The Weekly Moviegoer - Should Cinemas Ban Outside Food?
by Christopher Campbell
December 9, 2009
Did you know that most movie theaters don't ban outside food? It's a common misconception that cinemas have strict rules, but in reality they merely request that you don't bring in outside food and are often fairly lax about it. So, when you think you're "sneaking" some snacks from the outside, you're probably not. You're only doing something you're highly discouraged from doing. But that's the norm in today's society, isn't it?
There are two main reasons why theaters don't completely ban outside food. One, they don't want to alienate customers in general. And two, they don't want to alienate specific customers with special dietary needs.
The second reason obviously fits under the umbrella of the first, but it's worth noting the specific need there, because it's people with stringent comfort requirements, particularly medical-related, that write complaint letters.
Customers who'd be alienated simply because they want to bring in outside food, whether to save money or for an alternative snack choice, are less likely to actually complain. They might stop going to the cinema, which is bad for business, though it's more probable they'll simply try harder to conceal their sneaked-in goodies, which is also bad for business.
That said, this month AMC Theatres, the second-largest cinema chain in North America, officially instituted a ban on all outside food, and apparently they're enforcing it pretty seriously. The company seems to have made the decision after a bad financial quarter partially due to decreased concession sales.
Reportedly, AMC will be offering more concession options as part of its "rethinking" its concession policies. But so far, I've only seen mention of the addition of French toast and Thai coconut chicken tenders, neither of which sounds like a healthier alternative to popcorn and candy.
Health appears to be a big concern for most of the media responding to AMC's decision, mainly because AMC was cited in last month's highly circulated story about the caloric and fat content of movie theater food.
AMC, like fellow outside-food-prohibitor Regal Cinemas, pops its corn in coconut oil, which is far worse for you than canola, used by other theaters. If these chains want to limit the options, they must better what they offer, and that means changing the oil.
Really, though, they need to immediately lift the ban, and this is coming from a man whose job used to depend on an ability to increase concession sales at a major-chain multiplex (I was good at the job, too).
Here are five things AMC needs to realize (feel free to add to the list):
1) A lot of people are health-conscious these days, and even more people have specific medical issues. Don't confiscate a banana or apple spotted in a customer's purse; just request that they throw out the peel or core. Likewise, don't confiscate someone's candy bar or soda, or you might have an emergency situation on your hands when a moviegoer goes into shock for having low blood sugar.
2) The real threat is outside snacks that compete with your own. Stick to searching bags that smell like hot popcorn and other foods you sell. Notice so many people (myself included) sneaking in candy even if they buy popcorn? That's probably because no outside corn is as good as what you've got, but your candy is the same old stuff that's much, much, much cheaper at the nearest drugstore. Maybe it's time to lower your costs or do away with the stuff you're not exclusively carrying.
3) Hot stuff like pizza, burritos, Chinese food and Subway sandwiches are commonly seen carried into cinemas, and most of the time these strong-smelling, messy foods annoy other moviegoers more than they hurt your profits (your ushers don't like cleaning them up, either). These are really the only things you should be outlawing.
4) Introducing new menu options, such as chicken tenders, is never going to deter people from sneaking in food. In fact, it'll probably only encourage customers to bring in similar foods, like fried chicken and personal pizzas. Besides, you know nothing is nearly as profitable as popcorn, so why attempt to get moviegoers to move away from this traditional snack?
5) First and foremost, concentration on the quality of your own concessions, rather than worrying about what other people are selling to your customers, is the most important thing to realize. The longer you offer fattier (and honestly less tasty) popcorn than the competitor, the more often you give the customer kernels and crumbs or slightly burned corn, the more you appear to care more about money than accommodating and pleasing your customers, you're going to be seeing a decrease in attendance and sales. Remember, we're not always the problem. But you can always be the solution.
Are you less likely to see a movie at AMC if you can't bring in outside food? What are some ways theaters can improve their concessions?
Candy in purse photo courtesy of Regular Genius Girl on Flickr.