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Movie theater popcorn is a staple that moviegoers take for granted these days, but that wasn't always the case. In fact, while the snack was an on-the-go staple thanks to street vendors, early theater owners refused to allow popcorn in their venues--mostly because movies early on were seen as highbrow entertainment. Andrew Smith, the author of Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn, has said that popcorn was out early on because owners were trying to keep the carpets clean. According to Smith:
Movie theaters wanted nothing to do with popcorn because they were trying to duplicate what was done in real theaters. They had beautiful carpets and rugs and didn't want popcorn being ground into it.
So what changed? Why are we now capable of consuming the buttery, salty goodness at most movie theaters? The answer is that the average movie consumer changed, especially during the Great Depression. Back in the silent era of movies, people dressed to the nines to see films on the big screen. They were also a highbrow medium, as literacy wasn't nearly as high around the turn of the 20th century and the audience needed to be able to read to really enjoy silent films. However, as sound was ushered in, movies became a medium for the masses. And with the newfound era of moviegoing came snacks. Lots and lots of snacks, including popcorn. But at first that popcorn wasn't even sold by the theaters.
According to the Smithsonian Mag, popcorn was a cheap snack that could still be afforded by the masses during the Great Depression. However, most theaters didn't have the ventilation required to pop its own snacks. Vendors would sell popcorn on the streets as people flocked to the theater, and theaters would charge the vendors a fee for "lobby privileges"--essentially selling to the patrons of the theater. Later, the middle man wasn't needed. As theaters realized they could make more money if they sold their own snacks, theaters began selling popcorn and other concessions. That's when theaters really began to see their profits soar.
There's more to the history of popcorn. During WWII, when sugar was rationed, popcorn was still a treat on hand. And popcorn has stayed popular in theaters over the years, for good reason. Theaters reportedly get to keep 85% of what they make on concessions, and that counts for nearly half of movie theaters' total profits. Movie theaters have been quietly making a fortune on popcorn over the years. Back in 2014, AMC and Regal both saw increases in revenue, mostly thanks to popcorn. (Although the advent of higher ticket prices and 3D movies has certainly helped.)