Though we hardly knew it at the time, we’d stumbled onto a basic truth that is now revolutionizing the business of movie exhibition: the concession tail was already beginning to wag the exhibition dog. It hadn’t always been that way.
Once upon a time, movie theaters had no concession stands at all; but there is some essential connection between movie-watching and munching. The storefront Nickelodeons of the teens and early nineteen twenties were often flanked at street level by candy shops and outside popcorn vendors; folks snuck these goodies in under their coats — verboten these days -- though people still do it. In the twenties, when big palaces rose like elegant domed mushrooms all across the continent, their very opulence made theater owners reluctant to sell food. Then came the Depression. If I’m a theater manager in 1932, I’m wondering why, since people sneak food in anyhow, I’m not the one selling it to them? Popcorn happens to be an extremely cheap product, and the price, even with obscene mark-up, was affordable (10 cents a bag) even then. Candy came along for the ride, and suddenly a theater was more than a place to see a show. It was where you indulged the guilty pleasure of food in the dark.
Jump over the great time hurdle of the millennium, and what do I find? Well, AMC isn’t exactly proposing to darken all of its 11,000 screens and go into the restaurant business, but since 2015, it can’t help noticing concession sales are rising, even as ticket sales are falling off. (The fact that dine-in and booze are offered alongside traditional concession has, of course, everything to do with it, but there’s more). Since 2002, ticket prices have increased more than 50%, while ticket sales have fallen more than 20%. According to Variety, we’ve been “net-flix-ized,” Movie Pass, a subscription service founded on this principle, may go bankrupt before it succeeds, but it’s burgeoning database of accounts leaves no doubt that people want to go out to movies, if they can do it on the cheap. Anyhow, slashing ticket sales means, what else, charging more for the popcorn and Good ‘n Plenties.
In 2014, AMC saw ticket sales drop more than $80 million in a year; but during that same period, overall revenues only dropped fifty million. At the same time,concession revenue rose dramatically to help make up the shortfall. Higher prices? — yes, but the patron who got in cheaper probably spent some of the difference on extra edibles.
So you may have even more elbow room at the local movie house than you had a few years ago, but that Snickers and giant bucket of popcorn you just bought probably set you back more than you expected. Well, you got in on subscription, didn’t you?
I’m thinking about a lot of people who loved our hot dogs way back when and could have been early subscribers:
The jazzman, who showed up in a spangled suit and ordered a “yellow dog” (with mustard) once a week, but never went in to see the movie.
Certain neighborhood families, who preferred our concession stand to Burger King..
And tiny old Dr. Oppenheimer (probably in her early nineties at that point) who liked to stand outside the box office (she barely came up to the sill) and talk with me about the Law of Entropy, and other heady stuff, all the time munching on a Sabrett’s with extra mustard.
That was Dijon mustard, BTW.