A UK cinema chain is threatening to ban popcorn – but could theatres survive without this most profitable snack, asks Alice Wyllie
ESSENTIAL cinema snack or a polystyrene-like non-food with a taste reminiscent of cardboard and dust? Despite having a cost-to-weight ratio that could rival heroin, popcorn – whether smothered in butter or sprinkled with salt or sugar – has been a vital component of movie going for nearly a century.
All that could be about to change however, as Picturehouse Cinemas, the UK's largest arthouse chain with 19 venues across the country, including the Belmont in Aberdeen and the Cameo in Edinburgh, is launching a trial of popcorn-free screenings. "Popcorn is a contentious issue. Lots of people absolutely hate it and have asked us to ban it, so we're going to do exactly that," says Picturehouse's Gabriel Swartland.
Of course in certain cinema circles the "popcorn problem" has already been acknowledged. Jenny Leask of the Filmhouse in Edinburgh says: "We've never served popcorn and our customers rarely ask for it. People are welcome to bring it in, but we don't serve it because it's too messy and noisy.
"Oh, and the smell is awful. In fact, I think that some of our regulars might protest if we did start selling it!"
But just why does a bucket of the cotton wool-textured snack go hand-in-hand with a visit to the cinema? Popcorn's popularity in the US dates back to the native Americans, who are said to have believed the "pop" sound was an angry god escaping the kernel. English colonists quickly developed a taste for it and it was served at the first Thanksgiving feasts.
However, the food had also been gaining a fanbase in Europe – Christopher Columbus is credited with introducing it there after he discovered locals in the West Indies using it to decorate themselves.
In America the snack was increasingly served at sporting events by street vendors and, as the early 20th century heralded the arrival of cinema, enterprising hawkers were quick to see a market opportunity. It wasn't long before cinema owners began noticing its popularity and set up concession stands in their foyers.
Even when the Depression struck the US, popcorn continued to thrive, being one of the few luxuries many families could afford. One story tells of an Oklahoma banker who went broke during the Depression, bought a popcorn machine and started a business selling popcorn near a cinema. Before long, he'd made his money back.
Sugar shortages in the US during The Second World War saw sales of the salty snack soar – Americans ate three times as much popcorn as they had before. When television arrived in the 1950s and cinema audiences decreased, so did sales of popcorn, but it remains hugely popular. And, while potato-loving Brits will always favour the crisp, the popcorn market in the UK is worth around 90 million a year.
Today, popcorn enjoys (ahem) "pop icon" status, and has a kitsch appeal. It's even made the crossover from movie snack to movie star, with the snack's memorable appearances including Patricia Arquette snagging Christian Slater in True Romance by tipping popcorn over him. At the annual MTV Movie Awards, winners are handed a golden bucket of popcorn. Samuel L Jackson has said that he doesn't trust anyone who orders sweet popcorn, and Madonna claims she lost her baby weight by snacking on it.
Indeed, homemade popcorn is high in fibre and low in calories, making it one of the healthier snacks. Made at home it is also cheap, but at the cinema the mark-up is as much as 10,000 per cent, with the popcorn itself costing less to produce than the cardboard box that it's served in.
In 2002, the British Film Institute described it as "the most profitable substance on the planet, more than heroin, more than plutonium". Phil Clapp, the chief executive of the Cinema Exhibitors' Association, the trade group of UK cinema operators, has even suggested that major cinema chains "would struggle to be viable without popcorn".
However, many cinema-goers would think the film experience incomplete without a bucket of warm popcorn on their knee. Mark Truesdale, the manager at the Grosvenor Cinema in Glasgow, says: "Popcorn is part and parcel of the cinema-going experience. Everyone loves it and most people would probably be disappointed if we didn't serve it, since it's a bit of a tradition."
Picturehouse remains unconvinced and will be holding popcorn-free screenings at its Cinema City screen in Norwich this month. If the trial proves a success, it plans to introduce a ban across all 19 locations. So could this mark the end for popcorn?
Well, probably not. Walk into any multiplex in the country and a salty/buttery smell will immediately assault your nostrils as film fans queue up for barrels of the stuff. While arthouse cinemas experiment with serving everything from olives to cupcakes, the cinema-going masses seem content to hoover up popcorn – and leave the staff to hoover up the mess.