Read more from Slate’s Summer Movies.
What movie snack you choose to indulge in is not a decision to treat lightly. When else is it socially acceptable to consume 8 ounces of Reese’s Pieces by yourself? And yet few among us spend much time dithering at the concession stand. Maybe you’re a Raisinets guy. Or perhaps you prefer the salty magic of popcorn. Elaine Benes is a Jujyfruits kind of gal. Me, I’m a Red Vines person trapped in a Twizzlers world.
Whatever our concession allegiances, they tend to be deeply ingrained. And for most, a trip to Live Free or Die Hardwon’t be complete without some goodies, even if it’s the kind of goody we might otherwise avoid—particularly at such egregious prices. How exactly did we form this cultural habit? Today, concessions are the lifeblood of the theater business: According to the National Association of Theatre Owners, they account for approximately 40 percent of theaters’ net revenue. But it wasn’t always this way.
In 1905, the advent of nickelodeon theaters changed the landscape of American entertainment, which was still dominated by live performances, from stage plays to vaudeville. By 1907, around 3,000 nickelodeon theaters had opened, and by 1914 an estimated 27 percent of Americans were going to the movies every week.
Concessions were not sold inside nickelodeons, but snack bars and candy shops frequently flanked the theaters, and independent popcorn and peanut vendors hawked their goods in the theater aisles. It didn’t take much to entice people with popcorn, an already immensely popular treat—they delighted in its transformation from kernel to pop, and were enchanted by its bewitching aroma. According to Andrew F. Smith’s excellent social history, Popped Culture, popcorn vendors had been tantalizing customers since the 1840s, appearing at pretty much any crowded event—fairs, rallies, you name it.
But theater owners had yet to realize just how lucrative concessions could be. Far from embracing food sales, many were downright hostile toward them, particularly as nickelodeons gave way to the fancier movie houses of the teens and ‘20s. During those two decades, in an effort to enhance the moviegoing experience, ambitious showmen constructed opulent movie palaces, like Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, which opened in 1927. These palaces, some of which cost millions to build, could rival the sophistication of European opera houses. Appointed with expensive antiques, marble columns, bejeweled chandeliers, and even perfume sprayed into common spaces, they transported moviegoers to another world. Yet it was a world without munchies.
Movie theater owners wanted their venues to remain upscale, free from the chomping of snacks you’d find at burlesque shows. They also wanted their plush theaters garbage-free. But as in the nickelodeon days, entrepreneurial vendors sold snacks outside. Popcorn kernels and candy wrappers ended up littering theaters despite owners’ best efforts to keep food out.
Then came the Great Depression. Squeezed like everyone else, palace owners sought new sources of revenue. Some deigned to install candy dispensers, and others leased lobby space to popcorn vendors. (Owners did, however, hold the line against peanuts, whose messy shells were even more of a nuisance than the errant old maid.) But according to Smith, it wasn’t long before theater owners recognized popcorn’s lucrative promise and began selling it in-house. Early popcorn popping machines had created disagreeable, burning odors, but by the 1930s, the technology had improved. And because popcorn was so cheap—theaters could sell it for 10 cents a bag and still turn a nice profit—it was a treat that even cash-strapped Americans could manage to splurge on.
Eager to avoid the mistakes of their predecessors, theater builders of the 1930s constructed more humble neighborhood houses, and with concessions becoming a bigger part of the business, the candy counter became an architectural consideration. Theaters still hoping to appeal to highbrow customers offered homemade bonbons, chocolates, and candy apples, but as mass production grew more prevalent, an abundance of newer candies—Jujubes and Jujyfruits, Baby Ruths, Raisinets, Milk Duds, and others—emerged on the scene.
Candy suffered a setback during World War II, however, when sugar was rationed. Popcorn production, on the other hand, was given the go-ahead by the War Production Board because of its health benefits and popularity. Popcorn flourished, solidifying its hold over the concession stand.
After the war, in the mid- to late-1940s, theater owners grappled with another threat—television—that made it more important than ever to capitalize on snack sales. According to Maggie Valentine’s The Show Starts on the Sidewalk, theater owners were successful in their efforts: From 1948 to 1956, despite a 50 percent decrease in theater attendance, concession sales increased fortyfold. The end of the war meant a return to sugar. Soda flowed freely, and candy counters tempted moviegoers with Goobers, Sno-Caps, Chuckles, and Black Crows, as well as newer delicacies such as Junior Mints and M&Ms.
Theaters now gave concession stands prime placement in their lobbies, and inventive sales campaigns took off in an effort to boost profits. Valentine says theaters adopted the up-sell, now so common in the fast-food business, way back in the ‘50s. Rather than simply ask, “May I help you?” smiling attendants were instructed to push the higher margin merchandise and suggest additional purchases. As Valentine writes, ” ‘Will that be a large?’ proved a better response to a drink or popcorn order than ‘Right away.’ ”
Today, movie houses are continually expanding their offerings. Newer-fangled candies—Sour Patch Kids, Gummi Bears, and others—which appeal to children, have largely ousted fruity mainstays such as Dots. Companies have capitalized on the moviegoing crowds by morphing large candy bars into shareable, bite-size candy more suitable for the movies, like Nestlé’s Buncha Crunch.
Movie theaters have of course also branched out, serving chicken fingers and chili cheese fries to complement standard snacks. Landmark Theatres, which specializes in independent films, appeals to foodies by offering local items, such as hot dogs served with homemade relish on fresh La Brea Bakery buns. And more theaters are aiming to capture older crowds with reserved seating, alcohol, full-service restaurants, and other amenities.
Still, the old standbys are the real moneymakers. We may sigh when the kid behind the counter solicits that $9 for a small Coke and a medium popcorn, but traditional concessions are by now inextricably linked to the moviegoing experience. Not only is there the kid-in-a-candy-store excitement—here’s one place where it’s still safe to gorge on junk food—but the smell of popcorn that pervades every movie theater can bubble up nostalgia in even the most curmudgeonly customer. A trip to the concession stand might elicit memories of a first date—holding her hand, greasy with popcorn, in the dark theater, or the tug of your teeth on the licorice sticks you ordered as a kid, or the Good & Plenty your grandmother used to buy you on your Saturday trips to the movies. What’s $9 for that?