The morality of taking your own sweets into the cinema

Popcorn at the cinema
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Smuggling snacks in, or paying over the top prices to support your local cinema – what’s the best to do, asks Simon.

Back on the drive to the UCI Preston many moons ago – back when the UCI in Preston was still a thing – I’d always earmarked the shop to go to on the way, in order to buy a few snacks (as rustle-free as possible, of course) to take along with me. I was a student at the time, and the multiplex was a regular chance to switch-off, that I constantly seized.

Over time, my reliance on cinema snacks has waned a little (call it older age), but I still find myself recoiling a little when I’m vaguely tempted to buy something. Recoiling, that is, as the price of some of the items on offer. In a summer where Poundland has been offering an enormous bag of satisfactory popcorn for, well, £1 (although the Halesowen branch had long since mysteriously sold out), spending north of four quid for a box of freshly popped stuff isn’t that tempting really.

One consequence of my advancing years, however, is that I now also have deeper understanding of cinema economics. In much the same way that a film’s cinematic run was seen in the days of thriving physical media as the promo for the more lucrative home formats release, so the selling of a cinema ticket isn’t where a picture house makes its cash. Rather that the return comes from the collection of food and drinks that they try and get you to buy.

The scaling down of personnel at cinemas is one of the reasons, therefore, that most of us end up buying our ticket either from a soulless Dalek-esque machine (although a Dalek would make it a bit more of an adventure), or heading to the snack counter. Certainly, my local assorted local cinemas no longer have separate desks for selling tickets and selling grub, with at least part of the motivation for that presumably being the wish to tempt you to buy more than a seat for a screening.

Part of the aforementioned cinema economics is a squeezing from purveyors of big films for their slice of the box office gross. That in the first week or two, the studio takes a higher percentage of ticket sales for a big release, which is one reason why they’re so keen to get you in to see their latest movie as early as possible. It’s also one of the reasons why some cinema chains, such as Odeon, impose an additional premium should you want to see a big film in the opening fortnight. The profit margin for a cinema is minimal at best, and perhaps we’d expect a monster-sized released to be leading to champagnes all round. But that’s not necessarily the case.

Which brings me back to the issue of food. Back in 2015, YouGov ran a survey on this in the UK, which revealed that on average, British cinemagoers spend an average of £7.85 of extra bits and bobs – primarily food and drink – when we go to the cinema. It’s this spend that’s not only causing cinemas to remain profitable, but in some cases profitable enough that the chain continues to expand. Still, when you sit in a screening of a film without an usher, with the back door of the screen not shut, without anyone making sure your fellow patrons behave, it’s hard to have too much sympathy.

Conversely, when it comes to smaller, independent cinemas, the situation is a little different. Powered by film lovers (as, in fairness, most multiplex chains are), indies often curate and fight for programmes of films that otherwise may not make it to the big screen in your area. Also, they’re often the most innovative when it comes to offering less noisy snacks.

Personally, I’ve always been a little uneasy about taking my own snacks into an independent cinema. Some, not all, consistently exist on a bit of a commercial knife edge, and if I am going to have a drink or something to eat, then I feel a bit bound to buy it directly off them.

It’s not, though, as if much could be done if I chose not to. For all the occasions where a cinema has posted a sign asking for people not to consume their own food and drink on the premises, there are matching stories of people who have taken in everything from a bag or two of Maltesers, to a full Chinese meal (this is not being made up). I remember going to see Jurassic World, and watching as a family a few rows in front unpacked a couple of two litre bottles of Coke and a multipack of crisps from their Morrisons shopping bag. Thankfully, they’d worked their way through the crisps by the time the trailers were done.

There’s ultimately something of a Mexican stand-off here. Cinemas need the income from the concession stand, and charge inflated prices that the majority of people seem to pay. Us punters, meanwhile, have to choose whether to support the cinema – as most of us want to do – and pay through the nose for stuff that’s available for a fifth of the price in the supermarket down the road, or sneak our own stuff in and save a few quid.

Full disclosure: I’m not beyond sneaking in a quiet bag of confectionery from time to time, but always buy a coffee from a cinema, and if my party is having popcorn, we get it from their stand. I have no idea quite where what I’m doing sits on the compass of morality. I love the cinema, I want the cinemas to exist and thrive. But I also know the prices down at Halesowen Poundland…

Where do you stand on this one? Leave your thoughts in the comments…

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