Christopher Campbell's The Moviegoer - In the Bag

April 2, 2009


A couple weeks ago, I declared in my last column that the most necessary improvement that needs to be made at movie theaters is customer service. So, occasionally with this column, when I'm not wavering in my feelings about digital 3D or sharing a positive experience with a specific cinema or movie, I'll be using this space to spotlight one of the many issues I have with the movie theater business as a customer service-based industry. This week's topic: pre-bagged popcorn. If this doesn't exactly seem like an important enough topic, let me elaborate, as there are a few reasons why this really is quite important.

During the week, if a theater has pre-popped enough corn to have surplus amounts in storage (likely in large clear garbage-size bags), they may choose not to pop fresh corn on a daily basis, but they may at least divvy up that old popcorn into small, medium and large bags (or buckets, etc.) and store those pre-bagged servings into a warm display case. This is an issue of laziness as much as it is an issue of efficiency, and therefore it primarily says to the customer, "your weekday patronage is not important enough to us to give you freshly made concessions, nor is it important enough that we're willing to put any effort whatsoever into working for you, whether that work be popping, cleaning or serving you the best that we can."

Additionally, it shows the moviegoer/customer that everyone employed at this theater is just there to serve their time, collect their paycheck and hopefully get off the clock as soon as they can. Often it is the concession worker who can't wait to punch out, but many times it is the management (and further up, the corporation), that wants to save money by relieving employees as quickly as possible (in some states, it's imperative to get the minors off the clock by a certain time). The best way to get them out early is by cutting out some of the clean-up time by keeping the poppers and warmers unused.

Of course, this means that the customers, upon whom movie theaters depend on to buy concessions (from which theaters get most of their profits), are given mediocre product at best and downright inedible product at worst. Stale, cold and relatively odorless, the popcorn given out in these pre-bagged servings is equivalent to selling a customer a pre-cupped soda that is flat, warm and watered-down from having its ice melted. Actually, pre-cupped sodas like this are also common these days, though more so on weekends, when theater chains have gotten into the practice of featuring pushcart concession sales within the auditorium.

As a former Manager of Concessions Operations at a major multiplex, I certainly understand the need to pre-bag popcorn in some circumstances. I've been there on a rainy weekend with a new animated film and have completely run out of popcorn. It's a terrible experience for an MCO, and it's definitely a terrible experience for the customers having to wait for more corn to be popped. In those times, it's necessary to have that surplus corn, but for quality and customer service sake, that pre-bagged corn should be mixed with new, fresh stuff whenever possible. Otherwise what is the point? For most popcorn lovers, no popcorn is better than stale popcorn, especially when you're craving that fresh-popped movie theater stuff. And at least if most of that corn is hot and fresh, we're not going to notice the mixed-in older kernels.

If too many customers get too much bad popcorn, chances are you'll eventually have moviegoers who settle for the "no popcorn" choice. Or, just as worse, they might bring in their own store-bought popcorn, which likely isn't any worse than the pre-bagged stuff you're peddling. Some theater owners may not mind, for this is why their concession stands continue to add more items, such as fried foods and Icees (which have coincidentally been added to my local Regal cinema since mentioning their appeal in my "cinema chain loyalty" column). But bad popcorn experiences aren't going to simply get your customers to choose different snack options. Rather, these displays of lazy and thoughtless service are going to get your customers to bypass the stand altogether (it's no wonder theater owners are worried about decreased concession sales despite recently celebrated box office boosts).

Not even the smell of burning popcorn shall permanently deter the concession customer like the practice of pre-bagging popcorn. With the former mistake, at least we can appreciate the theater's active employment of the popper, even if some individual worker has failed to properly attend to the machine. What we cannot stand for, however, is an entire theater or chain's disregard for customer satisfaction in apparent favor for its own collective negligence and stinginess.

Remember, theater owners, that you are in the popcorn business and the customer service business, and dependence on Hollywood for movies that will both bring us in and guarantee that we buy your concessions, is not very smart. So, while you're spending time kissing the studios' asses this week at ShoWest and gambling away all your earnings, consider the fact that you should at least try to appease us moviegoers more regularly, too. Because our patronage is not necessarily (ahem) in the bag.

Popcorn photo courtesy of estudiante on Flickr.

Find more posts: Discuss, Editorial, Opinions



I fail to see the point of this article. Popcorn in itself is bland, tasteless, puffed corn. That's why people load it up with salt and butter to try to make it edible. I work at a movie theater (concession for a year years, now projection for almost 3), so I'm familiar with the issues here, and I deal with high school age workers on a daily basis. Your comments on regular employees really confuses me. You're essentially telling minimum wage, teenage workers to care more about giving saturated fat-soaked corn to overweight customers who will buy said corn at almost $8 per bag. Why should they care? You're exactly right that they want to clock on, do what they have to do, and clock off. And management is more than willing to abide since they don't want to cost the company any more than they have to. So what in the world is the motivation for concessionists to care? Most of them could care less if customers have a good movie going experience as long as they don't have to deal with complaints. They aren't there to be the best concession workers they can be and make sure everyone has a good time. They're working a part-time job to make a little extra cash on the side. Back to the actual popcorn, I would be willing to wager that most customers who purchase popcorn don't buy it because they enjoy eating it. They probably buy it because it's part of what they consider to be the "movie going experience." For some people, it just doesn't seem right to watch a movie without having a bucket of popcorn in your lap and a Coca-Cola in your hand. You expressed that it's a pain to have to re-pop popcorn for customers who are waiting for it, yet you say that's exactly what should be done. Not to sound negative, but "'your weekday patronage is not important enough to us to give you freshly made concessions, nor is it important enough that we're willing to put any effort whatsoever into working for you, whether that work be popping, cleaning or serving you the best that we can.'" is precisely correct. At least in the theater I work at, our sales on Friday alone will nearly quintuple our sales on every week day combined (if not more). We could be closed Monday-Thursday and no one higher-up would bat an eye. Popping fresh popcorn is almost always inefficient and non-cost-effective. And since you seem to know a lot about popcorn, Chris, let's be honest: If you heated up 2-week old popcorn to the heat it is when it comes out of the popper (which isn't hot for long, since popcorn is porous and dissipates heat extremely quickly) and sprinkled some salt on it, nobody would know the difference. And while 2 weeks is a stretch, my point is certainly valid. Popcorn will stay "fresh" for up to 3 weeks if need be if it's properly kept. There's no reason to go out of your way to pop fresh popcorn because there's no difference as long as it's kept at a reasonable heat. It's just not worth the time, hassle, or money, and for every one person who is a "popcorn conniseur" and refuses to buy this older corn, there will be 100 other customers who will. Sorry to everyone reading this who enjoys movie popcorn, but rest assured that the corn you're eating is probably hours, days, or weeks old if you're going to a bigger cinema on a week day. That's just the way the business is.

RC on Apr 2, 2009


Sucks for those who don't have an Arclight near them.

teyhtr on Apr 2, 2009


Thank-you for bringing this up! I ALWAYS say this whenever I go to my local AMC/Lowes 24 with IMAX (I love writing out how long the name is, haha) and they NEVER have popcorn fresh from the popper but warmed up out of a big plastic bag. While it still tastes ok, it does not compare to that fresh popcorn I get at the Ritz or Cinemark theater just as close. While the other theaters are only 16 screens and this is 24 so there is somewhat more of a traffic flow, it still annoys me, espically when the AMC/Lowes has the most expensive prices.

Ryan on Apr 2, 2009


When the town I live in got a Brenden theater, I was so excited. I twas big, bold and beautiful. The popcorn was always fresh and the service was friendly. That was when Star Wars Episode I came out. They now keep their popcord pre bagged and it's nasty. The theater has turned into a wasteland and it's sad because it's a focal point of downtown. Needless to say I don't go there anymore. Their employees seemed more concerned about texting while working than helping the person in front of them. There is a Galaxy Theater close by in a neighboring town, that is where my money goes. Their popcorn popper is going all the time, delivering fresh yummy goodness to those people in line. And as for the person who stated that the workers want to go in do their thing and get out, that's fine, but it's their job to provide customer service. If someone get crappy enough service, they will find someplace else to go. Angry/disgruntled customers=loss of revenue=loss of payroll. And management needs to sack up and bust some balls to get their employees to treat their paying customers properly.

vyperstryke on Apr 2, 2009


#1: You have a biased view of why people buy popcorn. I can't dismiss your idea, the idea that people in our culture are socialized to purchase it and feel more comfortable with popcorn around. I'll even go further and say we are so socialized towards it that we are even pressured to purchase it in circumstances such as going on dates or parents for their kids. This still does not lead to the conclusion that "most customers who purchase popcorn don't buy it because they enjoy eating it." This is not true, some people (I am assuming like yourself based on your statement) may not enjoy popcorn and some others that buy it may not but MOST people who buy it do it because they want it and enjoy the taste. I, for example, do not get popcorn every time I go to the movies and yet I am nearly obsessed with this particular food. It comes down to reward/punishment for buying it. I will love eating it but I may not see the high price as being worth it, while other times I value the popcorn above my hard-earned cash. Sorry if I went overkill on explaining my view, I understand Chris's argument and yours and both have valid points but that particular part bugged me the most. As per the main emphasis of the argument, I would be one of those popcorn buffs that notice it when it isn't fresh and it annoys me. Similarly, when it is fresh I am very happy about it. Either way I go back and buy more in the future because I understand it's based on timing of the day/night and how busy it is. I agree mostly with you Chris and think it should be more of a priority to please the customers but I also understand #1's comments about "where is the motivation?" for the workers. It is really hard to make broad changes but I appreciate the effort and realization of the problems at hand. Great article.

Nick on Apr 2, 2009


"Most of them could care less if customers have a good movie going experience as long as they don't have to deal with complaints. They aren't there to be the best concession workers they can be and make sure everyone has a good time. They're working a part-time job to make a little extra cash on the side." RC, I appreciate most of your argument except what I've quoted above. This statement is exactly what is wrong with most service industry jobs and ends up being an excuse for people to continue paying such low wages to these workers. Part-time employment at places like cinemas and fast food restaurants do not exist solely to benefit the teen who wants to make a few bucks on the side. They are actually there for a reason, and they need to represent their cinema well and provide good customer service -- not just wait to get off and collect their wages. Especially in these times, a job should be taken more seriously, regardless of how old the employee and regardless of what kind of job it is. Also, not to be picky, now, but it's "couldn't care less" not "could care less."

Christopher Campbell on Apr 2, 2009


I appreciate everyone's cordial responses. I realize that I may have sounded a bit hostile, but I was just trying to tell things like they are. (I just thought I should mention that my theater is a Dickinson theater, and while our reputation is certainly not on par with that of AMC or Cinemark, it's not because of poor service at the concession stand.) #5: I have a biased view because my bias is based on experience firsthand. I've watched a lot of these people buy their popcorn at theaters (I used to hand it to them myself), and very rarely would I see someone as excited about popcorn as one might be about ice cream or a Happy Meal. Most of them seemed to do it just because it's what you're supposed to do. Our theater is unlike most these days, in that we transfer our popcorn to heated bins right out of the popper, so we don't pre-bag ours, but I will admit that it does sometimes stay in the bins for hours and we may not pop a batch but once per day on weekdays. However, we don't ever keep it overnight. Other theaters do, though. #6: I agree completely that employees should be more concerned with the happiness of customers, and managers should enforce that. I am simply saying that there's not really a good way to do this aside from increasing wages or some forms of negative reinforcement. You surely know as well as I do, though, that a teenage employee that simply shows up for their job is a rare commodity these days. One that genuinely cares for and tries hard at their job is even rarer. For these employees, though, just putting in this little bit of effort guarantees them job security, even though it doesn't pay well. On an unrelated side note, I prefer nachos at the movies.

RC on Apr 2, 2009


Oh, well, then have you heard about the "Vicious Nacho Cheese Turf War"? http://nymag.com/daily/entertainment/2009/04/vicious_nacho_cheese_turf_war.html

Christopher Campbell on Apr 2, 2009


I take exception to this post. The people that work behind the counter work incredibly hard and have to deal with hundreds of customers a day. Furthermore, I work in a cinema and can attest that most nights, cleaning down the work stations thoroughly takes nearly 2 hours. So while you complain about your pathetic pre-bagged popcorn, consider this, after eating said pre-bagged popcorn and seeing your movie, you're likely in bed by 11pm. Most of these people don't get out till 1-2am.

Tuff on Apr 2, 2009


hey RC your a fuckass

yayyayayayay on Apr 2, 2009


Tuff, I worked in cinemas for a decade and have worked even later than that. So don't take exeption, please.

Christopher Campbell on Apr 2, 2009


It's not the popcorn you have to watch out for, it's that 50 gallon drum of yellow stuff they call butter. I too worked at a theater and after I saw that I stopped getting butter on my popcorn. I worked on the cleaning crew and I can tell you that most of the popcorn ends up on the floor anyway so it doesn't really matter if it's fresh or pre-bagged. Kids movies are the worst. Parents should save their money because hardly anything they buy makes it to the kids mouth. Anyone else find it funny that the posters are far more passionate about the popcorn at the movies than the movies? I haven't seen comments this long in some time.

Moviegimp on Apr 3, 2009


I work at an independent movie theater and we pop fresh popcorn everyday. Sometimes if I pop too much it goes back in the bin where it is used the next day. It is never kept in garbage bags and is always warm because it is in the bin. I dare you to find a difference between popcorn that has been in a bin for an hour or popcorn that has been in a bin overnight. Its called saving money because corn is really fucking expensive. If a customer ever complains about the popcorn not tasting right for any reason we give them a new one, and thats that problem solved! But again I will mention I pop multiple batches of popcorn a day and if I have too much leftover to throw it away would be terribly wasteful considering popcorn practically has a half life.

Betterchill on Apr 3, 2009


I agree with #10, RC you are a fuckass Quote from RC: "I work at a movie theater (concession for a year years, now projection for almost 3), so I'm familiar with the issues here, and I deal with high school age workers on a daily basis." So, we're reading the opinions of some guy who at minimum is 20 and still works in a movie theater (and doesn't mention going to college). I believe the most truthful thing he said is this: "Most of them could care less if customers have a good movie going experience as long as they don't have to deal with complaints. They aren't there to be the best concession workers they can be and make sure everyone has a good time. They're working a part-time job to make a little extra cash on the side." This isn't a comment about the attitude of others this is his actual attitude and for that RC, you suck. I buy popcorn because I want to eat real, non-microwaved, actually popped in a fucking machine, fresh popcorn. I buy it because I enjoy the taste. Fuck you workers who don't care about your jobs and fuck you managers who also don't care about your jobs and allow these pubescent pricks to do the bare minimum. Going to the movies is entertainment. The last thing the consumer wants to deal with is crappy service, stale food, sticky floors and messy bathrooms and yet this is what we get for what easily comes out to around $20 per person today. I hope all you lazy pricks get fired because it's the consumer going to the theater that gives you the pittance of pay you receive and based on RC's comments, you're all still overpaid.

Jim on Apr 3, 2009


#14: I don't see what you're all up in arms about. I was commenting on how I used to be and how most of the workers are. My title is Quality Assurance Representative (QA for short, essentially assistant assistant manager), so I'm right in the middle between a manager and the regular employees. Not that it has anything at all to do with the topic at hand, but I am a college student, and I also don't appreciate your uncalled for personal jabs at me. I'm the person responsible for making sure your moviegoing experience is enjoyable, and I don't appreciate someone who knows (apparently) absolutely nothing about the theater industry telling me I'm doing a bad job. I can tell the regular employees to step it up if I see them slacking off, but I rarely get to do so, because as I stated before, I operate the projectors. So if you want to take personal stabs at me you can at least know what exactly you're saying to avoid making yourself look like an ass. You insult me for working at a "menial task job" like a movie theater, then go on to say you want excellent, top-notch service from "overpaid" minimum wage workers. Well, which is it? You can be one of 'those' customers and bitch and moan all night about how nothing is up to your apparently high standards, but you should know that will just discourage the employees from doing a better job. They won't want to serve you better, they'll want to spit in your Coke. #13 had it right on. I've had customers complain about perfectly good, fresh-popped corn before, and if they do, they can wait for another batch and I'll fill their bucket back up. We always try to ensure everyone is happy, but sometimes it just doesn't work out for one reason or another. That fresh, warm popcorn you're eating may be in fact a day or two old, but you'd never know the difference because it lasts a long time.

RC on Apr 3, 2009


RC, you're further inspiring another column with your comment. Topic: why theaters shouldn't have assistant assistant managers run the projection. And no, that's not necessarily about how good or bad you are; it's a completely general problem.

Christopher Campbell on Apr 4, 2009


As a current manager at a local multiplex, I completely agree with you– pre-popping to the point of rarely having truly fresh corn in warmers is a serious problem that all theater managers should be thinking about from the customers perspective. However, I would add the caveat that theatergoers should then not lose it when they have to wait for fresh product to be replenished. I have had customers berate me on numerous occasions for being forced to wait no more than five minutes for a fresh batch of popcorn or an order to come out of our oven–this impatience is what tempts managers and employees to overcook in advance and serve pre-made food in the interest of saving the customer time. On the topic of customer service, anyone reading this, PLEASE nicely ask to speak to a manager when you are treated poorly by staff members–most of these theaters are staffed by high school kids who have little interest in working, so if we have help identifying the problem people, we can move them out of customer service roles quickly and not waste your time.

Mark Riechers on Apr 4, 2009

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