Why do Snacks Cost so Much in Movie Theaters?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

For many movie theater patrons, the experience is not complete without snacks such as popcorn, candy or sodas. The idea of sinking down into a seat with a bag of buttery popcorn in one hand and an ice-cold drink in the other holds a special appeal to many movie buffs. But why do these familiar snacks cost so much? The answer lies in the economic realities of most locally-owned or chain theaters.

When an individual film flops, theaters need revenue from snacks to break even.
When an individual film flops, theaters need revenue from snacks to break even.

One reason snacks cost so much in movie theaters is exclusivity. If a customer gets hungry or thirsty in an average movie theater, he or she has only one option. It's not as if a hungry theater patron can pause the movie at some point and order a meal from a nearby restaurant. The theater's concession stand is generally the only sanctioned source for food and drink, so the theater's manager can legally place a substantial surcharge on sales. This is the same reason why snacks can also be more expensive at convenience stores or airports. The venue literally has a captive audience, and cheaper outside food can be confiscated without penalty.

People watching a movie in a movie theater.
People watching a movie in a movie theater.

Another reason for the high price is related to how the average theater makes a profit. There are a substantial number of overhead costs associated with running a movie theater, including the salaries of the projectionists, concession workers, ticket sellers, ushers, managers and maintenance crews. Managers must also negotiate with distributors for the exclusive right to show popular titles. Movie tickets themselves have a relatively small markup because theaters want to keep prices as low as possible to bring in customers. Theaters can offset some of these costs by increasing the prices of snack foods and drinks.

Exclusivity is one reason snacks are expensive at movie theaters.
Exclusivity is one reason snacks are expensive at movie theaters.

There are many theater patrons who either refuse to buy concessions because of the exorbitant prices or attempt to smuggle outside food and drink into the theater. Ironically, it's partially because of these practices that snacks cost so much in movie theaters. Customers who do buy their popcorn, sodas and candies at the theater's concession stand are often making up for the ones who don't. In this sense, snack prices are high for the same reason bandages cost so much in hospitals — those who can afford to pay the higher prices are helping to recoup the venue's losses from those who can't.

Movie tickets are relatively cheap, so theaters use snacks like popcorn to help their profit margin.
Movie tickets are relatively cheap, so theaters use snacks like popcorn to help their profit margin.
Much of the cost of movie tickets go to the production companies.
Much of the cost of movie tickets go to the production companies.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


It's sad to reply to something and not know the whole truth. The reason why concessions are so expensive is because that's where most of the profit comes from. It's mainly due to the movie companies taking a big chunk out of the box office for these vibrant movies they produce. What? Did you think the theaters got them for free?

Also, there is the overhead of the rent for the extravagant building that people need to walk in to so they can have their movie going experience. Projection equipment costs more than most people make in a year and there's the upkeep for it. Guess how much a projection bulb costs. Add in sound equipment and employee payroll -- enough to handle a million-plus customer base.

If you feel like high concession prices are a crime, stay at home and watch Netflix. I am sure they have first run movies. Movie theaters give back to customers all the time with concessions coupons, reward programs and even a free movie here and there. If it wasn't for the concession prices, most movie theaters would close down and then you would have to actually talk to your girl friend instead of just make out in a movie with her.

It's not illegal to take outside food into the theater -- that is, you are breaking no laws. They cannot force you to show them the contents of your bag.

On the other hand, they have no legal requirement to let you into the theater. If you don't comply with their rules - like not bringing in outside food - then they can ask you to leave the theater. A side note: trespassing is illegal.


I think if "no food or drinks" is posted on the door, then they do have a legal right to tell you that you can't bring food in.


I honestly think the food prices in theaters is a rip-off and I honestly don't care that they make most of their profit from the concessions; that's their mistake for buying into a business plan so dependent on a single (avoidable) revenue point (in other words, all they have to do to eliminate all their profits is to alienate all their patrons from buying popcorn and sodas, since all the patrons have bought a ticket, that's where their profits ought to come from, and if they can't figure out a way to make that happen, then they deserve to go out of business!


@Aarowsmith: Do you honestly believe that movie theaters have done no investigation as to what the price elsaticity is for their products? In my country, most movie theaters are part of a chain. These chains invest lots of time and money investigating how they can make the most profit.


Theaters can only survive if they make a profit. There is little to no profit in the ticket sales. All theaters make their profit from concession sales, therefore the costs have to be higher that supermarket sales.


Neither me nor my husband drink soda, ever, I don't eat popcorn or candy. (gluten, corn, sugar, and soy free diet). I'm allergic to or can't tolerate literally any food item on the theater menu.

I don't want water in a plastic bottle and I sure as hell will never pay $5 for a bottle of water that coast $0.09 to make. I fill a glass bottle (32 oz) with ice and water and I always have that with me. If the theater served anything but nasty junk food, I might spend some money there, but until then, it's not going to happen. I do pay the $1.20 to get two cups of jalapeño slices from the nacho bar to snack on.


I honestly believe that lowering prices will bring you more business, therefore bringing more money.


A simple logical math fact: If, say a group of 200 people go see a movie at a theater and only five people of this group actually do buy a popcorn and a drink at a high cost of $15, then the theater made only $75 profit. But if you lowered the price to, say $6 for the food mentioned above, and 50 people of this group were then more motivated to buy because of the lower prices, then the theater would make a $300 profit.

It really is a no-brainer to see that more people will buy more of the time if prices on concessions are at a fair value. Why punish people who rarely buy food at high concession prices? I know theater owners are only shooting themselves in their own pocketbook and punishing the very few people who actually do buy their snacks at high unfair prices. And more and more people today are unwilling to do that and are not able to afford both high priced concessions and a movie at the same time. It's a simple, logical fact.


"If they would lower the prices to say, a markup of three times the cost instead of 10 times..."

I'd be utterly shocked if the big theater chains haven't done very detailed analysis on this already.

They probably came to conclusion that they can sell y units at a 10x cost and something like y/2 units at 3x the cost, so which has the higher price still winning out?


There is no way I will ever believe that the reason concessions cost so much is partially because of people sneaking food in.

I was a manager at a theater for a couple years and the fact people may or may not bring their own food in was not a part of the equation. It's plain to see the reason concessions cost so much is because they can charge that much and get away with it. Plain and simple -- no other reason!


I worked for the theater in Beloit, WI.

There are many reasons as to why concessions are so pricey. The main reason for this is because that is where the majority of the profit is. If they did not charge so much, the theatre would not profit, and would be forced to shut down. Most theatres make a very low percent from ticket sales (usually 10 percent or lower) and in order to stay functional, they must charge so much for concessions. I get into the theatre for free, but I always make sure to buy concessions as I know where the money goes and I want the theatre to still be there in ten years, so I buy concessions.

I know the price stinks, especially when you know you can go elsewhere to buy the same product cheaper, but if people did not sneak food into movies all of the time, prices for concessions would not be so high.


I think you have failed to answer why snacks are more expensive at these venues: greed. That is the sole reason for the crazy profit margins.


Many times the theater is counting on a customer's sense of nostalgia to override the cost of traditional movie snacks. Having a big box of popcorn on your lap and a drink by your side is all part of the experience of seeing a movie in a theater. It's all part of the ritual. Most people don't even bother going back to the concession stand during the movie, since they no longer offer an actual intermission like the old days.

If you really want to get a sense of what drive-in movies were like, watch some of those old drive-in intermission movies on YouTube some time. The prices used to be a lot lower back in the day, so getting a hot dog or a slice of pizza was no big deal.


I tried looking for the price of movie snacks on the cinema's website I'm going to, but it didn't list any. I guess they didn't want to tell us since it's so pricey.


@anon6909 regarding hospital care prices:

I walked into an emergency room, requiring eight stitches. The bill was $2,400. Because I didn't have insurance, it was automatically dropped down to $800.

What does this tell you about how screwed up our health care is?


If they would lower the prices to say, a markup of three times the cost instead of 10 times, more people would buy from the concession stand and they would make more money through volume. Very few people will buy when the markup is 10 times the cost. Simple economics.


1. competition may lower prices of concessions, still that means more theaters with seats to fill

2. how many people do you know that see a movie after the first two weeks? most want to see new movies while they are new. the split is usually 70-50-30. That is the first two weeks, the theater has to send 70% of the ticket sales to the distributor, then 50% and after that 30%. Making 50-70% off a mostly empty theater won't pay the bills. The theater business is a snack food business.

3. average per head take on concessions is $3, because of people sneaking in food and not buying because of the prices. Concessions is what pays the salaries and bills.


That happened to me too, and there is a legal law! By the way this is a very helpful article!


although i am normally a law abiding citizen, i do sneak in soda and candy into movies! i know people who even pop popcorn and stick it in their bag! i don't go that far, i typically purchase popcorn (which is insanely expensive enough!) some movie theaters are more strict than others regarding outside food...once i walked in straight from dinner, and had a to go box with my leftovers. they made me take it back to my car! others don't mind if you walk in with a soda in hand. my question is, do they have the legal right to tell you that you can't bring in food?


1. if there is competition they somehow are able to lower the price.

2. theaters earn very little the first 2 weekends of a show, but then earn 50% or more after that of the ticket price.

3. Hospitals are charging those who can't afford it not those who can. if you can afford it then you have insurance and they have negotiated rates a small fraction of the cost the hospital charges those who can't afford it.

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