The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Movie theater owners' biggest secret: How much they clog your arteries

March 23, 2011 | 11:40 am

Popcorn When I was a sullen teenager, I spent a summer working at a movie theater in Miami where one of my many jobs was to keep an eye on the popcorn machine to make sure it was always fully stocked with fresh buttery popcorn. Whenever I got distracted and the popcorn would run out, which was often, the theater manager would bellow: "Hey, moron, load up the popcorn machine! You're messing with our [expletive] profit margin!"

That's the dirty little secret about the theater business--they make a tidy portion of their profits (often as much as 35% to 40%) on concessions. Theater owners hate to admit to regular movie fans how much they're ripping them off, but Regal Theaters executive David Ownby recently fessed up during an investor presentation, "We sell a bucket of popcorn for about $6. Our cost in that $6 bucket of popcorn is about 15 or 20 cents."

It's a great racket. And as my colleague Richard Verrier reveals in this fascinating story, theater owners not only want to gouge us with higher and higher ticket prices for cruddy 3-D movies, they also want to keep the popcorn machines humming by fighting proposed rules from the Food and Drug Administration that would require theaters to disclose the calories in the junk food they serve at their concession stands.

Let's be clear, to any Michelle Bachman fans out there who believe the federal government has become a Nanny State by regulating food safety and promoting the use of energy efficient light bulbs: The FDA isn't requiring theater owners to sell healthy food. If they don't want to stock granola bars at the candy counter, it's their choice. The FDA is simply saying that consumers have a right to know how many calories are in their tub of popcorn. (The correct answer, for a large tub: as much as 1,460 calories.)

Even McDonald's, which is hardly a paragon of healthy eating, now posts nutritional information in its restaurants and on its website, which is how I know that if I order an Angus bacon and cheese burger with a side of medium fries, I'm consuming 1,170 calories. You'd think that it would only be fair for movie theaters to offer the same minimum amount of information. But theater owners have been fighting the requirement, with an attorney from their trade organization saying that movie theaters should be exempt, since they aren't restaurants. As he argued: "It's dinner and a movie, not dinner at the movie."

Of course, he forgot to mention that one of the hot new marketing gimmicks at a number of newer, cutting-edge theater complexes is, indeed, dinner food service along with a movie. Luckily, here in California our state already requires theater chains to report calorie information. Making that happen on a nationwide basis is a no-brainer. Theater owners are unpopular enough already. Making it obvious that they only care about protecting their profits will only make things worse. If theaters have already agreed to post information about movie ratings as a service to parents, they should do the same, in terms of calorie information, when it comes to their food.  

--Patrick Goldstein

Photo credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times