Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Why is Movie Theater Popcorn so Awful?

These articles are entertaining for anyone else, but I like to change things up, tho. I like writing about every aspect of movie-watching, and it can't always be 3500 words on "Boys Don't Cry," y'know?

I didn't mention this during my review, but I got sick from the popcorn I ate during "Splice." If you read what I wrote, you'd figure the movie had that effect. Nope. It's not the sort of thing I would mention, either, even if we knew each other. Now, tho, it was a recent conversation topic: what's wrong with movie theater popcorn?

It truly deserves a post - popcorn is the movie-time snack. Concessions stands lately are massive, but popcorn's my most frequent craving. Sometimes it's all I want.

Food like I had is obviously a problem; I felt like someone who ate fish in "Airplane." But popcorn's also expensive - if you buy a medium or large bag and don't eat it, you've lost roughly $6. And if you didn't eat before going in, popcorn is the only regular item that can hold off hunger pangs for 90 minutes.

With all that, and considering how delicious it is, why should anyone ever think: I can't remember if the popcorn here is lousy. If my friend/date/relative doesn't want any, I'm going to have to find something I can fill up on...

Even if it doesn't make you ill, so many theaters have somehow found a way to make bad popcorn. To quote Shakespeare, "what the hell?"

Popcorn, the source of all life.
The bad food didn't affect my opinion of "Splice." I know because I wasn't ill at the time. Hell, I've been out and had a friend step out for a little too long...

No, this time I woke up sick at 4 AM. While I don't appreciate being unwell as if I drank for hours on an empty stomach, that wouldn't make me receive a picture poorly. "Splice" did a great job of looking bad all on its own.

So I guess the lesson is "don't buy popcorn at Manhattan's AMC Empire 25 on 42nd Street."

Then again, maybe the lesson is "don't take the pre-stuffed bags of popcorn when you're there." I'm a member of AMC rewards programs, and I get free tickets and the occasional deal/freebie at the concession stand. I don't always use them, but I did that night.

Since I had just finished a long day of work, a snack made sense. My friends couldn't make it, so I went to the very last show after a quick dinner (Thursday, 10PM). A small bag sounded right, and I luckily got a "free small popcorn" ticket when my tickets printed. Score! I flashed the freebie ticket, asked for a drink, and the person manning the concession stand went to a big set of metal racks. She grabbed my small bag from one of those.

Just after after Step 3 in the the magical "Popcorn Process."

Which was weird, since a full batch just popped in the machine - the machine that was way closer than the racks. In fact, the top floor of that colossal theater was clearly empty/dead as the last show of the night started. There wasn't going to be some big run on the food...

On a wasteful, "badly-run business" note, they had far too much already prepared and sitting out in the air. There were more than 20 bags of varying sizes.

So I recall her grabbing the bag, and I remember her being sorta rude first. But I know I thought "hell, she's a kid working in the service industry/retail; am I really going to make her life more annoying?" Well, I guess I should have.

Corn, after heat+time, in its "popped form."
The real problem here isn't that I got sick. It's that popcorn is one of the most wonderful substances on Earth, and I love it. I barely ever buy it, tho, because I have a too-hazy list in my head of places where the popcorn is no good. That night with "Splice" just added one I definitely can't forget. Bad bags are usually dry or flat-tasting, while the AMC Empire 25's version could make you sick 'til your eyes go bloodshot.

One of my favorite snacks - a reasonably healthy and filling one, at that - is becoming a rare, at-home only event for me. This is no good.

Maybe my small confession will explain why I was already buying popcorn less often: I almost never get butter on my popcorn, and it probably helps others ignore a sub-standard batch. Really, the only time I eat it is when I'm with someone who wants butter. This (among other things) makes me rare.

But that shouldn't be one of the things that sets me apart. It's a tasty snack, even without butter - which, by the way, is an unfair uber-topping. It's like crushing a snail with your car. Why don't people appreciate the one real treat that doesn't have to be unhealthy?

Of course, there's more: I don't like pouring "generic yellow syrup" on anything, really. Theaters don't even call it butter anymore, they call it "popcorn topping." I'm willing to bet they do that because they're probably required to by law.

"Hey hon, want some 'popcorn topping?'" That just rolls right off the tongue... I think on my next date, I'll make sure to talk about movies, and about how much I love popcorn, with or without "topping." Or if we go to see a movie, I'll tell her I don't mind "topping" on the popcorn. I hope I don't come off too strange...

Try this on for size: wiki's entry on popcorn's nutritional value:
Air-popped popcorn is naturally high in fiber, low in calories and fat, contains no sodium, and is sugar free...

One particularly notorious example of this first came to public attention in the mid-1990s, when the Center for Science in the Public Interest produced a report about "Movie Popcorn"... The movie theaters surveyed used coconut oil to pop the corn, and then topped it with butter or margarine. "A medium-size buttered popcorn", the report said, "contains more fat than a breakfast of bacon and eggs, a Big Mac and fries, and a steak dinner combined." ... according to, a small popcorn from Regal Cinema Group (the largest theater chain in the United States) still contains 29 g of saturated fat, as much as three Big Macs and the equivalent of a full day-and-a-half's reference daily intake.
Emphasis and link were added by me. Anyway, I'd say I save my "buttered popcorn" days for when I'm on a date. That way I don't risk having a heart attack during sex.

Funnier still, when I microwave popcorn at home, people with me have been surprised that I buy "plain/natural." I'm flexible, so I offer to quickly heat a pad of butter and pour it over the bowl. But no one, apparently, wants that. People want fake "butter flavor" on their popcorn? Did I miss a meeting? Do people prefer whatever's in Pop Secret's packaging to the real thing? Stuff that keeps for months?

And I actually have used the butter machines at movie-theaters; nor do I skimp because it's not my thing. Why? I'm good company, that's why. Plus, I don't hate buttered popcorn, I just don't especially like it. It comes with the bonus of "no nasty fingers." Still, the butter machines, and what drizzles into the bag, does not look... very inviting.

The difference between these two stages is critical!

Surely some places in New York make an effort: The Sunshine Cinemas on Houston is an example. They obviously made effort to provide a great, varied concessions booth with quality popcorn.

The same goes for the popcorn (and every concession I've tried) at The Angelika, one of my favorite film houses.  In both those cases, though, they aren't buying in the sort of quantities that AMC and Regal require.

Does this look dangerous to you?
If you know of particular NYC-area theaters that do the job right or badly, let me know. If you tell me privately or on fb, I'll save you the trouble of posting a comment and put it up here myself (using your initials or something).

Maybe I should keep, on this site, ratings for New York concession stands. Doing it would help me remember which theaters to avoid (or prefer); if I forget, it would have a label here. "Popcorn Ratings," or "Food Ratings?"

I could always go all-out with "NYC Theater Ratings," too...

I wrote this article several weeks ago. It's funny, then, that the outside world sort of caught up to my concerns here: AMC announced a special $7 healthy snack-pack for theaters. You get a bottle of water, air-popped chips, "fruit chips," and a health bar (with chocolate). It's a pretty good deal, and I hope it's satisfying. For one thing, it's way cheaper than popcorn and soda. For another, it's not obviously horrible for you...  

I try to cover different aspects of "the movies" - sitting to watch trailers, for example. Well, the most popular theater food is even more important, for many. It's so hard to resist! I'd hate to worry about "russian roullette eating" whenever I cave to the sweet sweet smell of those super-heated kernels.

Giving it up forever? That would be like not believing in Santa anymore...

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