Covid-19 closures forced theaters around the world to improvise new revenue streams, driving some cinema operators to innovate their food and beverage (F&B) strategies by bringing the concessions stand out of the lobby and into moviegoers’ homes. Exhibitors of all sizes went from selling jumbo bags of popcorn out of their parking lots to partnering with delivery apps like Uber Eats and Grubhub to sell entire concessions combo packages direct to consumers.
These innovations were gradually phased out as restrictions lifted. The most prominent player to have stayed the course is AMC Theatres, the country’s largest cinema circuit, which announced in November 2021 its intention to enter the retail popcorn space as part of its long-term strategy. The circuit plans to introduce 15 AMC Theatres Perfectly Popcorn retail locations in the United States by the end of the year. These locations will be stocked with freshly made popcorn—both traditional and flavored varieties—as well as candy, soda, and other movie theater snacks. AMC plans to expand this strategy into 2023 with the introduction of its own microwavable popcorn brand to be sold at supermarkets. In the company’s announcement, AMC CEO Adam Aron called this expansion “so natural and logical, one wonders why the idea has not been tried before.” The executive believes its retail strategy will play an important part of the circuit’s post-pandemic diversification, citing consumers’ strong association of popcorn with the moviegoing experience.
It’s not just AMC that’s taking note of popcorn’s potential outside the concessions stand. A pair of independent theaters in the United States are implementing this pandemic-era innovation into their long-term F&B strategy, selling their own brand of gourmet popcorn outside their theaters through a direct-to-consumer (DTC) model. Ridgefield, Connecticut’s Prospector Theater and California’s Cinelounge Cinemas are taking a similar approach in optimizing their brand through their most beloved concessions item.
Cinelounge founder Christian Meoli cites the 2017 opening of his Hollywood location on Sunset Boulevard as a turning point in his F&B strategy. “That’s where my relationship with popcorn went to the next level,” he says. “I love offering guests what I call ‘the power of the option.’ That’s how we began expanding with additional blends. My take on popcorn is that it’s a highly undervalued aspect of what we do. Most theaters across the globe just serve popcorn and offer butter. I create blends with fun movie puns and great, well-sourced ingredient pairings.”
Cinelounge’s popcorn line features film-themed flavor blends like Rosemary’s Popcorn (rosemary salted caramel), Popzilla (sweet chile lime), Popcorn of the Living Dead (cinnamon churro with pretzels, Apopalypse Now (jalapeño), Truffaut Truffle (truffle), Bourbon Caramel Jones (bourbon caramel), Art House Gold (curry), Fiery Chocolate Ecstasy (Mexican hot chocolate), Once Upon a Time in Popcorn (smoked cheddar), and Some Like It Popped (naked, with sea salt).
Cinelounge’s line of prepackaged popcorn comes in movie poster–inspired packaging, and a percentage of its sales are placed in a fund designed to support new filmmakers with their projects. By the end of 2019, Cinelounge Popcorn could be found at 10 gourmet markets throughout Los Angeles.
Meoli sees Cinelounge’s popcorn as a calling card for the expansion of the Cinelounge Cinemas brand. “Ever since I began Cinelounge, it’s been my plan to expand and be a fluid, amenity-driven exhibition brand in the top 20 DMA’s across the U.S.,” says Meoli. Cinelounge opened its first Bay Area location in June 2022. Located 50 feet from the bay in Tiburon, California, the theater is serviced by a ferry that drops off guests steps away from the cinema.
“We envision it as a Soho House vibe for movie lovers,” says Meoli about the new theater. Cinelounge Tiburon features additional amenities, including an expanded concessions menu they’re calling “Spinal Tapas,” and custom seating available for guests to purchase at three furniture store locations across the Bay Area. A complimentary Cinelounge Popcorn sampler box comes with every purchase.
The pandemic helped Cinelounge launch its independent popcorn business through a DTC model on cineloungepopcorn.com. “We sold our popcorn and shipped all over the country,” says Meoli. Cinelounge established partnerships with other film organizations and events to offer their popcorn at numerous film festivals and at events organized by Amazon Studios and the Academy Foundation. In April, Cinelounge Popcorn welcomed CinemaCon delegates at every studio presentation held at Caesars Palace. Today, Cinelounge Popcorn is available in 23 cinema locations and 25 gourmet markets across the United States.
For Ridgefield, Connecticut’s Prospector Theater, its approach to DTC popcorn sales is an extension of its mission as a nonprofit first-run cinema dedicated to providing employment opportunities to adults with disabilities; three-quarters of the Prospector’s workforce self identifies as having a disability. The Prospector serves the needs of its local community as the town’s sole movie theater while simultaneously acting as a vocational training academy for adults with disabilities.
“We are showing the world what is possible when adults with disabilities are given the chance to work,” says Mike Santini, executive director of the Prospector “Unfortunately, 80 percent of Americans with a disability do not have a job. So here at the theater, we’re watching movies, we’re popping popcorn, and we’re doing it all through a competitive and integrated workspace where we can show the world just how brightly we can shine when given a job. The Prospector is not just a movie theater. We are an innovative lab where we experiment with new strategies, techniques, tools, curriculum, products, and technologies that will allow more adults with disabilities to enter and integrate within the workforce.”
The Prospector opened in 2014 in a new, state-of-the-art facility next to the town’s public library. “Our goal has never been to be the best movie theater run by people with disabilities; our goal is to be the best movie theater, period,” says Santini. “We’ve always wanted to be assessed and valued n the merits of our business rather than a sympathy factor.” According to Santini, everyone on staff at the Prospector earns above minimum wage and is involved in working across every facet of the operation: from the box office to the projection booth, and everything in between.
In 2019 the Prospector announced plans to open a second location in Connecticut, taking over a former Bow Tie site in Wilton. Those plans were derailed by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. “We were looking at growing and expanding our mission through opening a second theater. We viewed another brick-and-mortar facility as a way to create more jobs—but then the pandemic happened and all of a sudden, movies were diverted to streaming services, release dates were delayed, and an uncertainty loomed over our theater and the industry as a whole,” says Santini. “So we looked internally and we asked ourselves what else we could do to create more jobs while also helping to drive alternate revenue.”
The Prospector had built a local following around its flavored popcorn combinations since first opening. When movie theaters turned to takeout concessions at the start of the pandemic, the Prospector decided to offer its gourmet popcorn directly to consumers through their website, prospectorpopcorn.org. Their product line includes combinations like Classic Caramel, Belgian Chocolate Toffee, Chicago Style, Sweet and Spicy, Buffalo Cheddar, Buffalo Ranch, Maple Walnut Ice Cream, and Summertime S’mores.
“We were very fortunate that we had a great product that performed very well at our concession stand,” says Santini. “When the pandemic hit, we saw how this could expand and create more jobs, drive alternate revenue, and introduce the mission of the Prospector Theater beyond the moviegoing demographic within our area. Now, with our own ecommerce business, people across the country can get our popcorn delivered to them. They can indulge in a tasty treat and know they’re helping create jobs for people with disabilities.”
Whether it’s the world’s largest cinema circuit, a growing independent chain, or a mission-driven nonprofit theater, movie theaters have taken popcorn from concession stand to couch. Popcorn’s journey may end up being one of the few pandemic-era innovations to outlast Covid-19.