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Will Free Popcorn Bring People Back To The Movies?

Some things just go together. A wink and a smile, peanut butter and chocolate – and, of course, movie theaters and popcorn. Hot, buttery, laden with an absurd number of calories per serving, and nearly impossible to replicate in one’s kitchen at home, the popcorn available at America’s movie theaters is often a siren song luring consumers back to the big screen from the comfort of their couches.

“I definitely like the big screen,” 10-year-old  Layla Rohl told The Washington Post of watching “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” with her mom and younger brother in a movie theater. “And of course, the popcorn and slushies. You can’t get that at home.”

Popcorn is such a powerful inducement that the nation’s largest theater chain is giving it away to help lure customers back this summer. As part of its first-ever Cinema Week promotion, AMC is promising unlimited popcorn refills with the purchase of any size tub, starting June 22 and running June 30.

The promotion comes as the theater chain has endured a very difficult year amid the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, theater chains had the ability to command a three-month theatrical release window, during which studios could not release films onto streaming services or DVD. In the post-COVID world, that three-month window is effectively dead, and movies are increasingly showing up in people’s homes simultaneously with their big-screen release, or only a few weeks later.

The popcorn promo also coincides with AMC’s newfound status as a so-called “meme stock,” a scenario that has not only put the business and brand back in the spotlight, but has also swelled the company’s market value to more than $27 billion, as its stock has gone from $2 to $60 inside of six months.

It is also often said that theaters like AMC make more money on popcorn and concessions than they do selling tickets. Given the profit margins of turning a cup of kernels into a $12 tub of popcorn, it is easy to see why that is the case. Fortunately for AMC, the company was able to pre-fund this hit to its concession revenue via the $800 million it raised by issuing additional shares of its recently inflated stock.

AMC’s popcorn giveaway isn’t the first time theaters have tapped the power of popcorn to bring customers back during hard times. Alongside the popcorn promotion, participating venues will seek to draw consumers back by hosting exclusive in-theater content, giveaways and special guest appearances to drum up excitement and get people to watch movies on the big screen.

A Brief History of Movie Theater Popcorn

Popcorn and movie theaters haven’t always gone together – quite the opposite, in fact. In the late 19th century, going to the movies was considered a high-end evening activity on par with going to the theater or opera. With its pungent smell and loud, crunching sounds, theater owners wanted nothing to do with the messy concession.

Popcorn started surfacing in connection to movie theaters in the 1920s, though theaters still weren’t the ones selling it. Instead, vendors would line the streets in front of the theaters – and eventually inside their lobbies – selling consumers a snack to enjoy alongside their entertainment.

And then the Depression hit, denting movie attendance among consumers. Theater operators began looking for ways to boost their revenue in the face of falling ticket sales. Popcorn was cheap to provide and beloved by the masses, driving moviegoers to spend more.

Thus the marriage between movie theater and popcorn came to be. In the 1930s, the earliest examples of popcorn as a promotional tool started showing up, offering reduced ticket prices to those who bought it, or a free bag for those who stuck around for the dual feature. And that was just one of a few times that crisis gave popcorn a bit of a boost. In the 1940s, during World War II, sugar was rationed and sweet snacks were hard to come by. Popcorn kernels and salt, on the other hand, were readily available.

For the first 40 or 50 years of movie theaters’ popcorn sales, it was a cheap add-on. But in the 1970s, that began to change as popcorn boxes shot up in price.

“The quarter cup of popcorn increased to 50 cents, 75 cents and then $1. This all happened pretty rapidly through the course of the ’70s, and by the time we hit the ’80s, it was in full gear completely,” movie theatre consultant Jack Oberleitner told Marketplace.

And it stayed that way, with popcorn prices consistently rising until concession sales dropped dead in their tracks in March of 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down movie theaters nationwide.

What Happens Now?

AMC, with its new never-ending popcorn promotion, is taking some inspiration from its Depression-era forebears, leveraging the power of popcorn to bring in the people.

And yet, the theaters believe that a Hollywood ending may still be in their future. “Watch out, naysayers, AMC is going to play on offense again,” AMC CEO Adam Aron said in early June.

So far, that seems to mean free popcorn and a Cinema Week promotion, in partnership with several U.S. movie theater chains and Hollywood studios including Disney, A24, Paramount, Netflix and Universal. From there, it’s still something of a mystery that will play out over the rest of 2021. But the pull of the popcorn has shown itself to be strong, historically speaking, and its power ought not be underestimated.

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