At the Movies: Paying Up for Popcorn

"We are entertainment for the masses -- no elitism. ... That doesn't mean people don't feel [the price increases]," he said. "You always have to measure some price sensitivity. ... The biggest driver is the product selling. If the product's not selling, you've made a mistake."

That theory definitely rings true for University of Rochester economist Steven Landsburg.

"A lot of people believe that the reason movie popcorn is so expensive is because the theater owner has a monopoly on the popcorn, but that makes no sense," Landsburg said. "Look at the other things he's got a monopoly on that he doesn't charge you for -- walking across lobby, sitting in your seat. ... The only way he can gain from having a high popcorn prices is if for some reason ... popcorn lovers by-and-large are the ones who are willing to pay a lot of money to go to the movies."

In other words, the point of high prices at concession stands is not to charge every movie-goer a lot of money, but to charge a lot of money to those who will pay for it.

"The people who are paying less money [the non-popcorn buyers] are the people who would walk away if you didn't give them a good price [at the box office]," he said. "By charging a lot for the popcorn you're getting people into your theater who would otherwise have walked away and done something else.

"What they're probably not thinking of is that if the popcorn were cheaper, the box office would probably be more expensive," he continued.

In the first quarter of 2007 during entertainment's slower months, Regal Entertainment Group, the largest theater owner in the world with its namesake chains and United Artists and Edwards theaters, raked in more than $168 million in concessions.

The company does not feel like its concession prices are unfair either.

"Our concession prices are generally consistent many with the out of home entertainment venues, such as concerts, sporting events, football games [and] basketball games," said Dick Westerling, Regal's senior vice president of marketing. "We feel we're priced fairly."

But as Tonika Gray waited outside that Brooklyn theater staring down future expensive nights at the movies, she had her own time-honored solution: "Sometimes we sneak our own stuff in."

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