Let it be said: the presence and tasting of popcorn in the cinema has been part, for years (and to the great despair of some as well…), of the ritual of dark rooms. But when did this guilty pleasure become unavoidable?
Imagine that this Wednesday, January 19, is International Popcorn Day! Yes, there are definitely international days for almost everything and anything. If we ignore the how and why of this day, it is on the other hand a good excuse to ask a real and good question: since when did popcorn become essential in dark rooms?
Because let’s face it: we’ve all had this guilty pleasure at least once. Treat yourself to a cone or even a bucket of salty / sweet popcorn, tasted in handfuls during commercials and / or during the screening of the film. Sometimes, it must be said too, to the great despair of our neighbor in front / behind / on the side (s) (cross out the unnecessary mentions).
Ironically enough, this remains a distant memory for now, given the government’s current ban on the consumption of food and drink in cinemas and theatres.since January 3…
The joys of the traveling cart
The origin of its presence in cinemas is to be found on the side of the United States. As early as 1848, in fact, the year the word “popcorn” entered the Dictionary of Americanisms by historian JR Bartlett. In 1893, a certain Charles Cretors, owner of a confectionery in Decatur, Illinois, developed an astonishing traveling cart placed in front of his shop, capable of steaming corn kernels transformed into popcorn, for the most great joy for the children who do not lose a crumb while admiring the transformation of the corn in the glass box.
That same year, his machine was presented at the Chicago World’s Fair. A businessman buys the license for the whole country, quickly flooded by this fantastic, easily movable machine. This is how it naturally finds its place around circuses, sporting events and other fairgrounds.
When the first cinemas appear, the street vendors put themselves in front of them. Before buying a ticket to Nickelodeon (small neighborhood cinemas) at 5 cents, the public can also buy a cone of hot popcorn for about the same amount, the smell of which pleases the nostrils. However, there is no question that these delicacies will penetrate the lair of the very luxurious cinemas built at the very beginning of the 1920s.
At that time, these rooms tried to attract the same public as the theaters, and competed in luxury with great gilding, chandeliers and other red velvet stage curtains. Eating popcorn in these rooms? Unthinkable, too popular, and moreover, it is not good for the carpet, thick, and expensive, where you risk finding the crushed popcorn.
“The first cinemas had signs outside their locker rooms, requiring that the employee in charge of this same locker room systematically check the presence or not of popcorn in the pockets of the coats” explains historian Andrew F. Smith, author of a book on the subject, Popped Culture: a Social History of Popcorn in America. The fear of smuggling popcorn, no doubt.
The arrival of talkies in 1927 changed the situation: the public grew considerably. If before it was necessary to have a little education to know how to read the signs at the time of the silent cinema, the talkies change everything. It is estimated that in 1930, nearly 90 million Americans went to cinemas every week.
Popcorn, the American spectator’s best friend during the Great Depression
The Great Depression that hit the country from October 1929 and for the next few years, threw millions of Americans out of work and on the roads, who found themselves without work, pointing to the soup kitchen. If the Hollywood factory is running at full speed in an attempt to re-enchant American spectators a little, there are still many theaters that are suffering from the crisis to the point of closing their doors.
This backdrop is actually going to present a great opportunity for popcorn and movies. Looking for cheap entertainment, the public therefore turns to the cinema. And at 5 or 10 Cent the bag of popcorn was an affordable luxury that most people could afford.
If at first the owners of dark rooms did not see the point of offering popcorn within their establishment, the street vendors had perfectly understood how to proceed: they bought their own popcorn-making machines and positioned themselves just in front of the entrance doors of the rooms. Success guaranteed.
As for cinema operators, the prospect of substantial profits and a little common sense have finally convinced them to bring popcorn back into their cinemas for good. Under cover of what was called Lobby privileges, theater owners have authorized popcorn vendors to set up shop in the entrance halls of their cinemas, subject to payment of a small daily tax. After which the operators quickly learned to do without the seller to mechanically increase their profits.
This is how they set up stands to sell the popcorn themselves. “Those who started selling popcorn survived” says Andrew F. Smith. And to add: “Take the example of this chain of Dallas halls, which installed popcorn machines in 80 of its halls, except five, which it considered the most prestigious. Within two years, the 80 halls selling popcorn saw their profits explode, while the five cinemas not selling them became loss-making”.
By broadening the subject, the conclusion is self-evident: popcorn has literally saved cinemas. For the owners of rooms, the case is now heard: to generate big profits, they decide to install massive stands selling popcorn.
The Second World War or the supremacy of popcorn in dark rooms
The Second World War consolidated this supremacy: if sugar was rationed because it was reserved primarily for soldiers, this did not prevent the consumption of popcorn from tripling. In 1945, half of the consumption of popcorn in the United States was at the cinema!
This is how the operators are always more active in promoting their sweets – popcorn in mind therefore – sold within the establishment. First with great blows of billboards, then of advertisements diffused before the films, and, sometimes… During!
As such, the small animated advertising film called Let’s All go to the Lobby, lasting 40 seconds and released in American theaters in 1957, enticing the public to go to the Hall of the cinema to buy candy there, is famous. Its historical importance has been recognized by the US Library of Congress, which included it in its prestigious catalog in 2000.
Here it is, below…
From the mid-1950s and especially in the 1960s, movie theaters suffered the full brunt of competition from television. However, the preparation and consumption of popcorn in American homes is not widespread; mainly due to the need for certain Ad Hoc cooking ingredients and utensils. A product will change that, marketed under the name of EZ-Pop. It is enough for the housewife to place the container above a heat source.
Here is an advertisement for the brand, broadcast in American homes around 1955:
And now ?
This relationship between popcorn and movies has actually profoundly transformed the industry itself. Before the Great Depression, popcorn sold was mostly white in color; there was then little yellow popcorn, especially since its manufacturing cost was twice as expensive.
Quickly, theater operators marked their preference, which went to yellow popcorn, because its color was naturally reminiscent of butter. Customers and spectators have followed suit, preferring to buy this yellow popcorn which looks like the one we eat in cinemas. The figures speak for themselves: barely 10% of popcorn sold in cinemas in the United States is white. Still in the United States, the sale of food and drink represents between 40 and 46% of cinema revenues, which is absolutely colossal.
In a report focusing in particular on the resources of cinemas published in 2016, lawyer at the Paris Bar Pierre Kopp, compares the turnover of the main groups in the film distribution network, UGC, CGR and Gaumont Pathé.
And to point out that the sale of confectionery weighs on average 14.97% of turnover. This is more than advertising, which represents 9.42%, with significant disparities depending on the cinema network.
If, for example, at Gaumont – Pathé, sales of confectionery represent 10.63% of turnover, they represent almost double at CGR, with 20.51%. Overall, these margins on confectionery sales amount to 30%. How far away the time when, in 1996, the sale of confectionery represented only 4.7% of the turnover of cinemas in France… Beyond the government ban of circumstance, prepare yourself to hear your neighbor for a good while yet chew on popcorn and other sweet / savory treats…