Free Film School #120: The History of Popcorn

Popcorn and movies can never be separated. But how did they get together? Witney Seibold traces the history.

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold

What better way to start a lecture on the history film than with a brief description of modern day agriculture? At CraveOnline's Free Film School, we try to keep you on your toes.

You may have noticed that America is suffering through a drought. The drought is effecting crops throughout this nation, most notably corn crops. Corn is, as I'm sure many of you well know, one of the most lucrative food industries in the country, accounting not just for corn on the cob and corn chips, but all kinds of corn oils and corn sweeteners. Every can of soda you drink has corn in it. The health benefits of corn are pretty much nil. It contains few nutrients, and may serve as a kind of culinary packing material.

And movie theaters sell popcorn. By the bucket. For millions upon millions of dollars every year. In the Free Film School, I do like to postulate endlessly on the aesthetics and history and mechanics of film, but I also like to keep a close eye on the practical, ground-level experience of going to the movies. One of the most central details of going to the movies has always been the concession stand. It is a vital and pertinent element of movie theater profits, and, in many cases, it is what keep movie theaters alive. Eating during movies is a common and glorious practice for millions. This week's lecture is going to be a brief look at movie theater food. Yes, it's relevant.

Concession Stand sign

Depending on the statistic you are able to track down, movie theater concession stands can account for up to 50% of a movie theater's profits (but I think 40% is a more accurate stat). The prices are hiked up to exorbitant levels on purpose because it's where a movie theater gets the bulk of its income. And because they can get away with it, many theaters are still strict about the notion of carrying in other foods from the outside, so if you want to eat during the movie, you may not have a choice but to buy items from the concession stand at their inflated prices. Some theaters aren't so strict, and you can bring a snack, if you're surreptitious enough. Some theaters take the opposite tack and have begun offering up entire meals; there is a whole new guard of “dine-in theaters” in this country.

Back in the early days of cinema – like in the 1910s and 1920s – eating during movies was considered unbelievably gauche. At the time, movies were considered to be fancy, theatrical experiences, and bigger movies at bigger theaters may have even warranted jackets, ties, and gowns. You would no sooner eat at a movie than you would at a Broadway show. Popcorn was a roadside snack like roasted peanuts or ice cream from trollies. The portable popcorn kettle was invented in the late 1880s, and, like their street food brethren, would often haunt carnivals, arcades, and nickelodeon theaters. The scent of popcorn, thanks to its associating with “cheap” and even burlesque entertainments, was considered to be low class and kind of trashy, and fancy theaters discouraged food vendors from standing outside.

But when The Great Depression began, and theaters began to suffer financially, they acquiesced to the public's desire to snack during movies. Theaters began bringing the outdoor popcorn machines indoors, and a staple was created. Why popcorn and why not peanuts or ice cream? Good question. Popcorn was, of all those snacks, perhaps the most cost efficient. You can pop a great volume of popcorn for very little money. 32 oz. of unpopped kernels can make for nearly 500 oz. of popcorn. During the Depression, hot popcorn might be one of the only ways many people could get a hot meal.

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Popcorn was still seen as kind of a trashy snack, but movie theaters relied on it for money. Plus, they didn't have to dress it up; it's hard to make popcorn anything more than it is. Perhaps a sweetened kettle corn, or a buttery salted corn could be employed as options, but for the most part, it was pop and go.

In WWII, sugar became less available, and movie theater's candy options began to whither. Corn, however, was still easy and plentiful, and popcorn sales skyrocketed. Ever since the end of the war, popcorn has become inextricably linked with with movies, and most movie theaters are designed around the concession areas. Most movie theaters have diversified in their food options, especially over the last 15 years or so, to include more hot food like hot dogs and nachos and the holy soda pop (which serves for just as large a portion – if not larger – of concession sales as the popcorn). Some have even gone so far as to include a deep fryer, serving up fast food joint eats.

Despite the diversification of culinary options, a concession stand is still culturally entrenched in the carnival, and it's rare that you'll find a theater that offers food beyond the Cracker Jack level. They are, after all, still called “concession stands” and “snack bars” and not “restaurants.” Although the Arclight Theater in Hollywood, CA (and several others of a similar stripe) has its own bar and bistro attached. Some theaters have even gone so far as to incorporate “21 and Over” screenings, wherein the theater will allow wine, beer, and cocktails.

This all makes sense from a financial perspective, to be sure, and many theaters food options make them more enjoyable; Eating tater tots and drinking a cool beer while watching The Goonies at an Alamo Drafthouse cinema in Austin, TX is, from what I have heard, a transcendent experience. But as a snotty film critic who has long since broken the habit of eating and drinking during movies, I ask: does it do anything to the film? Does having varied snacking options offer up any sort of enhancement to the film experience? The answer is a resounding no. No critic has ever watched an astonishing film like Gravity and mused that it would have been enhanced by pizza.

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Indeed, in most cases, food can only ever be a distraction to a movie experience. Like a cellular telephone, food will offer up something to look at and sense aside from the movie itself. I personally don't typically eat during movies because, well, I'm there for the movie. Not for the Jr. Mints.

So the critic in me would encourage you to stop buying the popcorn. But there's another part of me that wholeheartedly and enthusiastically loves the communal experience of movies as well. That's the whole point of leaving the house and seeing a movie in a theater; to share them with strangers. To laugh or scream alongside others. If it's a low-budget horror film, then there's also a fun, vital, trashy grindhouse element to filmgoing. And food and eating and drinking can only enhance that community feeling. I have seen several bad movies, eating cookies or chips in the theater, hooting and hollering with all the other friend sin the theater. This rowdy and noisy version of filmgoing is no less important than the stern and formal type of foodless filmgoing that I also tout.

Thanks to those droughts, popcorn may not be as easily accessible as it has been for so many decades, and we find ourselves at a crossroads. If popcorn were to be taken away, what would it be replaced with? What would happen to movies? The films may remain the same, but since we don't have that salty snack in our mouths, filmgoing may actually change.

Homework for the Week:

What would you replace popcorn with? Do you like to eat during movies? Are there certain movies that warrant food? Are there certain movies that discourage food consumption? What's your favorite movie snack? Do you eat when you watch movies at home? What do you wish theaters would serve?  


Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.