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How Did Popcorn Become the Essential Movie Snack?

1/4/2022 • 3 min read

(Updated 01/04/2023)

January 19 is an important day. Don't worry, it's not that cousin's birthday you can never seem to remember. It's a lot more fun than that! January 19 is National Popcorn Day. The idea of having a day set to embrace our love of popcorn first came up in the 1970s, but the January 19 date wasn't set for National Popcorn Day until 2003.

Naturally, here at Cinemark, we look forward to National Popcorn Day with the same anticipation a candy-hoarding child reserves for Halloween and Easter. We love movie theater popcorn, and can offer a simple guide as to how to celebrate national popcorn day: Come to the movies!

And while we're thinking about it, how did popcorn become so popular? From the birth of movie theater popcorn to the rise of the popcorn machine, we've got the story!

The History of Popcorn at the Movies

How Did Popcorn Become the Essential Movie Snack? Section2Image

To learn the origin of movie popcorn we have to turn the clock all the way back to the 1920s and the era of silent film. Movies were once shown in two kinds of venues. There were small neighborhood rooms — maybe just a bunch of chairs in a room, with a small projector and a sheet or painted wall for a screen — which were frequented by working-class audiences. They were rowdy. Outside, vendors sold popcorn and peanuts; inside, the atmosphere was more like a bar full of people watching a football game than a movie audience we would recognize now.

Meanwhile, larger "movie palace" theatres, catering to wealthier crowds, had grown out of vaudeville stages that also showed movies. These places aspired to be like the so-called "legitimate" theatre. They were fancy, and generally didn't allow any food or drink inside at all.

Then two things changed. The Great Depression hit, and sound came to the movies. Because audiences needed to hear dialogue, the neighborhood theatres became less rowdy; because they needed to keep the doors open, movie palaces began to welcome a broader spectrum of audiences. Those businesses also softened their resistance to concessions — and since popcorn was affordable, even in the midst of the Great Depression, it was a hit.

As the movie business evolved throughout the 1930s, popcorn became more and more closely tied to the movies. A Kansas City widow built a significant popcorn empire with stands in or around several theatres. Some theatre managers began to realize that vendors selling concessions out on the street were earning money that could go into the theatre's coffers instead. So they partnered and/or competed with those vendors, setting up popcorn machines in theatre lobbies. By the end of the decade, the movie business was booming, and popcorn was inexorably linked with flickering images on the big screen.

Today, popcorn is so much a part of the moviegoing experience that people have widely different approaches to it. Are you a sweet or savory snacker? Buttered or plain? Do you mix in candy, or seek the most nuanced butter layering techniques in order to get the best possible butter coating? No matter your answer, don’t forget that Movie Club members save 20% on concessions — including popcorn!

However you prefer to enjoy your own popcorn, we hope you'll come to celebrate National Popcorn Day with us.


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