palace era: a bag of popcorn cost exactly 5 cents (the equivalent of 62 cents today). A movie ticket in ’29 cost 35 cents, seven times what it had cost in 1905 at the Nickelodeon, (that’ s $4.32 in today’s money). As of 2021, the average cost of a small popcorn is $6.09, yet a movie ticket costs $9.16.
What gives? Why did the humble bag of corn outstrip inflation so completely, while the price of a ticket only just doubled? Ironically, the movie palace offered glamorous powder rooms, magnificent chandeliers, marble staircases, infant care, an army of uniformed ushers — so much more for so much less — while 2021 movie theaters, even the best of them, feature nary a potted palm.
True confession: I was a movie palace operator in 1976, when a group of us tried valiantly to keep the St. George Theatre, a 2,672-seat palace in Staten Island near the ferryboats, open for business. Cost of our popcorn then? seventy-five cents — and tickets? — a buck fifty for adults. (These are straight out of memory, so not adjusted for inflation). We were a third-run house, but even at premier houses, the deal was about the same: most of the money to be made in ‘76 was from concession sales, which is true today. There’s a reason why concession sales have dominated in the last decade or so: Hollywood movie studios take upwards of 70% of the opening weekend box office receipts.
Now whatever happens to a theater operator, you gotta have popcorn, and if you want to sell it, it better be fresh-popped. Despite practically living off the corn at the St. George (supplemented with egg salad from home) I have astonished myself by continuing to crave the ritual grain. That said, I’ve always felt that if I don’t see a popper, and if there isn’t at least a slight lingering grassy smell in the lobby, its time to shrug and walk into the theater, sans corn, feeling somewhat naked.
Over the long history of movie theater operation, popcorn has had numerous subtile functions:
• It’s a ritual object intrinsic to the ceremony of moviegoing. I always try to preserve a third of the box or bucket until the movie starts; what a waste to consume all of the magic food during trailers or the like.
• For the theater operator, it has been, at least in the past, a form of currency: we used to give popcorn away when the film broke and while the film (that collective dream moviegoers were having) was being repaired. What the modern equivalent of that is in our digital projection age, I have no idea.
• A more devious use of popcorn is as subliminal advertising, as popcorn’s major mode of communication is olfactory. If you want more people to show up at concession for the more expensive sodas (35 cents for a small in 1976), then pop some fresh corn. This was, in the past, how I could tell when a theater had gone to hell, with nobody in line to buy anything edible, no discernible smell of anything, and all the concessionaires asleep at the counter, like figures in an enchanted castle.
Returning briefly to the ritual eating of popcorn in theaters, there continues to be something comforting about reaching into a bag or bucket at various filmic moments: the main character, a woman, hasn’t yet realized there’s a stranger in her house; or it’s a comedy and the main character’s a dweeb you nonetheless identify with, who’s just embarrassed all of us. There is also the melting witch, and the flying saucer that just sliced off the top of the Capitol.
Who knew popcorn could be so versatile!
1. At the St. George, our popcorn was, compared to other theaters, relatively cheap. We didn’t actually own our own stand, having, like share-croppers, sold it off to a concession company in Rochester for a loan we had already used up; which is to say we had no true sources of revenue. The running joke among management staff was, “Let’s close down the screen and just sell popcorn," but that would have completely eviscerated whatever cash-flow we had...
2. Returning to the stats quoted earlier (popcorn, ticket prices), both have flattened since the Pandemic, resembling the prices of 2018 and 2019, as people find their way back into theaters.