At the end of my very first university film class, the professor encouraged us to bring snacks to our screenings. He told us, “The visual pleasures of cinema are directly connected to the pleasures of eating.” This seems like a strange statement, but if you think about it, food and film do go together. It’s one of the many things that make film unique as an art form. A live theatre won’t let you bring food in—neither will an art gallery—and my film classes in university were the only ones where I was not only allowed, but encouraged to eat.
What is it about film that makes it the perfect pastime to snack to? Theatres encourage it because their profit is in the popcorn, but eating while watching movies is a common occurrence outside of the theatre as well. It’s almost unthinkable to picture a film screening where food is prohibited. The few food-free screenings that do exist are exclusively for specialty films that fit into the prestige/art house genre. This connection is rooted in film’s place as part of mass cultural entertainment. Unlike other art forms, film is less concerned with prestige and more interested in providing enjoyment for their customers in any way possible.
This wasn’t always the case. In the early days of silent cinema, with the high-end picture palaces and Nickelodeons, food wasn’t allowed. These establishments were high-end, featuring expensive upholstery the owners didn’t want damaged by spilled food. Cinema owners were attempting to entice the upper/middle class to spend their time there. Then there was also the matter of the silent film—no one wanted the mood to be ruined by the munching and rustling of eating.
By the mid-’30s, snacking and the movies had become inseparable. Theatres that sold popcorn and other snacks survived the Great Depression intact. Those that didn’t went out of business.
This all changed with the coming of sound in 1927. With no more title cards, literacy became completely unnecessary in the audience. The introduction of sound also muffled the noise of chewing and made eating less disruptive. The beginning of the Great Depression solidified the tradition of snacking and celluloid. During this period, movies became a very popular pastime, as they were affordable. At the same time, popcorn became a popular snack because it was incredibly cheap. Street vendors put two and two together and began selling popcorn to the hordes of people flocking to cinemas. Eventually theatres stopped trying to prevent people from bringing their snacks into their films and invited the street vendors into their lobbies. Eventually, the theatres installed their own popping machines to cut out the middleman and increase their profits. By the mid-’30s, snacking and the movies had become inseparable. Theatres that sold popcorn and other snacks survived the Great Depression intact. Those that didn’t went out of business.
The profits from selling concessions are extremely attractive to cinemas; it’s estimated that theatres are making an 85-percent profit on all popcorn sales and that concessions account for almost 50-percent of a cinema’s total revenue. By the late ’30, cinemas had begun advertising snacks in-house before the movie and sometimes even during it.
While it’s pretty clear why cinemas continue to promote and push this connection, it doesn’t explain the need or desire of people to snack while watching a movie. As can be seen from the history of popcorn and the cinemas, the reason popcorn became a popular movie snack was due to the fact that people were bringing it in off the streets. The live theatre never would have allowed this, so what is it that made the cinema owners give in to the will of the people?
Good food and a good film create a similar collective experience. The reason that food and film go so well together is because they offer opposite sides of this collective effervescence.
It all comes down tithe ambitions within the larger context of entertainment and art. While most agree that film and theatre are artistic forms of entertainment, the film industry has always been entertainment first, art second. Since film is considered primarily entertainment, it’s quick to encourage anything that will improve its entertainment value, and what is more enjoyable than eating junk food? Even films that are highly intellectual and aimed at a highbrow, educated audience ooze pop culture. The movies are a more casual, laidback affair than the theatre. They are perfect for so many occasions, from casual hangouts and birthday parties to dates, fancy special events and solo excursions.
That’s where food comes in. Like movie going, eating is a social activity. Also, like movie going, eating is a social activity that limits many of the aspects we associate with being social, namely talking. The two give us a similar feeling of being alone in your individual experience while being surrounded by others. They promote endless discussion on the merits of taste and encourage opinions, and unlike other art forms, film doesn’t have to worry about disrupting the performers or causing damage to the works. Film is an ephemeral experience.
There was definitely something in my professor’s insistence on the melding of the visual and aural pleasure of film and the tactile joy of eating. Food brings us together and so does film. Eating is also one of the great pleasures of life. While watching films might not be quite as important as eating, there’s something deeply emotionally satisfying about watching a good film and the connection created within the audience. Good food and a good film create a similar collective experience. The reason that food and film go so well together is because they offer opposite sides of this collective effervescence. The film experience is intangible while food gives it something palpable.