Here’s why we eat popcorn at the movies

USA- Even before the house lights dim, the cinema experience is well under way, with one concession-stand food holding top billing.

Its roasty, buttery aroma fills the lobby, a smell that’s both unmistakable and, often, core memory-inducing. A kernel smacks the side of a stainless steel kettle, a hint of the percussive symphony to come. As a white, fluffy wave boils up, the contents are scooped into a tub and drizzled — if you are lucky — with real melted butter.

And as you slide into a cushioned seat, the delicate puffs give way to a soft crunch.

It’s Memorial Day weekend, the traditional start to the summer blockbuster movie season, and for 90-plus years and through generation after generation, the salty and buttery treat’s symbiotic relationship with the cinema has remained.

“Popcorn and the movies are as inextricably linked as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, peanut butter and chocolate; and, as such, represent perhaps one of the greatest duos in modern history,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore, told CNN. “It’s hard to imagine a more perfect combination and one that has become part of the culture in such a profound and ubiquitous way.”

The nation’s largest movie chain, AMC Theaters, pops enough popcorn to fill 222 Olympic-sized swimming pools every year, according to the company. But the perfect (and very profitable) pairing of today wasn’t always the case: For many years, movie theaters wanted nothing to do with the snack.

A match made in oil and butter

There’s plenty of lore packed in to popcorn’s origin story and a fair bit of drama involved in its “shotgun wedding” with the movies, according to Andrew F. Smith’s “Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in America.”

Smith, in cataloging popcorn’s rise, debunked most of the long-ingrained fables behind the snack. It was not a “first Thanksgiving” side dish but rather landed in New England in the early half of the 19th century, likely brought there by American sailors returning from South America.

Popcorn-making at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, 1876.

Popcorn-making at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, 1876. 

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Popping corn became a popular recreational activity by the 1840s, after “wire-on-the-fire” poppers and popping apparatuses were invented. In the following decades, popcorn vendors proliferated at fairs, circuses and on city streets. More commercial operations emerged, Cracker Jack became a ballpark staple and a slow courtship with the movie exhibition business began.

That business, saved by the advent of the “talkie,” blossomed during the early 20th century. By 1930, a stunning 90 million people were going to the movies on a weekly basis, Smith wrote.

The crowd appeared ripe for the picking to popcorn salesmen, but theater owners balked.

“To some owners, vending all concessions was an unnecessary nuisance or ‘beneath their dignity,’” Smith wrote. “In the rowdy, burlesque days, hawkers went through the aisles with baskets selling Cracker Jack and popcorn. Much of the popcorn was tossed in the air or strewn on the floors.”

In cinemas, the scattered popcorn bits would muck up the valuable carpet that was meant to emulate the grand theater lobbies.

But cinema owners changed their tune, and popcorn’s boom came during one of the unlikeliest of economic periods: The Great Depression.

“At five or 10 cents a bag, popcorn was an affordable luxury for most Americans,” Smith wrote.

The popcorn-making initially took place outside of the theaters, where operators leased space to vendors as it was seen as too costly to outfit the buildings with vents. But once competitors started popping up and tales of “popcorn wealth” spread like wildfire, the concession was brought in-house.

“Popcorn sold so well because of its aroma — the same smell that some theater owners had reportedly despised earlier,” Smith wrote. “The aroma was maximized during the popping process. As soon as the machines were placed in the lobbies, business picked up.”

A child buys popcorn at a movie concession stand in Texas in June 1949.

A child buys popcorn at a movie concession stand in Texas in June 1949. 

Peter Stackpole/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A national pastime

On a recent Sunday morning here in South Minneapolis, a decades-long father-son tradition continued at the Riverview Theater, a single-screen cinema nestled among century-old bungalows.

Ever since John Aitkin, 44, was a kid, he and his father, John Sr., have been catching movies at the Riverview. As they awaited the start of “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes,” they were accompanied by other longstanding members of the monthly custom: a bucket of popcorn and a couple of soda pops.

“(Popcorn’s) a pastime,” the younger Aitkin said. “When I’m eating it, it makes everything feel OK. It’s just ‘popcorn and a movie,’ and you can disappear from the anxiety of daily living.”

The Riverview Theater in Minneapolis on May 19, 2024.

The Riverview Theater in Minneapolis on May 19, 2024. 

Alicia Wallace/CNN

It’s also an affordable escape. The medium bucket ran Aitkin a cool $2.50, half the price of his ticket that day. (This is the exception: In some regions, popcorn can easily run three or four times that.)

The Riverview popcorn’s fame and popularity extends beyond the walls of the 75-year-old building. For years, the neighborhood cinema has sold it to-go, an offering that helped the theater navigate 2020, said Loren Williams, the Riverview’s owner.

“When the pandemic came, that was all we had,” he told CNN of the community support.

The post-pandemic picture

After the pandemic reopenings, people were not only buying premium tickets, but also spending more on concessions, said Alicia Reese, an analyst who covers the media and entertainment industry for Wedbush.

“We thought that there was just pent-up demand for going out and [people] treating themselves,” she said. “But this trend has persisted. It has not declined, and it’s still growing.”

That’s good news for theater operators at a time when attendance hasn’t yet returned to pre-pandemic levels. That’s because, at their heart, cinemas are mostly food service and real estate operations, said Ricard Gil, an associate professor who specializes in organizational economics at Queen’s University in Canada.

People watch movies in a newly reopened AMC River East theater on Aug. 20, 2020, in Chicago.

People watch movies in a newly reopened AMC River East theater on Aug. 20, 2020, in Chicago. 

E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service/Getty Images

Generally, the ticket revenue is split 50-50 between the theater operators and the movie studios, said Gil, who previously researched why movie theater concessions come at steep prices.

For the exhibitors, that half (or, oftentimes, less) isn’t enough to recoup all the other costs.

Concessions account for about one-third of overall domestic sales at the largest US chains of AMC and Cinemark, Wedbush’s Reese said.

“Over 80% of that revenue is going to profit, which is substantial and unlike most other businesses,” she said. “The reason for that is that most of the concession sales are popcorn, where the cost is quite low.”

Droids and sandworms filled with popcorn

In 2023, AMC Theatres’ food and beverage business totaled $1.67 billion in revenue, financial filings show. (By comparison, that’s more than the annual revenue of restaurant chains like BJ’s, Waffle House and Red Robin).

“The sun rises and sets on our concession business,” Nels Storm, AMC Theatres’ vice president of food and beverage product strategy, said in an interview. And popcorn, he said, remains the “venerable force” behind that business.

But, given external threats to the industry, such as at-home entertainment and more options competing for consumers’ almighty dollar, popcorn has to evolve with the times.

For AMC, that’s included launching a line of microwave and ready-to-eat popcorn for sale at retailers like Walmart and Kroger, offering unique or movie-themed flavors and leaning heavily into merchandising.

Popular movies often bring collectible cups and popcorn buckets, or, in industry-speak, Collectible Concession Vehicles (CCVs).

At AMC, these have included R2-D2 popcorn buckets; Ghostbusters’ Ecto 1; the infamous Dune: Part Two sandworm; and, coming in June, a “Garfield” CCV that includes a plush doll — a fitting throwback to the days when stuffed versions of the lasagna-loving tabby were suctioned-cupped to car windows.

Despite the full menu, popcorn remains the most frequently purchased food item at Alamo Drafthouse cinemas.

Despite the full menu, popcorn remains the most frequently purchased food item at Alamo Drafthouse cinemas. 

Cory Ryan/Courtesy Alamo Drafthouse

For years, cinemas have broadened their concessions, with some taking it to the next level of dine-in theaters. Alamo Drafthouse, which got its start in 1997, offers a full menu and bar (complete with servers). Despite the full menu, popcorn remains the most frequently purchased food item, said Heather Morgan, Alamo’s chief of staff and strategy.

Alamo is quick to experiment with its popcorn and other concessions by tying them in to various theme nights, she said, noting that the chain created a berbere-spiced popcorn for “Dune: Part Two.”

“We can see an uptick in sales, because people want to try the new and different flavors,” she said.

Chocolate popcorn and homegrown flavors

Those unique takes extend to smaller theaters, as well.

In Brooklyn, New York, Nitehawk Cinema is known for its truffle popcorn. In Iowa City, Iowa, the nonprofit FilmScene cinema uses a recipe handed down from the University of Iowa’s student cinema group.

“We don’t offer butter, and we promise you don’t need it,” Andrew Sherburne, FilmScene’s executive director and co-founder, wrote via email to CNN.

In Seattle, Emerald City film-lovers rejoiced when the iconic Cinerama theater was resurrected after a pandemic closure and its famed chocolate popcorn returned.

At Cinelounge Cinemas in California, founder Christian Meoli crafted a line of eight artisan popcorns to be sold onsite, online and in stores.

Cinelounge popcorn

Cinelounge popcorn 

Courtesy Christian and Camilla Meoli/Cinelounge

The movie-themed offerings — featuring flavors such as cinnamon churro, bourbon caramel and rosemary — also serve as a vehicle to spur investment in the film community: The proceeds help fund grants, screenings and equipment for aspiring filmmakers, he said.

The cinema business will continue to evolve, but one thing will remain constant, said Gil of Queen’s University.

“The only economics of movie theaters that has changed is the romanticism of showing movies has gone away a little bit, and movie theater companies have realized that they are real estate companies, and they have capacity, and they need to fill the capacity, and they’ll do whatever (it takes) to actually do that,” Gil said. “Theaters will stop playing movies before they will actually stop selling popcorn.”

Source: CNN