Would banning popcorn make cinemas better?

Quick answer: no, don't be so ridiculous. Apparently some cinemagoers don't agree... is popcorn really the problem, though?

Easy to eat, easy to clean up, not too noisy...but a bit 'common'...?

The Observer yesterday ran a story claiming that our days of eating popcorn at the cinema may soon be over. Several owners of independent cinemas have reacted to complaints from their customers about the selling of popcorn at their venues by banning the snackfood – and the Picturehouse chain (which comprises 19 screens) has decided to hold one popcorn-free screening per week to test the butterless waters. Which, when you put it that way, doesn’t actually sound like cinema popcorn is quite the endangered species that The Observer initially tried to make out.

But let’s pretend for a moment that it is. What actual difference would it make? To the general cinema-going masses, I’m guessing the answer is “not very much.” To begin with, we’d probably be surprised, if we noticed at all, and then we’d get over it. Popcorn generally isn’t the only snack food served in cinemas – most chain cinemas also sell nachos, crisps, hotdogs, chocolate, sweets and drinks, and the more up-market cinemas cited in The Observer’s article admit to selling cheese, olives, and chocolates as alternatives. The argument being put forward here isn’t that it’s food, per se, that’s the problem in cinemas; it is specifically popcorn. So your theoretical average cinema punter, then, would just spend their dosh on something else to munch on through the movie.

The cinemas, on the other hand, would probably feel the difference much more keenly. Popcorn is very cheap to produce and is sold at ludicrous mark-ups – so by banning it, cinema owners could wave goodbye to that nice fat profit margin. On the other hand, popcorn can be rather messy, so cinema staff might find cleaning up at the end of the night less time-consuming – if we accept that running a vacuum cleaner along the floor is massively time-consuming, and also that the general public wouldn’t just drop crumbs from their cheese and crackers, stones from their olives, and stray chocolates. Cleaning up spilled popcorn actually sounds a lot more appealing than trying to scrape up melted cheese or chocolate, since it can just be swept up.

What other differences might there be? Well, cooking popcorn does smell, which I suppose people might find unpleasant. Depending on the type of popcorn machine used, cinemas might be able to cut down on labour costs, if their popcorn maker requires someone to actually stand and use it, which might also cut down on injuries (I still have the burn scars from my brief stint working at a cinema, back in my student days…), but the replacement snacks some cinemas are offering would need someone to prepare those, so that’s not really a saving of any kind. Um.

Ad – content continues below

I’m struggling now to think of any way in which banning popcorn might actually make the cinema a nicer place. But maybe I’m in the minority, because apparently lots and lots of customers have been actually complaining to their cinema managers about the presence of popcorn. I can complain about things with the best of them, but I can’t imagine the sort of state of mind one would need to be in to go and complain about popcorn. Seriously? What is it actually doing to you, to make you that angry?

Long-term Den of Geek readers might remember a series of articles on this site about how to make cinemas better – and that one of those articles proposed banning nachos; I didn’t agree with that, either, because I love nachos, but the argument for banning nachos was at least a tiny bit more coherent than the argument for banning popcorn. Nachos are smellier and noisier to eat than popcorn, and thus more disruptive to other people in a cinema auditorium. Popcorn, though? It’s almost completely inoffensive!

Daniel Broch, quoted in the Observer’s article and owner of the Everyman cinema in Hampstead, said something that might just about explain it: “[Popcorn] has a disproportionate influence on the space in terms of its overwhelming smell, the cultural ideas of it and the operational problems created by the mess it produces. I’m not saying no popcorn is better than popcorn, but I am saying there is no way in which it fits with the culturally sophisticated brand I wish to sell.” And there we have it. It’s just about seeming culturally elite. Whether or not a venue serves popcorn is irrelevant on pretty much every count except perceived superiority; it’s about marking out those cinemas that don’t serve popcorn as better than those that do. The cultural idea of popcorn he’s referring to, I imagine, is that of the “popcorn movie” – light entertainment, then, of the low-brow kind that doesn’t mesh with the “culturally sophisticated brand” Bloch’s trying to sell. Popcorn itself is irrelevant; this is all about elitism. And, being an essentially contrary person, all it does is make me want to eat popcorn more than ever. My choice of snack food has sod all to do with my level of intelligence or indeed sophistication. Popcorn has no inherent morality.

Actually, I think that bears repeating: popcorn has no inherent morality. So let’s stop pretending it’s somehow ruining our appreciation of great films – it’s not. It’s just food.

Why nachos should be banned from cinemas Why the general public should be banned from cinemas Why we need child-free cinemas How to improve cinemas in one simple step 8 thing Blu-ray needs to do to win more people over10 ways DVD content creators pwn you