The end of popcorn economics

Cinemas are suffering as cash-strapped movie fans watch their pennies

You arrive when the trailers have already started, pay using a credit card in a bid to forget that the family seats that used to cost a tenner now leave little change from £40. You try, desperately, to usher the kids away from the popcorn kiosk towards the screen door. You have a packet of Mars Bars in your pocket, bought for £2 from Tesco.

But the mission fails. Little Marcus has sniffed the kernels. If you don't buy that family car-sized tub of popcorn, a full-blown tantrum will erupt. You succumb, buy a bucket of the stuff, plus a few drinks to counter the salt. The total rings up on the till; it's more than half the cost of your tickets. You stifle a gasp.

Welcome to popcorn economics.

Anger about the price of cinema concessions has seen one disgruntled film fan in the US file a class action in an attempt to bring down costs. Joshua Thompson launched the suit after a trip to the stand at an AMC cinema cost him $8 for a pack of sweets and a Coke. In a local shop, the same purchase would have cost him $2.73, but the cinemas chain banned people from bringing food into its screens in 2009.

"He got tired of being taken advantage of," Mr Thompson's lawyer, Kerry Morgan, said. "It's hard to justify prices that are three and four times higher than anywhere else."

Popcorn economics sees big numbers bandied about. A Morningstar analyst claims that, of every dollar spent on popcorn in the US, roughly 85 per cent is profit. Here in the UK, a bag of popping corn can be bought from the supermarket for 50p per 100 grams. Cinemas will pay less due to bulk discounts, but they charge more than £6 per 100 grams, about a 1200 per cent mark-up.

Unsurprisingly, operators disagree. "You can't just look at the price of goods," says Steve Wiener, chief executive of Cineworld, the listed cinemas group. "A huge chunk of the cost is made up of staff wages, land rents, electricity. Our average cinema is about 40,000 square feet, a corner shop sells popcorn on about 500 square feet of land, where Asda's turnover from a 40,000 square feet shop would be much bigger than cinema revenue. We need our "extras", goes the cinemas' argument, to subsuduse ticket prices. "If," Mr Wiener says, "we got rid of concession sales and raised ticket prices, people wouldn't like that either."

Retail analysts say if cinema concessions were brought down to their cost in a supermarket, it would add another £3 to the average ticket price. But the importance of popcorn to the industry was highlighted by Guy Hands of private-equity group Terra Firma, who on buying cinemas chain Odeon, said, "The management team really believed they were part of the film business. I had the difficult job of explaining to them that they were in the popcorn-selling business."

Still, if popcorn is that important as a commodity in the industry, the latest purchasing trends may worry some. While UK box-office takings passed the £1bn mark for the first time last year, up 5 per cent according to the British Film Institute, insiders say spending on extras like popcorn fell.

Privately owned Odeon and the other national chain, Vue, owned by Doughty Hanson private equity, do not publish retail figures, Cineworld saw its average retail spend per person fall from £1.73 to £1.69 in 2011. Given a third of cinema revenues come from the concessions stand – and screen advertising, also hit by the downturn, makes up about 10 per cent – Nick Batram, analyst at Peel Hunt, says cinemas need to modernise their food and drink offering.

"In cinema, retail is the most sensitive pressure point when the economic backdrop is difficult. There's more that chains can do to be competitive, like monitoring who their customers are, when they are coming and offering promotional deals on things like popcorn for those who book online. The foyer experience of a cinema hasn't changed for decades and the industry needs to modernise."

Stop and search in hunt for snacks

Ever thought about smuggling a Coca-Cola or packet of Butterkist into the cinema? Think again.

Anecdotes abound of cost-conscious cinemas ordering staff to search customers' bags for snacks. Regular cinemagoers have horror stories, as a straw poll around The Independent office shows. One movie buff was told to leave her Pret A Manger sandwich at the front desk. She went away, hid it in her hood, and returned. Another reports being stopped for having a bottle of mineral water with him. He ordered a free glass of (grudgingly served) tap water from the bar instead. Cinemas claim they do not operate a stop-and-search policy unless for security reasons.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A position has arisen within th...

Ashdown Group: Development Manager - Rickmansworth - £55k +15% bonus

£50000 - £63000 per annum + excellent benefits : Ashdown Group: IT Manager / D...

Recruitment Genius: Security Officer

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Applicants must hold a valid SIA Door Su...

Ashdown Group: Business Analyst - City, London

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Business Analyst - Financial Services - The C...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss