The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Hollywood health scare: Is going to the movies dangerous to your health?

March 17, 2010 |  1:21 pm

Popcorn In what must surely be a historic first, Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman Michael Lynton gave a public scolding -- a gentle one, but a scolding nonetheless -- to Hollywood exhibitors at ShoWest this week for the ridiculously unhealthy food they offer moviegoers in their theaters. As Lynton reminded theater owners, nearly one out of three young people is already overweight or obese, putting them at a higher risk of developing diabetes, asthma and heart failure.

Granted, health experts can't blame every asthma attack on the mountainous portions of gooey popcorn, candy and licorice sticks that populate theater concession stands, but ask any parent -- wouldn't it be nice if it was just as easy to buy your kid a fruit cup, veggies with dip, yogurt, granola bars or air-popped popcorn? Those are just some of the alternatives Lynton was suggesting to exhibitors that could at least have the same prominent shelf space as the Hershey's bars that often appear as big as a surfboard.

I called Lynton on Wednesday morning to see how the speech went over. After all, exhibitors make a ton of money from concessions, so they've been notoriously resistant to any kind of change that might cut into their profit margins. But Lynton wasn't backing down. In fact, he was even more vigorous in making his case. "Sometimes you just have to state the obvious," he told me. "When you go to a mall, you can go pretty much everywhere and get healthy food -- except at a movie theater. I'm not trying to dictate anyone's behavior. I'm simply saying that exhibitors should offer people a choice."

Lynton cites the results of a poll Sony commissioned as backup. The results were striking: 42% of parents interviewed at theater locations around the country said they would buy concessions more often if healthier choices were available, and 60% of parents said that healthier snacks would enhance their overall moviegoing experience. I know, I know....

... People often say one thing and do another. But aren't you sick of having to treat your kids to the absolute worst food imaginable -- in fact, exactly the kind of food you'd never dream of letting them gorge themselves on at home? I'd argue that offering a healthier variety of food could hardly hurt exhibitors' bottom line, and it could very well boost profits by making some parents more likely to let their kids splurge on a relatively healthy meal. 

Hollywood often says one thing and does another too. But Sony has been an industry leader in providing its own employees with healthier food choices. The recently renovated Sony commissary offers a wide range of fruit, vegetables and healthy food options, and at a decent price. In fact, according to Lynton, the studio subsidizes its food offerings. "We are definitely leading the horse to water, so to speak," Lynton says. "But we've had an overwhelming adoption of the new menu. We subsidize it, because we believe that our healthcare costs will come down if people eat healthier food."

Lynton says reaction, so far, has been good. "I've been getting dozens and dozens of positive e-mails from parents and doctors, who are all eager to see the day come when they won't have to sneak healthy food into the theaters and be able to buy it at the concession counter. And from what I've heard, the theater owners took it to heart and viewed it as constructive criticism. The new head of AMC came up to me after the speech and said they'd been trying out similar healthy-food pilot programs already."

Of course, most corporate executives live a sheltered life. Doesn't every studio chief, I asked Lynton, always think they're getting a great response to whatever harebrained new idea they propose? "No way." he said. "You should have seen all the heated, negative e-mails I got after Daniel Craig was picked to play James Bond. When we do something people don't like, they don't seem to have any trouble finding us."

So what do you think? Is this a good idea? Or too idealistic? And what kind of healthy snack would you want to see at your local movie theater?

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Photo illustration: Reuben Muñoz, Los Angeles Times