Sunday, June 03, 2007


While reading an article on about the ever-increasing cost of going to the movies, Debbie Rolland Billings of Corona, Calif., was taken aback by reader comments posted. Many readers wrote that they got around concession-stand prices by sneaking in their own treats from the outside, in clear violation of theater policies. While posters to pointed out that theater snacks cost the theater only a fraction of what they charge for them, Billings noted that none of the readers acknowledged that theater owners foot hefty overhead costs including utilities, wages, workers-compensation insurance and liability insurance.

"These are all factors that go into the hefty price that consumers have to pay," she writes, "both at the box office and at the concession stand."

What do you think? Is it OK for movie-theater customers to bring their own snacks into movie theaters when the theaters prohibit them from doing so? Or are movie goers justified because of the high costs theater owners charge at concession stands?

Send your thoughts to or post them below by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment." Please include your name (first and last) and your hometown in your post. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to or to "The Right Thing," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.


Anonymous said...

Movie theaters do not mark up their concessions to cover the cost of the operation; they mark up their concessions to turn a profit. No New York restaurant attributes the three hundred percent plus mark-up on wine to the cost of doing business.

But just because a corporation manages themselves poorly, gouging the public for pedestrian food items that could be purchased for
one-eighth of the price at Costco does not make bringing food into a
movie theater okay. Business is business, which is not to say that
millions of people--myself included--will not continue to hide
twizzlers in their pocketbooks.

Hannah Selinger, Sommelier
New York, NY

Anonymous said...

however community theatres manage to sell you the ticket at the same price, but the food at just a little more than cost. and overhead? those ticket-tearing, pimple faced minors are barely making more than minimum wage. perhaps the problem isnt with the theatres, but with the movies. movies are not bringing in enough revenue to support theatres like they used to. we should go straight to the source, make Spielberg pay us back for our tickets-- and buy us some popcorn.

Caroline Beaulieu
Austin, Texas

Anonymous said...

I've seen some (disgusting) nacho meal-deals at theaters priced preposterously at 10 or 11 dollars, as much as a sit-down restaurant and even the ticket itself, so I certainly sympathize with movie-goers who balk at concessions costs. Movies are long. People get thirsty and hungry. They seek refreshment, they'd like to get some as affordably as possible, and yet they're trapped. But sneaking along a picnic still cheats the theater, however justified the theft may appear, as well as other customers who pay the advertised concessions price. That's like smuggling some rolls into an up-scale restaurant to trim the expense of appetizers. You are violating a policy and not agreeing to the terms of service. A more ethical protest might be to not patronize the theater at all until they make prices more reasonable or their budget burdens more transparent.


Columbia, SC

Anonymous said...

This is not so much an ethics answer, but: when I'm watching a 2 1/2 hour movie I often need to eat something. And if I already paid $12 for a ticket, I can't afford another $20 for snacks. That just will not work for me. If movie prices went up to $30, I would stop going. And soon we'd have no more movie theaters. If theater owners want me to stop smuggling food, they need a radical change in their profit plans.

Brian Hurley
Brooklyn, NY

Anonymous said...

I don't think smuggling in your own food to a movie theater is
unethical. On the other hand, barring special dietary needs or
outright poverty, I *do* think that it's shortsighted at best. The
economics of movie theaters are such that virtually all their money is made at the concession stands, not from ticket sales. While this is an absurd state of affairs, if you want to continue to be able to see films on the big screen, it's in your own best interest to order the popcorn and soda.

Shmuel Ross, East Boston, MA

Anonymous said...

There may be a case to be made against theater operators for price gouging. As you know, the controlling factor in price gouging is that the pricer is taking advantage of a constrained
market to inflate prices for a necessary product; in this case it is the theater operator him/herself who, by imposing the "no outside food" rule,
creates the constrained market, so that might be taken as an argument
against him/her. I myself wouldn't make that argument, however, as I don't think movie snacks rises to the level of a necessary product--one can
always go without and eat afterward.

I sometimes smuggle food in and sometimes buy at the concession
stand, but my decision is not driven by price but rather by product mix.. I don't drink carbonated drinks and don't eat junk food (effectively defined
as that made with salt or refined sugar), so there's nothing for me to eat at the usual concession stand. There are several theaters in New York that do offer healthy-food alternatives, however, and in those cases I don't smuggle. In short, I consider it legitimate for theaters to seek a monopoly on the food they sell, but I consider it arbitrary for them to prohibit food that they don't sell, since in my case at least there's no
chance that I'd buy anything at the concession stand either way.

I don't see how the fact that theaters have other expenses that they offset with concession revenue matters. Every business has expenses, and offsets them as they see fit. Jacking up concessions is neither better nor
worse than jacking up admissions. Which, of course, they do in New York.

Historical note: Once upon a time concessions were literally that,
outside vendors who paid the theater for the chance to sell their wares (as they do to this day in ballparks). Usually their prices were the outside-world market price, and in this case there was no incentive to
smuggle; presumably everybody made a profit off the deal. Then, in the 1970s, the theater chains began to pull back their concessions and operate their own food stands--and to jack up the prices to the extent that many
people pay more for concessions than they do for the movie. Since then food-smuggling has become epidemic--I once saw a group of five people open up a gift-wrapped package (clearly one they'd wrapped themselves) and remove a huge Kentucky Fried Chicken dinner with all the trimmings, which
they proceeded to devour...rather noisily, I may add--and I wonder whether the theaters wouldn't profit more by pricing their goods competitively and once again removing the incentive to smuggle.



Anonymous said...

The cost of snacks at the movies is very high, and because of this families are resorting to home entertainment. In the meantime,the movie corporation really should make every effort to get their patrons back into the theater. There is nothing like seeing a good movie at the theater and enjoying a delicious box of hot buttered popcorn. The atmosphere is exciting. However, when you go to the movies, you need to follow the rules!

Anonymous said...

I find it amazing that so many people seem to be unable to last 3 hours without candy and soda. I suggest you eat prior to the movie, be it dinner or snack, and eliminate the need to pay for junk food concessions or smuggle. Ethical dilemma solved. Perhaps your obesity problem too.

Gil Socoon said...

Technically, If there is a sign notifying you before you buy your ticket that no food or drink is allowed in the auditorium , then it would be unethical to sneak food in. It’s a contract. You buy their ticket, you accept their terms.

However, contracts are not valid unless both parties understand all the provisions before money changes hands. The relationship with the theater begins before you even get to the box office. The theater patron invests both time and money, and then is presented with a choice that is not of his choosing. Either buy the ticket or waste the time and money already spent getting there.

I feel the theater owner is not acting ethically by not disclosing these terms in their multi -million dollar advertising efforts. This holds true for an even more egregious practice; that of showing commercials prior to the screening. One of the reasons we go to the movies is to enjoy a break from commercial riddled T.V. programs.

As with the price of snacks, the theater owner is preying on a captive audience. On a relative scale this is a far greater breach of ethics than sneaking in a candy bar.

The argument about the costs of running a theater is also specious. When you have a multiplex, many theaters under one roof, there is tremendous savings in overhead. As for rent, it would be
the same if the concession stand were not there. The savings in the high costs of projectionists more than makes up for the minimum wage kid working the stand.

Gilbert Socoon

The Orange County Register

Anonymous said...

As I sit here hacking and coughing due to the residual effects of a cold, aggravated by seasonal allergies, about the only justifiable exception to bringing in treats into a movie theater would be cough drops or similar hard candy that would suppress your cough so as not to disturb the rest in the audience. However, I am speaking from the perspective of what is acceptable practice at classical music performances - given the behavior of audiences in a typical movie theater today, a cough would go unnoticed.

More to the point, having worked on the rehabilitation of several historic movie houses in Los Angeles, including the El Capitan and the Egyptian, and projects including new screens, I became aware of the fact that the theater operator does not make money on the ticket prices (exorbitant as they may seem) - the profit comes from the concession stand, after all the overhead expenses.

The ethical approach: if you absolutely definitely have to see this movie and all you can afford is the ticket price, well - live with that fact! The theater operator will still get revenues from patrons with more $$ at their disposal. However, if you simply cannot watch a movie without the bucket of popcorn etc, wait until you can afford it as a special occasion OR rent the DVD, pop a pack or two of popcorn in the microwave and enjoy. If you have kids, you will also have imparted some "family values."

Ileana Liel
Riverside, CA

Anonymous said...

It can't be ethical to choose to keep some rules and break other rules, even if we think prices are too high. The ethical way to react to unreasonable prices is simple: don't pay them. Eat before the movie or ball game, or eat afterward. Don't go to see the movie and buy the food there, thus subsidizing outrageous salaries for producers, directors, actors. Don't go to the ball game or race and subsidize outrageous salaries for adults playing games, or driving around in circles, wasting gas.

And if you do go to the movies and ball games and races, don't complain about the high cost of health care. Or the high cost of fresh, healthy food. Or the portion of your property taxes that provides sidewalks and parks for exercise and entertainment. You do consider walking in the park both exercise and entertainment, don't you?

Anonymous said...

Although I understand a theater's right to make a profit, i disagree with the forced monopoly they impose on movie goers. I think patrons should be able to choose whether to buy food there or bring their own. I work at a ball park and we allow people to bring in all kinds of food-you are not forced to pay exorbitant prices. Regardless of our policy, the concessions stands are still knee deep in people willing to pay 8 bucks for a hot dog; so I don't think theaters are justified in barring paying patrons from bringing outside food. It does not have to be all one way or the other.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the theater concessions issue, the choices at the theatres I've been to for as long as I can remember have not been the most healthy things to snack on. I myself find it ludicrous that we are expected to only be allowed to snack on what they offer at those beyond exorbitant prices. Plus the fact that I like to have something to sip on, like water, and not be gouged $3.00 for it, which was more than a soda cost.
I usually and guiltlessly "sneak" a small bottle of water and sometimes something quiet and not messy into the show to allow me to enjoy the movie experience, after all, isn't that what that are selling? A good time?

Mark Jones
Huntington Beach, CA

Anonymous said...

I feel I should add after reading the other posts that I do not buy into the premise that the theatres are only generating their profit from the concessions. Near me are some low priced theatres, well below half the normal cost per movie. If these all theaters are operating mainly on the revenues of the concession, imagine how much more aggressive these discount places must be to recoup the lost income of low ticket prices. The concessions there have been all but deserted when we have visited.

If it becomes a situation of being searched and denied entrance with "outside food" at the door of a theater to discourage the "scofflaws" from bringing in a healthy alternative to snack on, I for one won't miss the big screen. Heck, it's pretty much a wash now to buy a DVD compared to just my wife and myself going to one movie, and we get to see it in perpetuity for no additional cost.

- Mark Jones

Anonymous said...

Quoth Mark Jones:

"Near me are some low priced theatres, well below half the normal cost per movie. If these all theaters are operating mainly on the revenues of the concession, imagine how much more aggressive these discount places must be to recoup the lost income of low ticket prices."

Actually, no. The studios take a high percentage of the ticket sales. If the tickets are cheaper, so is their cut.

Anonymous said...

..but you don't have to take my word for it. See, for example, and

Anonymous said...

I think it is a bunch of BS that you have to pay 5 dollars for a pop that is a dollor anywhere else it should be a do you change this its tought times for everyone and jacking consumers is a crime and should not be tolerated.