Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Why do we eat popcorn at the movies?

To celebrate National Popcorn Day, we take a look at the history of popcorn and it's humble beginnings as the snack of choice for cinemagoers. But popcorn wasn't always associated with the movies – in fact, it used to be explicitly banned.

Around 8,000 years ago maize was cultivated from teosinte, a wild grass that doesn't look much like the modern corn we know today. Popcorn – a name mostly associated with puffed kernels of corn – is actually a strain of corn, characterised by especially starchy kernels with hard kernel walls, which help internal pressure build when placed over heat. It was one of the first variations of maize cultivated in Central America. "Popcorn went north and it went south, but as far as I can see, it really only survived in South America," says Andrew Smith, author of Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn. Eventually, trade and commerce brought the unique kernels northward. "Most likely, North American whalers went to Chile, found varieties of popcorn, picked them up and thought that they were cute, and brought them back to New England in the early 19th century," Smith explains.

After popcorn made its way to the eastern part of North America, it spread rapidly. Consumers found the act of popping corn hugely entertaining, and by 1848, popcorn as a snack food was prevalent enough to be included in the Dictionary of Americanisms. Popcorn had literally exploded onto the scene and was available everywhere – especially at entertainment sites such as fairgrounds and circuses. In fact, there was really only one entertainment site where the snack was absent – the theaters.

In the 1920s, movie palaces rose up around the country like so many portals into a glamorous world. After you bought a ticket, you might pass through gilded gold archways and ascend grand staircases lit by a crystal chandeliers to find your velvet seat. Eating was not always meant to be part of the experience. Theater owners feared that audiences would litter popcorn and peanuts on their crimson carpets and signs were hung in cloakrooms to discourage people from bringing in food from vendors parked outside.

One reason for popcorn's increasing popularity was its mobility. In 1885, the first steam powered popcorn maker hit the streets, invented by Charles Cretor. The mobile nature of the machine made it the perfect production machine for serving consumers attending outdoor events. Not only was popcorn mobile, but it could be mass-produced without a kitchen, an advantage that another crunchy snack – potato chips – lacked. The earliest potato chips (or crisps) were made in small batches in kitchens, not ideal for mass market. Another reason for its dominance over other snacks was the appealing smell when popped, something that street vendors used to their advantage when selling popcorn. Still, movie theaters wouldn't allow the popular street snack into their auditoriums.

A widow named Julia Braden in Kansas City, was one of the rare concessionaires who managed to talk her way inside. She persuaded the Linwood Theatre to let her set up a stand in the lobby and eventually built a popcorn empire. By 1931, she owned stands in four movie theaters and pulled in more than $14,400 a year – the equivalent of $336,000 today. Her business grew even in the midst of the Great Depression, at a time when thousands of movie theaters were going bankrupt.

However, it is impossible to establish who sold the first box of movie popcorn. For decades, vendors operated out of wagons parked near theaters, circuses and sports grounds, selling a variety of snacks. But Braden seems to have been among the first to set up concessions linked to movie houses – and to pioneer a new business strategy – the money was in popcorn, not ticket sales. Something that is still true today, with movie theaters reaping as much as 85 percent of their profits from concession sales.

The Great Depression presented an excellent opportunity for both movies and popcorn. Looking for a cheap distraction, audiences flocked to the movies. And at around 5 cents a bag, popcorn was a luxury that most people were able to afford. Popcorn kernels themselves were a cheap investment for purveyors too – a $10 bag could last for years. If those inside the theaters couldn't see the financial lure of popcorn, enterprising street vendors quickly capitalised – they bought their own popping machines and sold popcorn outside the theaters to moviegoers before they entered the theater.

Beyond wanting to maintain appearances, early movie theaters simply weren't able accommodate the first popcorn machines due to the lack of adequate ventilation. But as more and more customers came to the theater with popcorn in hand, owners couldn't ignore the financial appeal of selling the snack.

It was in the mid 1930s that a manager named R. J. McKenna, who ran a chain of theaters in the West, caught on to this idea. An old man selling popcorn outside one of McKenna's movie houses amassed enough money to buy a house, a farm and a store. McKenna installed a popcorn machine in the lobby and collected the proceeds – as much as $200,000 in 1938. With that kind of money rolling in, who cared about the crimson carpets? McKenna even lowered the price of tickets just to draw more people to his concession stand. Eventually, movie theater owners realised that if they cut out the middleman, their profits would skyrocket. For many theaters, the transition to selling snacks helped save them from the crippling Depression.

World War II further solidified the marriage between popcorn and the movie theaters. Competing snacks like sweets and fizzy drinks suffered from sugar shortages and in turn, rationing, as traditional sugar exporters like the Philippines were cut off from the United States.

By 1945, most theaters had followed suit, and soon the smell of melted butter wafted through lobbies. Over half of the popcorn consumed in America was eaten at movie theaters. Theaters began pushing adverts for their concessions harder, debuting commercials that played before (and even during) movies that enticed audiences to check out the snacks in the lobby.

One entrepreneur of the era even offered the following advice: "Find a good popcorn location and build a theater around it."

But for all their marketing ploys, movie theaters saw their popcorn sales steadily decrease in the 1960s. The arrival of television had lessened the need to go out to the movies.

Popcorn wasn't widely eaten in homes, mostly due to how difficult it was to make – consumers needed a popper, oil, butter, salt and other ingredients to replicate their favorite movie theater snack at home. But by the 1970s, microwave ovens become increasingly common in homes, and new forms of commercial 'easy to make' popcorn kits hit the market, creating another boom for popcorn. Families could now enjoy hot buttery popcorn in minutes simply by pressing a button.

But the relationship between popcorn and the movies has changed more than the smell of a theater lobby or movie nights at home. It has changed the popcorn industry itself. Before the Great Depression, most popcorn sold was a white corn variety as yellow corn wasn't widely commercially grown, and cost twice as much as the white variety. Movie vendors, however, preferred yellow corn, which expanded more when it popped (creating more volume for less product) and had a yellowish tint that gave the impression of a coating of butter. Today, white popcorn accounts for only 10 percent of commercially grown popcorn.

Popcorn is just as economically important to today's modern multiplex as it was to the golden era of movie theaters. Consumers often complain about the high prices of movie concessions, but there is an economic basis for this – popcorn, cheap to make and easy to mark-up, is the primary profit maker for movie theaters. Movie theaters make an estimated 85 percent profit off of concession sales, and those sales constitute 46 percent of their overall profits.

Today, modern multiplex's are reinventing the popcorn snack model. Cinemas now offer an old school approach to movies, trying to make a trip the flicks tantamount to seeing a live show. Ironically something early movie theater owners tried to emulate. For many people, there is still the ritualistic experience of picking up some popcorn before watching their favourite film on screens big or small. Popcorn, it would seem, will never lose its golden appeal.

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