POPCORN'S STARRING ROLE Concessions are where theaters make their profits

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When you pay $6.50 for a movie ticket, you know some of it ends up, at least theoretically, in the pocket of Kevin Costner or whoever is up there on the screen entertaining you. But when you pay $3.50 for a bucket of popcorn -- where does it go? Are there some farmers in Iowa whose kids are getting the best orthodontics and college educations that money can buy?

"Most people don't realize that it's the popcorn that keeps the theater's doors open," said Cathy Kasberg, concessions director for the United Artists movie chain, the nation's largest. "Most of -- the price of a movie ticket goes to the film company. On an opening week, film companies can get 90 percent of the box office [receipts]. That's why we have to make our profits on concessions."

Indeed. Popcorn, among the cheapest of snack foods if you make it yourself at home, and the soft drink you need to wash it down are both wildly marked up at movie theaters -- about 80 percent by one estimate. But, like hot dogs at the ballpark and cotton candy at the fair, popcorn is such a part of the movie-going experience that consumers continue to spring for it. That makes theater owners happy, and their books a little better balanced.

"There is no concession known to man that has a mark-up like popcorn," said Tom Kiefaber, owner of the Senator Theatre. "It's such a high profit item . . . in fact, the wax-coated cup that it comes in costs more."

Even as fewer people are going to the movies these days -- what with video rentals and cable TV keeping them at home --concession sales "pretty much have stayed consistent," said Mandy Pava, spokeswoman for the National Association of Concessionaires. Snack Food magazine estimates that moviegoers buy $350 million to $400 million of popcorn every year.

The cost of popcorn and other concessions, long a grumbling point among moviegoers, has led some to sneak their own snacks into theaters.

Several local theater owners say they allow patrons to bring their own popcorn or candy, but draw the line at more distracting and odoriferous fare -- potato chips in noisy crinkly bags, for example, or fast food from nearby restaurants.

"There was a Sunday matinee a year ago, all my employees remember this, when two characters brought in fish sandwiches. We took them out, but the odor remained," Mr. Kiefaber recalls. "Then we had another gentleman who came in with a pizza in a box under his shirt. We put it in the popcorn warmer for him and let him eat it in the outer lobby during intermission."

But Mr. Kiefaber's worst experience with surreptitiously eaten food came some years ago, when he was working at the old Boulevard Theatre. "We once found a bag filled, very neatly, with the shells of a dozen steamed crabs," he said. "Can you imagine sitting in a theater and eating a dozen crabs?"

Theater owners are well aware of the fact that many consumers find their concessions expensive. Mr. Kiefaber said his theater offers a small popcorn for $1 and has found that it's one of the most popular sellers at the stand. (Other sizes of popcorn range from $1.50 to $3.50.)

Scott Cohen, whose family owns the Reisterstown-based R/C movie chain and has been in the theater business for three generations, said he tries to offer occasional promotions to lessen concession costs. Sometimes, customers will be offered both popcorn and a refillable drink for a flat fee of $2 or $3, he said.

"But I don't feel that our regular prices are that high," he said. "Our popcorn is popped fresh. If you bring your own, it's not popped within 20 or 30 minutes of when you eat it,and it's just not the same."

Like other theater owners, Mr. Cohen is broadening the types of food sold at his concession stands -- some theaters in his chain sell nachos and hot dogs, others sell frozen yogurt.

Pizza is becoming more popular -- UA's Movies at Harbor Park is one of 10 theaters in the chain that has added that to its menu.

Mr. Kiefaber is planning to introduce fruit juices and "other yuppie food" to meet customers' requests for healthier fare, both for themselves and their children. (Although you still can get real butter on your popcorn, he added.)

You might also see hot or iced cappuccino at your local cinema soon. That's one of the products being pushed at a current national convention in Las Vegas, where theater owners are being wooed with everything from star actors and directors touting their new movies to food and equipment companies peddling their drinks and eats. In fact, most of the people interviewed for this story were contacted at that convention.

Fancy coffees are being pushed,Ms. Pava said, but she thinks they may be just a passing fancy. Most moviegoers still go back to the standard: "Popcorn and soda -- that's not a trend," she said. "It's part of the experience. The same proportion of people is always going to buy popcorn and soda."

Industry statistics show that popcorn and sodas each make up about 40 percent of total concession sales. The remaining 20 percent is split among candy and other foods like nachos and hot dogs.

Even at the Charles, the downtown Baltimore art house, what's on the screen may be foreign or exotic, but what's on the concession stand is standard stuff -- popcorn, soda and candy.

"We're not an Evian kind of theater," says owner Pat Moran. "Maybe if you want just the bubbly water without the cola syrup, maybe we can do that for you."

Still, she said, what's on the screen can affect what audiences eat -- or not eat as the case may be.

"The theaters that have the mega-pictures -- that brings in the youth market," she said, meaning,the known gobblers of snacks. "With a theater like the Charles, if you have an Eastern European movie . . . or a picture like 'Madame Bovary' that appeals to older audiences, you're not going to make that much on concessions."

Although her theater isn't as dependent on concession sales as bigger, more mainstream ones, Ms. Moran said, it still depends on popcorn profits to stay in business.

"If you didn't have a concession stand, you wouldn't have a theater," she said.

"By necessity, you're forced to pay attention to concessions," Mr. Kiefaber agreed. He estimates that half his profits come from concessions -- which is lower than the industry average of 80 percent.

With such a large chunk of their profits coming from the concessions, some theaters are offering special training and incentives to their employees to push their products, Ms. Kasberg of United Artists said. One method that employees are taught, she said, is "suggestive selling," in which concessions employees convince you to buy a larger size of something or encourage you to buy a second product to go along with the single purchase you intended to make.

The extra training must be succeeding: Between 1990 and 1991, attendance at UA cinemas only increased 1 percent but concession sales went up 8 percent, Ms. Kasberg said.

It's hard to imagine now, but at one point, food was verboten in movie houses. "When the Senator was built in 1939, there was no concession stand at all," Mr. Kiefaber said. The first stand in the theater was built in the mid- or late '40s, as a way of competing with the mobile stands and nearby stores that had started selling popcorn, peanuts and snacks to entering moviegoers, he said.

"My grandfather used to say, 'sell candy in my theater? Over my dead body,' " Mr. Kiefaber said. "And that's just about how it happened."

Movie cafe

You and your spouse call each other from your respective offices: Let's meet at the movies tonight before heading home. So, still dressed in your nice work clothes, you get to the theater, not ready for dinner but slightly too hungry to get through a whole movie, and your options are: popcorn, soda, Goobers, nachos.

If you can hold off until May, Chuck Myers can offer you espresso, cappuccino, mineral water, pastries, granola bars, cookies and a little cafe to consume them in.

Mr. Myers, manager of the Towson Commons movie theater scheduled to open in May, said the cafe hopes to attract the upscale clientele from the area, no doubt the same people targeted by the nearby Towson Town Center.

"It'll be a place, if you're coming straight from work, to relax before the movie," said Mr. Myers, who currently manages the York Road Cinema, which like the Towson Commons is owned by the General Cinema Theaters chain.

The cafe is a bit of an experiment for GCC, generally considered conservative in its concessions, said Mr. Myers, who at 36 has been in the theater business for 20 years, starting as an usher and popcorn popper and moving up from there.

The cafe won't offer full-sized meals, Mr. Myers said, because the theater is part of the Towson Commons complex, which has several restaurants. Prices for the cafe fare have not yet been set.

The complex is at York Road and Pennsylvania Avenue.

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