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.
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.
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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.
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.