How Popcorn Has Helped Theaters Endure the Pandemic

Courtesy of The Aurora Theater

After being forced to close his Florence, Oregon theater City Lights Cinemas for a third time last fall, Michael Falter decided to test a curbside popcorn drive as a means of keeping his staff employed. Though Falter had his doubts about how fruitful it would end up being, the community’s response was so great that he’s still feeling the aftereffects.

“Our first edition in November was insane – I’m still working through repetitive strain injuries to my shoulder from popping so much popcorn,” Falter tells Boxoffice Pro. “At one point, staff counted a line of 40 cars.”

The November event was so successful for City Lights Cinemas that Falter and his wife and co-owner, Susan Tive, decided to do it weekly – all while dressing themselves and their staff in goofy butter and popcorn costumes to add a dose of fun to the proceedings. “Our patrons get a good laugh, and during inclement weather I’m told the popcorn costume keeps staff warm,” Falter cracks.

City Lights Cinemas has also used the curbside popcorn drives to give back. The day after Christmas, Falter and Tive made the drive into a fundraiser for a local arts organization that has been barred from holding live events during COVID-19, ultimately raising nearly $1,000 from sales of $5 popcorn and sodas.

“It’s been a remarkable show of solidarity for this town, and we owe lot to our popcorn—always made with real butter and all the fixings,” Falter adds.

City Lights Cinemas co-owner Susan Tive and staffer Jenna Bartlett dress to impress for the theater’s curbside concessions day. (Photo Credit: Michael Falter)

With more than half of hardtop theaters currently shuttered in the U.S., concessions sales – long a prime revenue driver for exhibitors – have become more crucial than ever. During the pandemic, major chains and independent theaters alike have employed curbside concessions pickups to keep at least some revenue flowing, in addition to efforts such as drive-in installations and private watch parties.

The value of concessions in keeping theaters in business during the pandemic was underlined during the most recent National Popcorn Day on Jan. 19, when chains including Cinemark, Showcase, Studio Movie Grill and EVO Entertainment all paid tribute to the buttery snack with promotions for free or reduced-price popcorn. Though these types of promotions are typically employed every year, the pandemic’s toll on the exhibition industry over the past 10 months made them especially resonant in 2021. For many, they provided an opportunity to keep theaters in community members’ minds as the industry looks to a return to widespread moviegoing in the U.S. in the latter half of the year.

“A key component of our strategy throughout the course of the pandemic has been to keep the cinematic experience front of mind with our guests by providing a sense of consistency,” Mitch Roberts, CEO of EVO Entertainment Group, tells Boxoffice Pro. “Continuing our tradition of celebrating National Popcorn Day is one of many great ways we’ve been able to do that.”

Studio Movie Grill took that strategy one step further by tying in its National Popcorn Day promotion with the theater’s SMG Access loyalty program, offering two free movie tickets and a free small popcorn per day (for dine-in or takeout) through the end of February to anyone who signed up. Embedded in the promotion was a “we’re all in this together” sentiment, employed by Studio Movie Grill’s head of revenue and marketing Tonya Mangels in a statement included with the original announcement — in essence compelling SMG customers to take advantage of the offer by reminding them of their own personal stake in the theaters’ continued existence.

Courtesy of Studio Movie Grill

“This is our way of saying ‘thank you’ for the ongoing support helping your local theater survive the pandemic and save jobs by rewarding loyal guests,” said Mangels in her statement.

In East Aurora, New York, the nearly 100-year-old Aurora Theater – which closed its doors again in early January, citing a lack of new releases and community interest – was already set up for takeout popcorn sales thanks to its on-site Aurora Popcorn Shop, which sells a wide variety of bagged flavored popcorn made in house every day. Though it was installed five years ago as a source of additional revenue for the theater, it has taken on increased importance during COVID-19 and even become “a growing business in its own right,” says Aurora Theater owner Lynn Kinsella.

“Popcorn has always been a movie mainstay, and during these challenging times we have been fortunate to have great support for our in-lobby gourmet popcorn shop,” says Kinsella. “The Aurora Popcorn Shop with its many flavors of popcorn has played a starring role in getting us through the pandemic.”

Courtesy of the Aurora Theater

As challenging as coronavirus shutdowns have been for exhibitors, the pandemic has also presented an opportunity for new ways of thinking. At EVO, Roberts says that many of the strategies the company has employed to keep its seven Texas theaters in business – including, yes, curbside concessions – will likely remain in place once the business is back in full swing.

“Many characterize creative initiatives like curbside food & beverage, alternative content, and private watch parties as short-term attempts to survive this crisis,” says Roberts. “While that may have been the spark to start the forge, the tools built within it will be long term sources of incremental revenue when volumes return to pre-pandemic levels over the next couple of years.”

Courtesy of The Aurora Theater