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Concession Confessions

On sneaking food into the movies.

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With the February 27th Oscars telecast fast approaching, there are those of us who cram in a lot of moviegoing to catch all the contenders. And that, for some, means packing — as in, sneaking in food.

People have been sneaking in their own concessions ever since movie houses opened. Originally, theater owners would not allow food and beverages in the auditoriums because of the mess. However, peanut vendors would set up outside and sell to the crowds going in, and the owners ended up with a mess to clean anyway. Eventually, the owners gave in and started selling their own concessions.

No one says you have to eat at the movies, but something about sitting in total darkness for a couple of hours makes us hungry. The most popular movie concessions at Malco are soft drinks, popcorn, and Reese's Pieces. They offer a soft drink and popcorn combo with free refills on both for $8, including tax. On paper, it looks like a pretty good deal, and it's a big seller, but some moviegoers think the concessions are too expensive.

Elizabeth Eggleston, a jewelry designer who lives in East Memphis, takes her 5-year-old daughter to just about every animated movie that's released. She thinks that the concessions are overpriced, so she brings her own snacks — usually bottled water, juice boxes, and candy. "Going to a movie is expensive these days, especially with kids, because everything they want to see is in 3D. So, I justify sneaking, because I am still spending a lot to go to the movie," she says.

Others prefer to eat things that aren't for sale at the movies. Local blogger Kerry Crawford is an adventurous sneaker. In college, she snuck into a dollar theater with pad thai, a popular noodle dish, carefully wrapped in her hoodie inside a backpack. These days, she doesn't go to the movies very often, but when she does, she goes in style. "I tend to get gas station sushi and maybe some of the champagne that comes in cans," she says.

Most people have no problem justifying their sneaking. Midtowner Shawn Graves goes to the movies about three times a month but doesn't consider himself much of a sneaker. "I don't have the forethought usually, but I have on occasion," he says, admitting that he often conceals "adult" beverages. Graves sees his actions as a denial of revenue rather than stealing. "The theater has lost no product, and there is no tangible item stolen," he says.

Graves also says that if he had no intention of buying concessions, the theater never had the potential revenue, but he admits it is a gray area at best. "We are all great at justifying our personal actions and motives while pointing the finger at others," he says.

But where do we draw the line?

Larry Etter, Malco's senior vice president of concessions, loves to tell the story of the pizza delivery. He was at Malco's Majestic theater on a busy evening when he saw a Pizza Hut delivery man walking through the lobby with an 18-inch pizza.

"As I approached him, he looked befuddled and asked if I could help him find auditorium #4 and the people who ordered a large pepperoni!" Etter says he wanted the delivery guy to get paid, so he obliged. When they found the moviegoer who ordered the pizza, Etter escorted them both out of the building. "The poor guy who bought the pizza had no place to go, because his friends were in the theater. He ate one slice and threw the pizza away," he recalls.

Etter is sensitive to people's perceptions of concessions prices but says that Malco has the lowest prices of any theater circuit in the region. He also explained that concessions help offset the cost of movie tickets.

"There are two revenue streams. The first comes from ticket sales and the second from concessions," Etter says. "If a theater owner charged fees that would make the box office wholly profitable, ticket prices would probably be $20 and concessions would be about half what they are now." It makes more sense to get people in the door and then entice them to spend extra money on food and drinks.

For families on a budget, Etter suggests the family combo, which includes four 24-ounce drinks, a jumbo tub of popcorn with free refills, and a box of candy for $17. (That's nearly 40 percent off the regular price.) In addition, Malco's second-run theaters offer half-price concessions, a number of theaters sell alcoholic beverages, and the Summer Drive-In allows outside food. (You can even grill.)

Etter says that past efforts to lower concession prices weren't successful. Sales didn't increase, which meant theaters had to sell twice as much product to get half the profit.

By the same logic, if everyone who went to the theater purchased concessions, ticket prices could eventually go down. Chew on that the next time you sneak.

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