Popcorn: Since the Great Depression, it’s been the movie theater staple. Patrons love it for its taste and convenience. Theaters love it for its high profitability. But look beyond the bag—or tub, or bucket—and you’ll find that the world of that little popcorn kernel is surprisingly complex.
Popcorn Isn’t Just Popcorn
First of all: Not all popcorn is the same. What people tend to think of as “movie theater popcorn” is actually butterfly popcorn, characterized by “wings” that emerge as the kernel is popped. Go to a movie theater in the Unites States and you’re getting medium-sized butterfly popcorn. Buy a bag of pre-popped popcorn at a grocery store or gas station, and you’re probably looking at large butterfly popcorn. In addition to being, you guessed it, larger, large butterfly popcorn is a lot more durable and less likely to break up during manufacturing and shipping.
Medium butterfly popcorn, on the other hand, is more tender—a quality that farmers and scientists have spent decades accentuating. A typical hybrid strain of popcorn, explains Joe Macaluso, popcorn-industry veteran and vice president of U.S. and Canadian sales at Gold Medal Products, takes between five and seven years to develop. Over the decades, that process has given moviegoers a better product, one that’s more tender with fewer of the fiddly little bits that get stuck in your teeth. “The characteristics that have been developed over the years to improve eating quality wouldn’t have been nearly as good” in the past, says Macaluso. Hop in your time machine and pop back 30 years to treat yourself to some movie theater popcorn, and “the hull remnants would be higher. There would be more hard centers.” The process is gradual, and it’s ongoing; Macaluso notes that the popcorn evolution “is probably going to be never ending. I hope it keeps getting better and better and better. That’s definitely our intent.”
Your average moviegoers are probably also familiar—even if they don’t know it—with the “mushroom” variety of popcorn. Round and wingless, mushroom popcorn is ideally suited to caramel corn; its spherical shape means it’s easier to coat evenly, and its tougher texture means it can stand up to that sweet, sweet caramel without breaking apart. Caramel corn being “more chewy and crunchy,” Macaluso explains, means “you don’t notice the fact that it’s not a tender kernel” underneath.
There are other varieties of popcorn, but let’s stick to the movie concessions—butterfly and mushroom are what you snack on while you’re watching the latest summer blockbuster.
Feel the Heat
Popcorn needs to be popped in some sort of oil, and if you’re in North America, you’re looking at two types: coconut and canola. “Everyone used to use coconut oil,” explains Jo Burgoon, director of concession sales at Ventura Foods, which includes among its brands Odell’s and LouAna popcorn oils. “Then, in the ’80s, a report was released that gained a lot of notoriety about saturated fats being bad. And so a lot of people switched from coconut oil to canola oil.” Since then, additional research has made the coconut-versus-canola issue much less black-and-white, with coconut oil regaining popularity in part because it’s perceived as a more “natural” product.
But which is healthier: coconut oil or canola oil? We at Boxoffice are not here to give you nutrition advice. The short answer, according to Burgoon, is that different people have different opinions, and it depends on what you want. Another differentiator: Because coconut oil is higher in saturated fat, it gives popcorn a “different mouthfeel. You can almost feel the creaminess of the popcorn. The canola oil is low in saturated fat, so it has a drier texture when it pops. One’s not necessarily better than the other. It’s a personal preference—and there are certainly people who eat both and wouldn’t even notice the difference.” AMC, Regal, and Marcus theaters use coconut oil, while Cinemark opts for canola, and other regional chains use a blend.
The relative popularity of canola and coconut oil has fluctuated over the years, Burgoon notes, but the products themselves have stayed pretty much the same. Toppings, on the other hand, have evolved. In addition to popping oils, Odell’s and LouAna sell topping oil derived from soybeans. But another option, Odell’s anhydrous butterfat topping, made from fresh cream, has grown in popularity “as more people want to have the option of real butter.”
Soybean oil typically comes from the United States and South America, while canola oil hails from Canada and coconut oil from Asia. Weather events in those places affect crop yields; currently, says Burgoon, the industry is “holding its breath” because of flooding in the Midwest. When it comes to popcorn kernels, though, adverse weather isn’t likely to have an immediate effect on how much the consumer pays. That, explains Macaluso, is because of a little—but very, very important—thing called “expansion.”
The Bigger the Better
Expansion, as you might guess, refers to how much a kernel expands when it’s popped. As with the quality of popcorn, Macaluso notes, expansion has improved over the past decade, “which is important because higher expansion produces higher yield. Our customers out there make more money, because they get a lot more servings out of a 50-pound bag of popcorn compared to 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago.” The fact that movie theaters can get so many servings out of one bag means that, as noted above, the cost to consumers of an individual serving probably isn’t going to increase in any meaningful way due to fluctuations in crop yield.
Popcorn’s high rate of expansion means theaters get more bang for their buck (or, because we’re talking about popcorn, “more pop for their pound”)—but it also makes popcorn an easy and affordable product to ship around the world. And that’s critical, explains Preferred Popcorn founder and CEO Norm Krug, because while the popcorn market in North America is more or less saturated, in some international markets the popping has just begun.
Krug highlights China, which has seen its movie theater industry expand exponentially over the past several decades. The country is a “relatively new market,” for popcorn, Krug notes. A recent study of Chinese college students conducted by Preferred Popcorn found that most of its respondents “never consume popcorn at home. Their entire exposure to popcorn has been at the movie industry.” Compare this to America, where roughly 70 percent of the average person’s annual popcorn consumption takes place in the home.
“When we first went to Japan 20 years ago, [popcorn] was a fairly new snack there, too,” says Krug. Throughout Asian markets, popcorn doesn’t have the foothold that it has elsewhere, so “the cinema industry has been a big catalyst towards making new countries aware of it. … The cinema industry is a great way to promote our product. Better than any way I can think of. If you were standing in a store handing out samples, you would not get the same response that [you do by selling in the] magical climate of a cinema.”
And why are those international chains so eager to sell a product that their clientele doesn’t have much experience with? You guessed it: expansion. “They come on board quite quickly when they see the amazing profitability of popcorn,” says Krug. “It has the gift of expansion. When you can send one 50-pound bag to someone, and they pop it, and they’re able to turn that one bag into a thousand 32-ounce servings, that is a very, very great gift that makes it possible to export it around the world.”
Popcorn’s profitability may be universal—but there’s no reason the product itself has to stay the same from market to market. Explains Krug, popcorn is a “base product that is easy for different countries to modify and serve in ways that are attractive to different cultures.”
What would a popcorn tour of the world show you? Moviegoers in China and South Korea prefer mushroom popcorn, as opposed to the butterfly variety most often used in the United States. In Thailand, Krug notes, you might find your popcorn cooked in fish oil, which gives it a “different flavor than U.S. popcorn.” Mostly, though, Asian markets use coconut oil or palm oil. The quality of the latter isn’t as good, notes Ventura Foods director of international strategy and planning Matt Young, but it’s a more cost-effective option than the alternatives. Canola oil, produced mostly in Canada, is a less-than-viable option for Asian exhibitors that have comparable products closer to their doorsteps.
Order popcorn in an Asian market, and it will more likely come sweet than salty. India, on the other hand, likes its popcorn salty and butterfly. Where popcorn consumption differs from the U.S. is in the popularity of a wider variety of flavors. 4700 BC, a subsidiary of leading Indian exhibition chain PVR Cinemas, sells flavors ranging from “Chipotle Ranch Golden Cheese” and “Lemon and Chili Golden Cheese” to “Mocha Walnut Choco-All-Ate” and “Jamaican Rum Choco-All-Ate.”
Flavored popcorn is also popular in Mexico, where things trend toward the spicy. “Mexico prefers popcorn very much [like the United States does], but they’ve shown a lot of leadership in trying different flavors,” says Krug. Mexican chain Cinemex, for example, offers Oreo, jalapeño, Tabasco, condensed milk, cheddar spice, cheddar nacho, and tajín (a sort of spicy lime seasoning) popcorn flavors, among others. Recently, Cinemex brought two new flavors—blazin’ cheddar and mushroom truffle—to its CMX-branded location in the Mall of America.
Mushroom or butterfly. Salty or sweet or spicy. “Theater owners are good businesspeople, and their goal is to provide their customers with an experience that they will enjoy. It’s really pretty easy to do that with popcorn. They can adapt it to the culture. That’s the big thing I’ve noticed as I travel internationally. There’s not a right or wrong! They’re all good.”