How Popcorn Took Over Movie Theaters

It’s cheap to make and lasts forever. But movie theater owners were originally against popcorn. Here’s how the humble snack conquered Hollywood.

Try to imagine going to a movie theater that only sold pretzels. Or potato chips. Or Cheetos. It’s downright inconceivable today, but during the rise of movie theaters in the early 20th century, popcorn was far from a standard snack. In fact, the noisy, crumbly kernels were a particularly bad fit for luxurious silent movie theaters.

As Smithsonian tells the story, popcorn became massively popular starting in 1885 when the first steam-powered popcorn maker allowed the snack to hit the streets. From Food & Think:

The mobile nature of the machine made it the perfect production machine for serving patrons attending outdoor sporting events, or circuses and fairs. Not only was popcorn mobile, but it could be mass-produced without a kitchen, an advantage that another crunchy snack–the potato chip–lacked (the earliest potato chips were made in small batches in kitchens, not ideal for mass snack appeal). Another reason for its dominance over other snacks was its appealing aroma when popped, something that street vendors used to their advantage when selling popcorn. Still, movie theaters wouldn’t allow the popular street snack into their auditoriums…

...The Great Depression presented an excellent opportunity for both movies and popcorn. Looking for a cheap diversion, audiences flocked to the movies. And at 5 to 10 cents a bag, popcorn was a luxury that most people were able to afford. Popcorn kernels themselves were a cheap investment for purveyors, and a $10 bag could last for years. If those inside the theaters couldn’t see the financial lure of popcorn, enterprising street vendors didn’t miss a beat: they bought their own popping machines and sold popcorn outside the theaters to moviegoers before they entered the theater...early movie theaters literally had signs hung outside their coatrooms, requesting that patrons check their popcorn with their coats. Popcorn, it seems, was the original clandestine movie snack.

Eventually, movie theaters simply couldn’t resist the convenient financial draw. So they offered outside vendors lobby privileges, and eventually just brought the whole production and distribution process inside.

But what makes the story so fascinating to me—beyond the fact that we’re talking about delicious, butter munchies—is that what seems like a forgone conclusion by design (that a snack which is cheap, mindless to make, and features a strong olfactory lure could conquer any space) is anything but obvious when faced with the perceived preferences of a certain place and time. An idea might be incredibly good by design, but any given niche may not recognize that right away—especially in the face of grandfathered regulatory prejudice. (Airbnb and Uber’s battles with New York City come to mind.) Culture often requires an adjustment period to buck the status quo. So even if you’re an entrepreneur who sees the next popcorn on the horizon, that’s not necessarily enough, unless you have a few decades of funding to float your Earth-shattering idea.

Read more about popcorn here.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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  • olithee

    I just dont go to the cinema anymore because I cant stand pop corn eaters. I know I have personnal issues. !

  • Phillip Goodwin

    Rumor has it the popcorn wasn't salted until Coca Cola became involved in the supply chain.... And discovered a lucrative relationship between saltiness and thirstyness....

  • Facebook User

    Your article about popcorn and the movies completely omits critical parts of the history of why popcorn has become synonymous with going to the movies. My father, Samuel M. Rubin was one of the innovators of the movie concession business. He worked for one of the first concessionaires since the age of 12 (he retired at age 72) - he innovated the idea of a concession stand instead of a rolling cart (the wheels fell off and he cleverly kept selling from the stationary cart), the giant box of candy at outsized prices. And on trips to the Midwest, he saw popcorn being sold in movie theaters. He brought the idea back to New York City, and ABC Vending Company which was the dominant movie concessionaire up and down the East Coast. At first, theater owners did not want popcorn - they didn't like the smell and feared fire. My Dad also realized that the smell of the melted butter was what sold the popcorn. The movie owners were resistant - they didn't like the grease.
    Later, he also innovated the pre-popped bags of corn and devised the factory that filled the plastic bags. As you have pointed out, concessions are what provided the profit to the movie theaters - the movie ticket sales didn't. I
    know this also because in addition to working at ABC Vending, which became ABC Consolidated and ultimately bought by Ogden Corporation, he also was an
    independent movie theater owner, and I had one of my first jobs selling popcorn at his stands.

    Karen Rubin

    Long Island, New York