Why movie theaters are trading popcorn and soda for chimichangas and custom cocktails

Why movie theaters are trading popcorn and soda for chimichangas and custom cocktails

“Dinner and a movie” is taking on a whole new meaning.

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Alissa [email protected]

Updated

Sep 23, 2018, 12:05am EDT

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Why movie theaters are trading popcorn and soda for chimichangas and custom cocktails

Why movie theaters are trading popcorn and soda for chimichangas and custom cocktails

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Why movie theaters are trading popcorn and soda for chimichangas and custom cocktails

Popcorn and movies, movies and popcorn — it’s an eternal pairing. For decades, the two have seemed as inseparable as peanut butter and jelly, peas and carrots, Bonnie and Clyde.

But that’s all changing. Movie theaters are increasingly distinguished from one another not just by which movies they’re playing but also by the food and beverage that’s on offer. At most places, you can still get popcorn, of course. But your neighbor might be munching on a panini, drinking a boozy milkshake, or snacking on a dessert specially created to accompany the movie you’re about to see.

That’s not surprising. The percentage of theaters’ revenue attributable to concession sales has climbed steadily over the past few years, even as ticket sales have fallen. In 2016, AMC’s concessions sales crossed the $1 billion mark, up 12 percent from 2015 and 28 percent from 2014. In the same time period, ticket sales sank, with poorly reviewed films, ticket costs, and myriad at-home viewing options all contributing to the downturn.

Why movie theaters are trading popcorn and soda for chimichangas and custom cocktails

So concessions are an increasingly important part of the movie exhibition business, especially as experiments like MoviePass and movie ticket subscriptions change people’s viewing habits. How we watch movies on the big screen is changing, and along with it, the way we eat at the movies is changing too. Customers want to customize their experience — not just the movies they see but the food they eat while they’re seeing them.

And if that increased focus on concessions helps save the movie theater business from going under, it won’t be the first time.

Concessions have helped the movie business in the past

In the 1930s, the movie theater business — once a booming industry — found itself on hard times, crippled by the Depression. People didn’t have money even for the relatively cheap form of entertainment they were peddling. Theaters started to close.

But one type of theater survived: the kind that sold concessions. Some owners of fancier, higher-class movie theaters banned food, considering it to be beneath their business. But it turned out that theaters that peddled things like popcorn and candy were the ones that survived the Depression.

This seems counterintuitive: Why were people spending more at the theater if money was tight? But those who could afford a ticket apparently liked the cheap snack, and the relatively low cost of the reigning king of the concession stand — popcorn — meant that theaters made a huge profit, which kept them afloat. By 1945, half of all popcorn in America was consumed in movie theaters.

The movie theater business has had its highs and lows since then, of course — and right now, it’s in one of its slower periods. Movie theater attendance in the US hit a 25-year low in 2017, a drop likely attributable to a few factors: the soaring price of movie tickets, poor turnout during the blockbuster summer season, and the ever-present threat of streaming entertainment services like Netflix, which provide an inexpensive alternative to the theater.

Why movie theaters are trading popcorn and soda for chimichangas and custom cocktails

So it’s probably no surprise that movie theaters have been reinventing the ways they sell concessions too — especially since they pocket about 85 cents on the dollar, at least for conventional concessions. Not every food item can be sold at the sort of markup that cheap-to-make popcorn brings in, but the profit margin is still enticing (particularly for theaters that add alcohol to their menus).

And that’s why, around the country, you can find independent theaters selling specialty cocktails and fancy snacks in the lobby; franchise chains like the Alamo Drafthouse cinemas, which serve up a full menu including alcohol during the meal; and even fancier fare at multiplex megachains like AMC and Regal, which in some locations are supplementing their standard popcorn and nachos routines with chicken and waffles, sliders, and paninis.

If you want to see how these trends are playing out — and interacting with the shifting ways people attend theaters — New York City is the perfect test lab. There are plenty of standard multiplex cinemas scattered around the city, but they cohabitate with a new crop of independent theaters and repertory houses that have lately made it feel like New York movie culture is entering a new golden age.

And as many of New York’s theaters tinker with the ways they sell food and drink to their customers, a few trends emerge. Cinemas are looking to larger, more complicated menus and innovating in the ways they use their spaces to not just feed patrons differently but lure them into the theater itself.

Snacks are no longer king at the cinema. Meals are taking over.

I exchanged emails with a number of people who create, manage, and implement menus at both chains and independent cinemas around New York City. Most of them noted that while people have always enjoyed eating at the movies, something has shifted in the past decade or so: Theaters started thinking in new ways about what kinds of foods they could offer. Instead of sticking with the same traditional snack foods — popcorn, Junior Mints, Reese’s Pieces, Sour Patch Kids, fountain sodas — they’ve seen a huge expansion in what counts as movie food.

“‘Dinner and a movie’ has been the go-to date night for decades, but it is only recently that exhibitors really embraced the idea of being the ones offering the dinner,” Ken Gillich, who is the senior director of food and beverage at Reading International and oversees the concessions at theaters including New York’s Angelika and City Cinemas locations, some of which offer cafe-style food as well as more traditional in-cinema concessions.

At the Alamo Drafthouse, where the food options are served in the theater by waiters, salads and a vegan menu are available alongside more traditional fare. Jeff Mann, Alamo’s vice president for food and beverage, noted that their guests are looking for healthier options these days — though they “still like to indulge when they go out, so we offer comfort food, like milkshakes and scratch-made pizzas with homemade toppings.”

Why movie theaters are trading popcorn and soda for chimichangas and custom cocktails

Both big multiplex chains and smaller independent theaters have widened their focus from snacks to full-on meals in recent years. AMC, for instance, launched its “Dine-In” brand about a decade ago, partly to compete with theaters like Alamo. In the past couple of years, AMC theaters have also started offering upgraded concessions (like flatbread pizzas and sliders) and