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Movie theaters are reluctant to rework the menu

By Patrick Goldstein, Los Angeles Times –

If you’re a parent concerned about your kids eating healthful food, where is the last place you’d want them to go? The answer is simple: a movie theater. When I give my 14-year-old son some cash so he can have something to eat at the movies, I know that whatever he gets at the concession stand is going to be the most unhealthful thing he eats all month.

I had grown so accustomed to the outlandishly calorific food and drink in movie theaters that I hardly gave the issue a thought until a few recent developments — starting with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plans to restrict the sale of super-sized sugary drinks in a variety of locales, including movie theaters.

Then the Walt Disney Co. announced that it plans to restrict junk-food commercials during its TV programs aimed at children. And the City Council in Richmond, Calif., recently voted to place a measure on the November ballot that would impose a penny-per-ounce tax on all high-sugar drinks, with the proceeds going to school gardens and programs to fight childhood obesity.

I’m not sure I would’ve connected all these dots if I hadn’t found myself searching for a lively topic for a speech I was giving this week to a branch of the National Assn. of Theater Owners (NATO). Let me be clear: I love movie theaters. The bond is an emotional one. My grandfather owned a chain of theaters in Miami. When I was a kid, I spent hundreds of hours working lowly jobs at the theaters, which no doubt helped inspire my love for movies.

But as the times have changed, few theater owners have been willing to change with them. To hear them talk, 3-D is a giant leap forward, even though it is largely a revival of a technology first developed in, ahem, the 1950s. Even though some theaters have sweetened their sound systems and are experimenting with mobile ticket scanners, today’s theater chains are hardly a hotbed of customer-friendly innovation. Whenever a Hollywood studio even tries to experiment with changing the windows for video on demand, for instance, exhibitors hit the panic button.

This fear of change is also at the heart of the healthful food issue. After all, theater owners have a good thing going when it comes to their junk-food business model. Exhibitors split their box-office take with studios, but they keep every penny of their concession sales. And the popcorn and soda markup is considerable: At my local AMC theater, a small bag of popcorn costs $6; a large one is $8, even though the actual cost of making the popcorn is minuscule. According to recent studies, 85 percent of the money spent on concessions is pure profit, going straight to the theaters’ bottom line.

It’s a key reason why movie theaters have banned patrons from bringing in outside snacks, since without the hefty concession revenues, theaters would have trouble staying in business. It’s also a key reason why theaters are reluctant to mess with their junk-food business model, since a healthful food menu might cut into concession profits.

Still, it’s time for a change. AMC’s 16-cup large tub of popcorn contains 1,030 calories and 57 grams of saturated fat. A similar large popcorn at Regal had 1,200 calories. In a word: Yuck! The science is crystal clear. High intake of sugary soft drinks and sodium-saturated popcorn increases the risks of obesity and diabetes. That runs up the costs for America’s overburdened healthcare system. Studies have also found that restricting the portion size of unhealthful foods leads consumers to consume less of them.

So why aren’t exhibitors taking a more proactive approach when it comes to healthful alternatives? According to NATO President John Fithian, I should be pointing my finger at patrons, not theater owners. “We have offered moviegoers healthy fare again and again, and it didn’t sell,” he told me Monday. “We’ve tried yogurt, fruit juices, granola bars — you name it. And nothing sells. It sits on the shelves until it spoils and you have to throw it away.”

Fithian says that in the late 1990s, in response to a well-publicized study about unhealthful oil used in popcorn machines, many exhibitors invested in air-popped popcorn machines. It was a bust. “I have a file full of patron complaints,” he said. “The healthy popcorn initiative was an absolute disaster. They wanted the cooking oil back. We’ve got warehouses full of unused air popcorn machines.”

Fithian said the majority of theater chains now offer alternatives. Cinemark has a Lite Bites package of healthful food. AMC has its Smart Movie Snacks, which include bottled water, dried fruit and trail-mix bars.

“Everyone agrees that tackling childhood obesity is an important goal for the country — we’re just getting bigger and bigger as Americans,” Fithian said. “But the solution has to be comprehensive, not just aimed at a specific problem.” Fithian dismissed Bloomberg’s smaller portions concept as “a really silly idea,” saying that it especially penalizes people who want to buy one large portion of drink or food to share with the entire family.

He argues that moviegoing is an escapist activity, subject to an entirely different psychology of behavior. “Take nachos,” he said. “I’d never make them at home or order them for my kids in a restaurant. But when I go to a theater, that’s what I want. You eat differently in a theater than you do elsewhere.”

As a die-hard baseball fan, I spent years eating hot dogs and nachos at Dodger Stadium and Wrigley Field. But the national pastime has had considerable success enticing fans with more diverse — and more healthful — food choices. More important, they don’t seem to have lost any money doing it.

I have no illusions. Anyone pressuring theater owners to stop selling jumbo portions of super-sweet soft drinks and popcorn is in for a titanic-sized food fight. But it’s time to shrink everyone’s stomach at the multiplex. Movie budgets may get bigger every year, but when it comes to healthful eating, less is always more.

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