Popcorn conundrum: When movie theaters reopen, will they ban concessions?

Ever since the ’50s, when the motion-picture industry felt existentially threatened by the rise of television (much as forces within it today feel existentially threatened by the rise of streaming), the movies have found ways to entice people into theaters with added benefits. 3D was the original P.T. Barnum attraction (the golden age of 3D kicked off with the release of “Bwana Devil,” in 1952), and the return of 3D in the mid-2000s — it rose up from the dead as improbably as the beast in a “Creature From the Black Lagoon” sequel — was a sign of the tremors of economic anxiety that were starting to rumble through the industry.

Apart from “Avatar,” the 3D revival was always an annoying scam — a transparent way to jack up ticket prices, since what you were getting, in movie after movie (from “Journey to the Center of the Earth” to “Kung Fu Panda 2” to “Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert”), was a sea of vaguely “heightened” yet naggingly darkened images that never came close to creating the experience they were supposed to. 3D, as a consumer enticement, was followed by the replacement of ordinary theater seats with glorified La-Z-Boy seating and, in certain markets, by the singular horror known as 4DX, the carnival-ride “enhancement” of movies I paid for exactly once, buying the privilege of getting sprayed with water and having my seat swivel and bump around during car chases.

Yet through it all, one timeless enhancement has remained as intrinsic to the moviegoing experience as the movie itself. And that’s the ritual of buying, and eating, concessions. Just think of the word popcorn. It’s not merely a tasty salty buttery snack. In the movies, the word popcorn is mythological — at once classic and quaint and quintessential, like hot dogs and brew at a baseball game.

Of course, there’s a less polite way of putting that, which is this: One of the main reasons that people go to the movies is to stuff their faces. More than a cultural habit, it’s a leisure obsession — and, for many folks, a case of the nachos wagging the dog.

So what’s going to happen to all those yummy, greasy, crunchy, Jujyfruity snacks when people go to the movies during the age of coronavirus? I feel like that’s a question that isn’t really being asked, at least not very prominently, because in the grand scheme of the pandemic it seems far too trivial. Yet when it comes to how, exactly, we handle the reopening of movie theaters, there’s a contradiction — call it the Popcorn Conundrum — that concessions are at the very heart of. The theater chains, assuming they remain solvent, are promising to create as safe an environment as humanly possible. That means people spaced apart in every other seat, wipe-downs between showings, and masks required. But how can you wear a mask when you’re stuffing your face? You can’t.

One of the main reasons that people go to the movies is to stuff their faces.

This obvious fact hasn’t kept restaurants from slowly, gingerly reopening, because in the parts of the country where that is happening responsibly, restaurants have reopened with outdoor seating. But a movie theater, among other things, is essentially an indoor restaurant that serves mountains of junk food. And so as theaters reopen, one of two things is going to have to take place: 1) they’re going to have to operate without concessions, at least until the pandemic is over; or 2) we’re going to have to be open about the fact that patrons in theaters are not going to be wearing masks (at least, not all the time). I’m not sure, in the real world, how either of those scenarios works.

Movie theaters famously depend upon concessions for a healthy portion of their revenues. About 40 percent of their total profit comes from concessions, and that’s partly because theaters take in 85 cents from every dollar spent on movie food. Without those snacks, they’re in a much more meager business.

But since they’re now fighting to survive, let’s assume, for the short term, that the theaters are willing to take that financial hit, and to reopen without concessions. (It’s better than not reopening at all.) Where does that leave patrons? It leaves them high and dry, as far as what many regard as an essential aspect of the moviegoing experience. Sure, the movie itself is supposed to be the main event, and for a lot of us it still is. We can live without the added taste sensation, the sugar-and-salt-and-gelatin fix.

Customers wear face masks and socially distance themselves at a movie theater in Prague in May.
Customers wear face masks and socially distance themselves at a movie theater in Prague in May.Getty Images

Yet even as someone who tends to avoid concessions (I go to the movies so much that if I allowed it to be a regular part of my ritual it would be toxifying), the thought of a movie theater that doesn’t serve snacks, combined with social distancing and the rest of the COVID rigamarole, starts to sound like a dystopian version of the movie experience — going to a megaplex out of “THX 1138.” The suppression of the popcorn and Raisinets, the Sno-Caps and Gummy Bears, the gallon-size Coke is going to wipe out a great big dollop of the pleasure.

Let’s assume, though, for the sake of argument, that concessions were allowed to stay. If so, then let’s be honest about what we’re considering: an environment in which people don’t wear masks, because it’s simply not possible to wear one and scarf your Chocolate Chip Cookie Ice Cream Bites at the same time. Culturally and politically, that doesn’t sound feasible; it doesn’t sound safe. So bottom line: It’s hard to see a way for movie theaters to reopen with concessions.

Like many moviegoers, I’m desperate for theaters to reopen in some form, and if they need to reopen without the fake food that too many of us are hooked on, then I say bring it. But during that interim period, when we’re feasting on the movie in front of us and nothing else, it’s going to be a test, a way of finding out how much moviegoers still love movies minus the addictive Entertainment State trimmings. Without the possibility of stuffing our faces, there’ll be nothing left for the movie to stuff but our souls.

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