Hold the popcorn: Movie theaters struggle with restriction on concession sales

Without revenue from popcorn and candy, theaters question if it's even worth opening

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Movie theaters and popcorn go hand in hand; even if a movie is bad, the popcorn is usually pretty good.

But popcorn won't be available to customers when movie theaters are permitted to reopen to the public starting Monday. Nor will any other concessions be allowed to be sold or consumed at theaters under the new guidelines announced Friday by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to help curb the spread of COVID-19.

Popcorn poppers are seen  in the renovated Maple Theater in Bloomfield Twp.

"The key is keeping the mask on," Whitmer said at a press conference Friday announcing the new measures, which also include a 20% capacity limit and 6-foot distancing between parties.

It's an open secret that movie theaters are in the concession business; the movies themselves are mostly a vehicle to sell overpriced popcorn, candy and soda to customers. And theater owners are questioning whether it's even worth opening their doors under the new restrictions. 

"It's not economically viable for us to be open without concession sales," Paula Guthat, co-owner of Midtown's two-screen independent movie house Cinema Detroit, said Friday. "We’re not able to be open because we wouldn’t be able to cover our costs without that income. It would make more sense for the theaters to be completely closed."

Ruth Daniels, managing partner at the Maple Theater in Bloomfield Township, agrees. "I think we're gonna wait," Daniels said Friday. 

Other Metro Detroit theater owners are scrambling to figure out a plan to open but are questioning the sustainability of opening under such constraints. Some industry estimates say theaters earn up to 85 percent of their revenue through concession sales, and their overhead costs are too high to open without them. 

Also in question is the viability of the snack-less experience for customers.

"Popcorn and pop is synonymous with moviegoing," says Rick Zoellner, a frequent moviegoer who lives in Madison Heights. He said he wouldn't let the lack of concessions deter him from seeing something he wanted to see, "but I do think it's 100% part of the experience of going to the movies."  

Friday's announcement comes as yet another setback for the movie theater industry, which has been shuttered for the majority of 2020 as the pandemic has surged across the country. With theaters out of the picture, blockbusters packed up and shifted their release dates to 2021, leaving the year's release calendar a barren wasteland.

When Michigan screens were able to reopen in October, they showed holdovers from summer and favorites from yesteryear, as small crowds and a still-wary public forced theaters to limit their hours and remain closed several days a week. As COVID cases saw another uptick, theaters were ordered closed again in mid-November.  

Earlier this month it was announced that Warner Brothers would bring its entire 2021 theatrical slate to its streaming platform HBO Max the same day the films are released in theaters, the latest power play in the streaming wars that are changing how and where people watch movies. 

Given all that, Cinema Detroit's Guthat is still hopeful for the future. 

"It's going to take time," she says, for people to get vaccinated and for theaters to reopen properly. "But I'm looking forward to it." 

And when it happens, she'll have the popcorn ready.