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How Did Popcorn Become the Essential Movie Snack?

1/4/2022 • 3 min read

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. 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 making and eating popcorn, and now we want to give you the ultimate snack.

The History of Popcorn at the Movies

How Did Popcorn Become the Essential Movie Snack? Section2Image

Popcorn is the very kernel of the moviegoing experience. (Pun intended.) But why? The story of how that came to be is rooted in the very early days of movie theatres. Popcorn had been super-popular in the United States since the mid-1800s when it became a fixture of fairs and carnivals. Popcorn was cheap, delicious, smelled great (and therefore would attract customers from a distance), and portable.

Getting into movie theatres, however, took some work.

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 the 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? At Cinemark, we offer Cheddar, Kettle, Cheetos, and Hot Cheetos flavors to spice up your snack.

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


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