Popcorn Ethics: Sneaking Snacks Into the Movies

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I save money wherever I can. I use coupons, never order soft drinks at restaurants and bring my own snacks to the movies — even though some places have signs saying it’s not allowed.

Sometimes I bring more healthful stuff that movies don’t typically sell, but more often I bring in exactly what I would buy at the candy counter — if I wanted to pay three times as much for my M&M Peanuts or Snickers bars.

Which I don’t.

I’m not alone in my illicit snack smuggling. Park in front of the movies in my town any Friday or Saturday night and you can watch cars making candy runs to the Rite Aid across the street before they pull into the theater’s lot.

But just because everyone is doing it doesn’t make it right, as I told my kids over and over when they were growing up. I know that movie theaters make most of their profits from concessions, not tickets, and the markups help make up for declining revenues. (Smart Money reported that movies make as much as 85 cents profit on every dollar spent on their popcorn, candy and soda.)

But still. Popcorn ethics — and popcorn prices — are a chewy problem.

While some theaters request no outside food be brought in, AMC Entertainment Inc., one of the country’s largest movie chains, has an outright ban. People who ignore the rule can be asked to leave.

“AMC recently reviewed its company policy regarding outside food and drink and will no longer be permitting guests to bring in these items, as is the case with many entertainment venues,” said Sun Dee Larson, vice president of corporate communications for Kansas City-based AMC Entertainment when the policy was announced.

In March, a Michigan theatergoer decided he was mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. Joshua Thompson — who was charged $8 for a box of Goobers and a Coke at his local AMC — filed a lawsuit charging the theater chain with price gouging.

In the suit, Thompson stated that he brought his own food to the theater until folks were banned from bringing snacks in.

Last week a judge dismissed Thompson’s suit without commenting on either the ethics of bringing-your-own or charging inflated prices for candy and soda.

Israeli moviegoers got a different outcome. In response to complaints about the cost of concessions, the legislature in July passed “The Popcorn Law.” The new regulation, an amendment to the country’s Consumer Protection Law, allows people to bring their own snacks to theaters, movies and sports arenas instead of being forced to buy overpriced food and beverages at concession stands.

Writer and humorist Randy Cohen, who wrote The Ethicist column in The New York Times Magazine from 1999 to 2011, says the question of bringing-your-own candy to the movies is as deep as a $10 tub of popcorn.

“On the surface, it seems simple,” says Cohen. “But when you really examine it, you see that it encompasses money and power and property rights and contracts.”

Cohen says he took the question up in one of his early columns — and got it wrong when he said the theaters were right to ban customers from bringing in snacks.

“It was one of the first questions I revisited and I amended my views,” says Cohen, who now does a show on National Public Radio called “Person, Place or Thing.” “You can’t subvert the primary action of a business, like bring booze to a bar or a doughnut to a bakery. But when you buy a movie ticket, all you’ve agreed to do is to watch a movie. You haven’t agreed to buy their food and you shouldn’t be subjected to popcorn-sniffing dogs or the cola detectives.”

In other words, what’s in your pocket is your business.

I’m think I’m going to go with that.

19 thoughts on “Popcorn Ethics: Sneaking Snacks Into the Movies

  1. Theresa

    Due to health issues, I’m not able to eat anything that is offered in a movie theatre. I sneak in veggies and a bottle of water to snack on. Once, I saw an usher take a cupcake away from a woman that she had brought in from Starbuck’s. The high cost of movie tickets and their gestapo-like tactics towards people that bring stuff is but one of several reasons I rarely go to the movies.

  2. Kathy

    I’ve always wondered if they brought the prices way down wouldn’t they sell more and still make up for the declining revenues…seems like more people would buy the snacks…

  3. Yvonne

    Who can’t go 2 hours without eating or drinking? I either bring my kids to lunch first or promise them something to eat after the movie. But I do think that if you want a snack at the movies it should be OK to bring them in. Are they going to search are pocketbooks?

    1. Nale

      Its not about waiting its about the fact that people enjoy having popcorn and soda with their movie. Its part of culture. Why should people pay $11 for a small popcorn and small soda (that happens to be grossly too big in size)?

  4. Lynne

    I neve buy ANYTHING at the concession stands in a movie theatre, just as I never buy alcohlic drinks at a restaurant. Not only is movie popcorn absurdly overpriced, but it’s loaded with calories that are absent in the microwave popcorn you can buy at the market – 3 for a buck. Similarly, a $9 glass of house wine in a restaurant costs aroun $9 a BOTTLE at the liqour store. A friend of mine who owns a restaurant also says never order a pasta dish in a restaurant either ($1/lb. for the best pastas at the market- unless it’s served with seafood *shrimp, clams, lobster, etc.) or you’re getting ripped off big-time.

    In this economy? Save any way you can!

  5. anonymous

    who cares what the policy is in israel ?
    How about Italy, Spain, France, Germany, China ?
    who cares
    You can buy a Giant fountain soda, Huge slice of pizza and giant Nathans hotdog at Sams in Manchester for like 3.50 in total and you know they are making money on it. I think a small fountain soda is like 3.00 at the theater. I can buy three 2 liter bottles of real soda for that. try going to any store in the area and not be upsold attempted from a cashier trying to be a salesman. Even Bobs, a clothing store, tries to harass every family to buy candy.

  6. Jan

    Movie theater owners can’t buck the fact they have sold popcorn, etc., since movies opened. So don’t equate eating at movies the same as eating at the opera. I can appreciate the higher prices for tickets, but I NEVER buy the ridiculously high-priced popcorn. It’s a shame, movies and popcorn sort of go together.

  7. Greg

    Yes, I can go two hours at a movie without a snack and do bribe my boys with the promise of milkshakes on the way home but I have to bring in bottled water most places. $5 for a bottle that costs a quarter is absurd, even with storage and refrigeration.

    The places that irk me most are the outside sports venues that charge $5 for luke-warm water knowing that you have to have it while sitting in the sun for hours. Fenway had a pregnant woman die in the stands because of dehydration. She was buying water but ran out of money because of the price.

    Yes, she should have known better but how many of us sit sweating in the sun without realizing how long we have been there. Their answer was to let the Red Cross give away water for 3 games then right back to $5 again. If they had only charged a reasonable price this tragedy would not have happened.

    It’s all about the money.

  8. JG

    Korky and most of the commenters managed to skip over the most important point: Theatres don’t make “most of their profits” from concessions… these days, they make nearly ALL of their profits from concessions. It’s a complex and secretive process, but theaters literally make ZERO dollars from most big films. Their only income is from whatever they can sell the crowd that is paying the movie studio to come see the film in that theater. So yes, the prices are stratospheric and the rules against outside food and drink are draconian.

    So you can call the theater owners names and spit on the manager’s shoes if you like, but it’s not their fault and it’s hard to fault them for grabbing every nickel they can while you use their facilities for free. Don’t like it? Don’t go… or just tough it out for two hours without your precious wa-wa.

    1. Tavi

      If it’s such a secretive process, how do you know the movie theaters make “literally ZERO dollars” at it? And even if that were true, that is indicative of a very poor business model, which is not the fault of the consumer. People go to the movies and pay a pretty high price for a family. To imply that they should also brainlessly accept being price-gouged for simple popcorn and water just because you think the poor theater owner is getting screwed by the movie industry is just plain stupid. Poor, poor business owners!! Whatever will they do to feed their starving children??

  9. Cora

    I’m kind of glad the movie theaters in my area haven’t banned anything per-say. They have signs saying no outside food or drink but some women (myself included) will sneak in a water bottle filled with water and maybe a small bag with candy or something in it. We all get away with it and they never think to check our purses/bags

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