It used to be that “dinner and a movie” happened in two different places. But over the last few years, the explosion in popularity of dine-in movie theaters has changed the nature of that classic date structure. Now, you can watch your movie and have dinner during it, too.
While the standard fare like popcorn, nachos and candy are still very much available, indie and legacy theaters alike are investing heavily in more robust dine-in options to lure moviegoers to the big screen in the era of endless at-home streaming.
On this episode of Eater’s Digest, hosts Daniel Geneen and Amanda Kludt take a look back at the history of food at the movies with Professor Jonathan Kuntz from UCLA’s School of Theater Film and Television, then head to Nitehawk Theater in Williamsburg to experience it themselves. How did we get here — and what food actually makes sense in theaters?
The Birth of the Concession Stand
When the Great Depression hit, movie theaters were some of the first businesses to go into bankruptcy. So in the early 1930s, theaters tried everything they could to lure movie goers back in front of the screen, including half price showings and double features, but food sales especially provided lucrative profit margins. In those early days, movie goers would hit the drugstores and food carts in the entertainment districts where theaters were often located before heading inside to watch a flick. By bringing the concession stand into the theater, they managed to stay afloat.
Popcorn and popcorn poppers were already around in America at the turn of the nineteenth century, but it wasn’t until the resurgence of movies in the thirties that popcorn enjoyed worldwide fame. Theater managers could produce and package popcorn for pennies a bag, mark it up, and sell it for a dime. An added bonus, says Professor Kuntz, was the aroma. The smell of fresh popcorn billowing out of theater doors proved to be a powerful magnet for movie goers. Popcorn at the movies became so popular, Professor Kuntz says, that the farm acreage dedicated to corn in the United States exploded as movie attendance resurged.
What About Booze?
It used to be that alcohol was prohibited from theaters for fear of rowdiness, Professor Kuntz explains. In an effort to attract middle class families, early theaters were dry zones. The owner of Nitehawk Theaters in Brooklyn, a small chain of theaters showing first-run movies as well as retro classics, ran into an old holdover from this era when opening his first location in 2011, according to Jessica Giesenkirchen, Nitehawk’s operations manager. He lobbied against a law in New York that banned alcohol in motion picture theaters and successfully got it overturned. Now, Nitehawk and other dine-in theaters like are investing in dedicated cocktail programs to lure customers to the movies.
Soup Is a No-Go
Designing a menu for a movie theater carries its own unique challenges. One of those is showtimes. “Everybody is ordering at the same time, within 15 to 20 minutes of the movie starting,” Giesenkirchen explains. The bigger challenge? Light, or lack thereof. “Are they going to be able to eat it in the dark? Is it something they can identify in a dark theater so they know what they’re eating?” Giesenkirchen said. “Soup’s not a good idea because of the clanking the spoon makes, and the slurping. It just doesn’t work.”
What’s on the screen has a big impact on food and drink sales, according to Giesenkirchen. Movies with subtitles and heavy subject matter tank those numbers, while fun romps lend themselves to shared plates and lots of booze (think Hustlers versus 12 Years a Slave).
Below, a lightly edited transcript of our interviews with Professor Jonathan Kuntz, Jessica Giesenkirchen of Nitehawk Cinema, and Jennifer Douglass, the food and beverage director at AMC Theatres.
Amanda Kludt: I love these movie theaters where they have restaurants. Love it. Love the ordering at your seats.
Daniel Geneen: You mean the movie theaters that we’re going to spend a decent portion of today’s segment talking about?
Amanda: Yeah. I just want to say that up front. Love eating popcorn out of those metal bowls, love having a cocktail in a real glass. So on board.
Daniel: So we’re going to look at how we got there and-
Amanda: How did we get here?
Daniel: Well, we’re not going to talk about today without going into the past a little bit.
Amanda: You got to go back to the past.
Daniel: And to do that, we are going to talk to professor Jonathan Kuntz of UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. Do you want to just give us the history of food at the movie theaters?
Professor Kuntz: In the early days of movie houses, there was not a lot of food sales. People who wanted to eat from the nickelodeon days of the early 20th century into the classic silent era of the 1920s, generally, if they wanted to eat something, they would go next door to the theater, to a drug store and pick up candy bars or something to eat. In the downtown areas of most towns where entertainment districts were, there would be people with pushcarts in the streets selling food. But then the Great Depression comes along. And the first things to go into bankruptcy are going to be the theaters and the theater chains in the early 1930s. They saw it drop off at the box office. And by 1931 and 1932, you start to see movie companies slipping into bankruptcy. And that includes producers, distributors, and exhibitors. When the box office started to drop off, they found themselves in terrible trouble. And so, exhibitors came up with all kinds of strategies in the early 1930s to try and bring people back into the theater.
Amanda: Oh, I see. So do you think food was one of those items to lure people back to watch movies again?
Professor Kuntz: Yes. Well, it’s not just to lure people to watch a movie, it’s to increase the profits.They tried a lot of strategies like half-price nights and two-for-one movies, the double bill. That ended up being pretty successful. But the food sales proved to be the way they could really boost the money they were bringing in. So, in the early 1930s, we see them starting to bring food sales into the movie houses. What the theaters discovered right away with food sales, where there were certain things that were really, really successful. One thing was soda pop. They had been reluctant to vend drinks in glasses. But by the 1930s, they were able to mass-produce paper cups at a very cheap rate. And so they could vend sodas such as Coca-Cola. If they dropped a paper cup on the auditorium floor, it was a mess but it wasn’t broken glass. And there’s a tremendous markup in soda also. Then there’s popcorn, of course. Popcorn, I guess, was kind of a food that was around from the 19th century. There were already popcorn poppers being produced in the late 19th century. But of course, it’s the motion pictures and the movie theater that brings popcorn to world fame. Popcorn becomes the magical movie food in the 1930s. Popcorn is in so many ways the perfect movie food. And the popcorn could be put into a paper bag. They could probably pay just a few pennies for the bag and the ingredients. And they could sell that for a dime and make a huge markup. A researcher, I believe it was Douglas Gomery, a film history researcher, did some research into Department of Agriculture’s statistics on acreage of corn planted for popcorn. In the 1930s, it skyrockets in the United States because that’s when popcorn really becomes the favorite movie food. And it spreads all over the U.S. and eventually to large parts of the world.
Amanda: What do you think when you go to a theater these days and you see all of the food options?
Professor Kuntz: Okay. Well first off, we have to point out that the food sales in the theater, they’re dealing with a captive audience, much as at the ballpark. So you can have a tremendous markup. And I’m sure everybody has noticed that for that soda or for that tub of popcorn at the movie house, you pay a huge amount more than you would pay if you’ve made it yourself at home or bought it outside the movie theater. So the profit margins there are fabulous. It’s sad that since the 1930s, many movie houses make their profits off their candy counter. They’re happy to break even on their ticket sales if they can get access to those patrons and sell them the marked-up food products. You may think of a movie theater as a place where you go to see movies. But to the theaters themselves in many ways, they have, you might say, become kind of diversified of food sales sites, that the food sales are their primary goal here because that’s where they make their money.
Daniel: So I think the biggest change in movie theater dining that we’ve all experienced in the last few years is the growing kitchen.
Amanda: Oh, yeah. The dine-in.
Daniel: The dine-in theater.
Amanda: We’re not just talking snacks.
Daniel: With a real server, with cutlery. And the first place in New York that I really saw it start to happen is that Nitehawk theater. So we went to Nitehawk to talk to their director of operations, Jessica Giesenkirchen, about how they get food from a professional kitchen into a movie theater.
Jessica Giesenkirchen: Sort of every time we develop a menu, we’re talking about a lot of different factors. One of the guard rails would be the showtimes. Everybody pretty much sits down at the same time, or within 15, 20 minutes of the movie starting. So, is it going to come out hot? Is it going to stay hot before it reaches the guest? Are they going to be able to eat it in the dark? Is it something they can identify well enough in a dark theater that they know what they’re eating? So they’re like jabbing into something that they might not have ordered. It’s getting a little busy in here, so we can have a seat at the bar.
Daniel: Could you run us down a little bit of the history of where we are?
Jessica: So, we opened in 2011. The owner was looking for a manager and I had restaurant experience. And he had a vision of what this place would be and that we would show good movies. And have a mix of first-run and also retro programming but also the introduction of food and beverage, which in New York was not a thing. What happened is he came to New York and he discovered that it was against the law to serve alcohol at a motion picture theater. So he lobbied against that rule, got it overturned. And we were the first people to have a liquor license to serve alcohol in a motion picture theater in New York State, which was a big deal.
Daniel: Do people expect your food to be good?
Jessica: I hope so. What we try to do when we develop a menu is to really impress people. We don’t have a microwave. There is no nachos that have been sitting anywhere. Nothing’s reheated. So, what we’re trying to do is to elevate that whole food experience. Because I want people to be like, “Oh, that was better than I ever thought it could be.”
Daniel: What are the main things you think about when developing an item for the menu here? Is it sound? Is it ease of eating?
Jessica: It’s a lot of those things. I mean, our menu development’s pretty extensive. The kitchen and the bar will develop some ideas and we’ll do tastings. And in those tastings, we’re talking about hot food. How’s it going to be eaten in the theater and not take away from the movie experience? Soup’s not a good idea because of the clanking that the spoon makes. And the slurping, it just doesn’t work. It does not work.
Daniel: Do you notice food sales change depending on the tone of the movie?
Jessica: Yes. 100%. Subtitles, no food, very little drinking. You got to pay attention. You got to watch the screen so people aren’t going to reorder food. You got to concentrate a little bit more.
Jessica: Hustlers right now. Fun movie, nothing but fun. Drink, eat, have fun. The bigger the group is they’re going to share more food. They’re going to start drinking more. They’re in for fun.
Daniel: So have there been any movies that are notorious clunkers for food sales?
Jessica: Anything that’s very violent. Or what was it, 12 years a Slave?
Daniel: I had a feeling that that movie might not have been...
Jessica: Heavy emotionally or historically is, again, it’s like the subtitles. People are paying attention more and not indulging.
Daniel: Are there movies where people are just like weeping with joy and shoveling their face with tater tots?
Jessica: I mean, that’s our ideal customer. I thought you were going to say sobbing their eyes out, which is another thing.
Jessica: But that’s just movie theater, like when to pull the lights up because everybody’s crying.
Daniel: Oh, do you sometimes let the lights stay down for a little bit?
Jessica: Well, we’ll consider it or think about it or be aware of it. Because the servers are in the theater and their mission is to go in, clear the theater and get ready for the next round. But if they have people that are sitting and still sort of digesting what they’ve seen...
Daniel: And eaten.
Jessica: And eaten, then sometimes you have to give them a minute.
Daniel: What are your bestsellers? Is popcorn still the number one thing that people are buying here?
Jessica: Yes. By like thousands. Those people that might not order food though, they might get a soda or a popcorn.
Daniel: And they expect you guys to do something interesting with it?
Amanda: Daniel, so you can’t get soup at Nitehawk. You also can’t get soup at legacy theaters like AMC, which are also investing in a lot of dining options.
Daniel: If you know of a movie theater that sells soup, please email us at email@example.com because we want to talk to them.
Amanda: Yeah, we really want to talk to them.
Jennifer Douglass: Obviously, I think you don’t want to serve soup. I think that’s probably going to end up being on my headstone when I die.
Amanda: That’s Jennifer Douglass, the food and beverage director at AMC.
Jennifer: I will tell you, I’ve been with AMC for 32 years. I started when I was 16 so you can do that math. And when I started out scooping popcorn and I now consider myself to be the head popcorn scooper. But no, when I started when I was 16, I just think about, we basically served popcorn and candy and drinks. And those are all fine to be serving in the theaters. But I think about... And nachos got introduced, which believe it or not, back in like 1987, that was a really big deal. We got Icees in there. Then I kind of fast-forward 32 years and it’s like, wow, we’ve come such a far way in terms of what we’re able to offer, not just in our dining theaters. And we have a good presence there with 49 of those. But it’s just a very exciting time.
Amanda: Can you talk a little bit about those technology changes and how that’s allowed you to alter what you’re able to bring into theaters?
Jennifer: Things like the different types of ovens that we can put in theaters and safely operate. We invested in a technology or a piece of equipment called an auto fry. So, I mean it’s completely enclosed. It has its own Ansul system inside of it but it allows you in a traditional theater to have that really high-quality fried food.
Daniel: So what can someone expect going into an average AMC, in terms of food options these days?
Jennifer: There is flatbreads. We have also expanded selections of pretzel bites. We have two different types of sliders, chicken and also beef sliders. We have those fabulous mini tacos and the mini mac and cheese bites. And then my favorite thing that just launched, again, about two or three weeks ago is we actually added mac and cheese bowls to our traditional theaters in that feed fair program, and let me tell you, those are quite tasty.
Amanda: When you think about who you’re competing with in terms of adding food options, do you think these days you’re competing with other movie brands? Or is it the home theater and people who might just watch some Netflix and eat some popcorn on their couch?
Jennifer: I think people that like to stay home and have a Netflix night and have dinner at home are also the same people that enjoy a movie night out and want the flexibility to have either enhanced food there in the theater or to have a true dining experience where you’re really getting food that’s being made from scratch. Again, I think in the last few years, you’ve really seen those types of places really step up their game in terms of what type of food is being prepared in that environment. And I think that’s good for us. Because I don’t know that people automatically associate great food and at a reasonable price in a movie theater environment. So I think the more that we build the culinary credibility and kind of those out-of-home entertainment spaces that that kind of rising tide makes it better for all the ships that are floating in that space.
Amanda: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. So Daniel, what’d you learn about food at the movies?
Daniel: When I don’t like someone, I’m going to call them theater soup.
Amanda: Yeah, it’s a very insidery joke.