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SUMMER SNEAKS : Cater Your Own Movie : Bottom-line marketing is forcing theater owners to cut costs and explore ways of avoiding what customers hate most: waiting in line for popcorn, candy and soft drinks

May 16, 1993|ROBIN RAUZI | Robin Rauzi is a free-lance writer.

You can't please all of the people all of the time.

God knows movie theaters tried. They offered us pizza, soft pretzels, hot dogs, nachos, espresso . . . and for the crowded and hot summer season, even ice cream and frozen yogurt.

But in the end, they had to face the numbers: 80% of the people buying concessions at the movie theater wanted popcorn or soda, and most of the rest wanted candy. In recessionary times, the bottom line is the bottom line. Rather than tempting us with cappuccino and cheesecake, movie theaters are eliminating low-selling items and unnecessary labor.

This means that in the not-so-distant future, "interactive movies" will mean pouring your own drinks, bagging your own popcorn and scooping your own candy.

The goal of this interactive game, put bluntly, is to move 'em in, move 'em out and get 'em to pay $3 for a soda before they sit down. Sounds heartless, perhaps, but popcorn and soda are a theater's bread and butter. Movie-goers, on average, spend $1.25-$1.50 at the concession stand. In 1992, 964 million people went to the movies in 1992, making concessions a $1.2 billion-$1.4 billion industry. And since a high percentage of the box-office take goes back to the film distributors, concessions are often the only thing that keeps a theater out of the red.

The AMC chain, for example, is installing self-serve areas it calls "PowerStands," already open in theaters in Burbank, Montebello and Long Beach.

It's sort of a mini-cafeteria. Customers enter on the sides, pick up soda or popcorn cups and fill them fast-food style at panels in the wall. At the Burbank AMC 14, patrons can also pick up hot dogs and nachos.

Wally Helton, director of operations services for AMC, said PowerStands really benefit the moviegoer. They're faster. If you don't want ice in your drink, that's under your control. If you want extra butter, ditto. But even he acknowledges that they're primarily a way to cut costs.

"The reason we're going with this now is it's definitely a labor saver," Helton said. "And we're not breaking any new ground. You go to McDonald's or Subway, you're pretty much getting your own drinks anyway."

Many AMC theaters, like those in Burbank, have dropped pizza, pretzels and ice cream. Coffee--which started as a service to chilled customers in colder climates--will stay around, but the gourmet cafes probably won't be expanded.

"We tried to be all things to all people and found we really can't do that," Helton said. Instead, AMC is trying to eliminate what all people hate: standing in line.

The PowerStands are part of that effort, keeping about 25% of patrons away from the main concession counter. Then at the counter, Helton said, "what we're trying to hone in on is the station concept, where everything is within two or three steps of the server."

Time is of the essence here, he said. Managers train servers to fetch orders in the most efficient manner (put the soda cup under the automated dispenser, then get the popcorn . . .) and sometimes brandish stopwatches to test their squad. Servers are taught to "sell-up," push the large drink, which has twice as much soda as a medium and costs only 25 cents more. AMC sponsors sales contests between theaters. The average transaction takes about 60 seconds.

People don't want to stand in lines--especially since most of them arrive only a few minutes before the film rolls. So you've got to get them while the getting's good. Once a moviegoer settles into a seat, the game's over. Only about 3% of people will ever get up and return to the counter for something to eat or drink, Helton said.

"Now, if we could just train the people to get here a half-hour early . . .," he lamented. "We're not like McDonald's, which has lunch and dinner. Every time there's a show break, we're packed."

Who's to blame for this self-serve revolution? Helton said it's Coca-Cola, which developed the self-serve soda machines.

Bob Bertini, a spokesman for Coca-Cola, said its product has been available in theaters since 1947, when New York's Roxy Theater held a grand opening for its Coca-Cola counter. Only in the last few years has the self-serve idea started to take off. Bertini said it's even too soon to call it a trend.

(Hard to believe there was a time before Coca-Cola in theaters. But truth be known, there was a time before concessions. The Fox Detroit Theater started selling candy in 1933, thus ushering in higher profits and sticky floors.)

Today a Coke at the theater could cost you up to $3, enough to buy a six-pack at any convenience store. Phyllis C. Richman of the Washington Post investigated the popcorn markup a few years ago, and determined that all the kernels used in a large bucket, at retail prices, cost about 13 cents.

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