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History of Cinema 7 – Popcorn

Popcorn was not always associated with movies.

When cinemas became movie palaces, they were trying to attract the high end clientele the theatres were getting. Some cinemas served beverages and nothing else. Popcorn vendors recognized a potential market and began parking in front of cinemas. The owners had no problem with this as it grew the crowd and stopped people for asking for something to eat. However, they did not appreciate the noise.

With the addition of sound in the 30’s movies began to appeal to a different demographic. Literacy was no longer needed to enjoy a film. A wider clientele began to participate, increasing ticket sales to over $90 million a week. Owners continued to balk at popcorn but leased lobby privileges to vendors selling inside the lobbies. This caused more problems that were finally settled it’s the Great Depression.

After a few years of popping corn in lobbies, owners realized the movie palaces were not designed for food and concessions. Designs began to change to include counters, dedicated poppers and sufficient ventilation. Theatre goers were flocking to the cinema in droves for an escape from reality. The sound of people munching was muffled by the film with sound. And, more importantly, by cutting out the vendors the cinema owners could make more money. A $10 bag of seed could last for years. A five cent and ten cent bag of popcorn was an affordable luxury.

By the mid thirties cinemas were installing poppers and concession service everywhere. Poppers came in a multitude of sizes and varieties, from countertop to full stand up machines. Half of all domestic popcorn was consumed in cinemas by 1945.

Popcorn sales began to slag in the 50s. Television was single-handed lay destroying cinemas and the industries linked to them. The creation of Jiffy Pop, and later microwave popcorn, brought new life to popcorn consumption in the 1970s. As people found it to tedious to keep making popcorn at home, they began seeking their fix in the cinema.

This resurgence in cinema going birthed the rituals we now participate in. People learned they prefer the yellow popcorn seed cinemas had over the white seed they had at home. Yellow seed cost more but was preferred by cinemas as a carry over from the lobby vendors. Yellow seed is more cost effective as it pops larger and fills more volume than the white.

Yellow seed popping

Popcorn is the main money maker at cinemas now. It accounts for 46% of all concessions sales. The concept of what a cinema is changed when the studios reluctantly shifted cinema ownership to exhibitors. At that point cinemas were essentially renting films to lure people in to purchase popcorn.

If you are interested in personal anecdotes on popcorn, sales, or more history, leave a comment. I managed movie theatres for more than 20 years and would love to share my experiences with you.

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