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How to sneak food into the movie theater

Yesterday, I explained how inflated concession prices drive me to smuggle outside food into the movie theater. After years of cheating the system, I’ve learned a thing or two.

Tips for smuggling snacks

  • Why bother hiding at all? You could just be honest about it and carry in a grocery bag full of treats. After all, the young workers who staff most big theaters don’t care much about the company’s slim profit margins. But even if you can flaunt your contraband, you shouldn’t. Don’t make it easy for a bored teenager to spot your flagrant rule-breaking. Play the not-so-dangerous game.
  • What to wear. In the winter, hiding snacks is easy. Big coats and hidden underlayers make perfect stash spots. But what about the summertime? Men can don cargo shorts—but don’t get greedy. Bulging thigh pockets and a tell-tale plastic crinkle could give you away. Many women prefer snugger-fitting apparel, but they also have a superior smuggling option…
  • Purses are magic. While theaters may reserve the right to inspect bags, few actually do. Even if the ticket-taker would balk at a bulky backpack, he’s probably hesitant to invade a lady’s purse. Plus, many “purses” are more like side-saddles; a small village could survive for weeks on the junk food that fits inside.
  • What snacks should you bring? Your ideal snacking inventory depends on the size of your secret smuggling compartment. For slim pockets, options are limited: chocolate bars and low-profile bags of candy. But with a roomy purse, the sky’s the limit. You can tote around family-size bags of chips or one-liter soda bottles. But don’t get cocky; you don’t want to arouse suspicion (or disgust) from your seat neighbors. Smelly foods—salt and vinegar chips, garlicky snacks—should be left at home. And never cart in messy, hot fast food. No theater employee wants to stay late and scrub grilled onion slime from your seat cushion.
  • Time your snacking. Once you’ve cleared the ticket station, you’re pretty much home free. No one’s going to ask you to open your bag or empty your pockets now. But don’t brazenly brandish your illicit refreshments. Staff often walk through the theater just before the show starts. They’re unlikely to call you out, but why risk catching them on a bad day? Wait for the house lights to drop, then pull out your peanut M&Ms.

    Dim lighting won’t mask the sound of your snacking. Plastic packaging and canned sodas make noises that concession fare doesn’t. Fortunately, you can use the movie’s overamplified audio track to mask these signals. Wait for an onscreen car crash to crack open that Mountain Dew. Rip apart that Doritos bag during a fight scene.

  • What snacks should you buy at the concession stand? One word: popcorn. It’s iconic, nostalgic and delicious. No store-bought substitute can match freshly-popped, grease-drenched kernels. Just keep in mind that the theaters mark up popcorn more than any other item. You’re paying up to nineteen times the wholesale cost!

Theaters should sell more popcornesque snacks: items that moviegoers can’t buy for less at the Wal-Mart across the street. Boutique cinemas like the Alamo Drafthouse have carved out a profitable niche by offering a full restaurant menu.

But until the Drafthouse opens a West Virginia highlands location, I’ll be stopping by the grocery store on my way to the movie theater.

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And… that’s why I smuggle snacks into the movie theater

As studios release more big-budget tentpole films, theaters keep less of the take, thanks to sliding-scale profit-share agreements. Increasingly, cinemas must rely on alternative revenue sources just to break even. As Anousha Sakoui and Christopher Palmeri write,

That’s where concessions come in. At Regal, the largest [theater] chain, the gross profit margin on items like popcorn, soda and candy exceeds 86 percent.

Without overpriced concessions to pad their ledgers, the big theater franchises would lose hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

Knowing that, should I feel guilty about sneaking outside food into the theater? Snack-smuggling games the system and eliminates the theater’s only chance at turning a profit on my attendance. Do I have a moral responsibility to uphold the theaters’ business model—even if that means dropping $5.49 on a box of Jujubees?

Maybe so. After, I don’t need to see the latest Star Wars movie in the theater. No one’s forcing me to attend. In fact, I’d probably have a better experience if I waited a few months and watched new releases at home. My living room has a very lax policy on outside food.

Still, I haven’t stopped my surreptitious theater snacking. I’m afflicted with an unethical trifecta: too impatient to wait for video release, too gluttonous to go hungry, and too cheap to pay exorbitant concession prices.

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Skip the action scenes.

I don’t visit the movie theater very often. The nearest cinema is nearly an hour away, and the nearest decent multiplex takes a solid ninety minutes to reach. Even if our hometown had a theater, our seven-month-old daughter makes catching a flick seem complicated and expensive. The logistics involves—babysitters, breastfeeding, nap times, etc.—boggle the mind.

Fortunately for me, few films merit a theater visit anyways. I refuse to even consider films that aren’t well-received by reviewers. With a few notable exceptions,[1] I don’t darken the theater doorstep for any movie that earns less than 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. I want to know that the movie is worth the exorbitant ticket price, the overpriced popcorn, the snickering teenagers in the next row, and the sticky floors.

Film aficionados may coo about the “big screen experience” of the movie theater—how some films simply demand the cinema’s mammoth screen and teeth-rattling sound system. But too many big-budget, spectacular movies bore me to no end.

See, the rise of CGI has ushered in an era of dissatisfying action scenes. Watching these movies feels like looking over someone’s shoulder as they slog their way through a bad video game: fake, stilted avatars glide over imaginary, digitized peril. When the heroes can do anything, you suddenly don’t care what happens to them.

Take the latest Avengers movie, for example. When I finally watched Age of Ultron (at home) a few weeks ago, the interminable battle sequences left me checking my phone for some much-needed distraction. I’d ignore the movie until someone started talking again. Let The Hulk dance his fist-happy dance with Iron Man. Let Captain America sling his super-shield like some invincible boomerang. Each time these scenes took over, I checked out until the so-called “plot” finally inched its way forward again.

Ironically, the only Age of Ultron scene that captured my attention was an actionless, straightforward moment between the eponymous Avengers. They bantered playfully, teased each other, and took turns trying to budge Thor’s magically dense hammer. That single, two-minute scene revealed more about the characters than any of the film’s action sequences ever could. It offered more intrigue, charm, and delight than the rest of the film combined.

And that scene in its entirety was available online before the movie’s release. So why bother visiting the cinema to endure the dull film itself?

  1. There are some beloved franchises that get a reprieve from my strict standards; The Hobbit films weren’t great, but I love the books enough to cover over the movies’ multitudinous sins.  ↩
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When will home theaters kill the multiplex?

Year by year, the gap between home theaters and the local multiplex narrows. You can buy an impressive big-screen TV and a kick-ass speaker system for less than $2000. Even an entry-level system (i.e. <$1000) compares favorably to your local cinema. Toss in a comfy couch or a few recliners, and you’ve essentially duplicated an evening at the marquee.

Now, many theater operators contend that “authentic” movie-watching can’t happen at home:

There’s something magical (we’re told) about the “shared experience” of the movie theater. This is bunk. We don’t like “sharing the experience” with strangers. We sit as far as possible from each other. We don’t interact with our neighbors, unless we’re giving them the stink-eye for whispering or texting. We’d gladly forgo this communal “experience” in favor of some peace and quiet.

Or theater-owners will gush about their superior technology. Sure, your local multiplex has 3D, but who really likes the crummy effect or its irritating glasses? It’s the same story with surround sound, rumbling seats, smell-o-vision, and the like. Technological gimmicks don’t significantly improve the experience over your own living room. Even the cinema’s huge, “immersive” screen falls short. At home, you sit closer to the display; your HDTV seems plenty big, relative to your field of view.

Plus, there are other perks to staying home. There, you sit in your own favorite chair—which has never been soaked in Diet Cherry Coke or toddler urine. Your feet won’t stick to the floors, and you won’t find chewed gum under your armrest. At home, you can pause the film any time you like—to take a bathroom break or to explain the plot to your husband. Your pantry’s snacks don’t come with a 300% mark-up, and you can stock your favorite guilty pleasures. There’s no thirty-minute ad loop pre-roll. Finally, those noisy, mallrat teenagers who spoil the show? They’re not allowed inside your living room (well, unless they’re your noisy mallrats).

If the home viewing experience already beats the multiplex, why do we keep going? Three words: artificial release dates. Theaters have exclusive rights over the big tentpole movies for months, and we’re too impatient to wait for the Blu-Ray release.

But how long can this release date cycle last, in an on-demand media world? Netflix already debuts entire TV seasons, all at once (e.g. House of Cards, Arrested Development). Why not release feature-length, big-budget films, directly to consumers?[1] The documentary industry already operates this way. Is it really that far-fetched to imagine other genres going the same route? How long can the film industry refuse to give us what we want: a night “at the movies”—at home?

UPDATE: Disney just made its hit animated feature Frozen available via iTunes. This, less than three months after the film’s box office debut—and before the movie even leaves the theaters. Signs of progress?

  1. What if new releases cost more to rent? The studios could charge $50 or $100 to stream a blockbuster at home. Invite a few friends over and ask them to chip in. It wouldn’t take many guests to beat the multiplex’s per-ticket price.  ↩