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Movie Theaters, Ethics, and Snacks: Should You Bring Food To Movies?

The question is inspired by comments to my guest post at Free From Broke: 4 Ways to Enjoy The Movie Experience, in which I talk about the methods I use to keep my movie expenses down so that I can continue to enjoy movies on a budget.

Going to movie theaters is expensive. Ticket prices have gone up to the double digits. I have several ways to minimize movie expenses – one of the ways is to avoid concession stands, whose prices are usually marked up several hundred-fold. I frequently don’t eat anything during movies, but sometimes I’ll bring bottled waters and food (snacks such as oranges, pears, dried fruit) in the theaters for extra long movies.

But one commenter on the 4 Ways to Enjoy The Movie Experience got me thinking on the ethics of bringing food into theaters. Is it unethical to bring in my own snacks when the movie theaters usually say “no outside food or drinks”? I have no problem bringing in water – in fact, any place that won’t let me bring my own water (unless the prohibition is for safety purposes), is not a business I want to support.

Bringing food into movie theaters, however, is a stickier proposition. When I bring my own snacks into movie theaters, it’s for both health and budget reasons (did you know that one bucket of medium popcorn has anywhere from 600 to 1,200 calories?!), and I don’t bring any food that movie theaters sell. So while I might sneak in a small bag of orange slices, I won’t be bringing in my own popcorn, Coca-cola, or salted pretzels.

But maybe I’m just rationalizing my behavior. What do you think?

Do you bring food inside movie theaters? Is it ethical? Do you think it’s wrong but still do it?

image source: calorielab.com

  • Laura - I've brought in some of my own snacks… nothing major though. Really I try to just eat before or after! Ethically speaking…it is really ethical to charge more than $10 for a medium soda and a median popcorn?! ReplyCancel

  • Little House - I don't think it's wrong. For one, the food options in the movie theater are really unhealthy. Some people also have food allergies and wouldn't be able to eat anything the concession offers. Two, they reason they "prohibit" bringing in your own food isn't for health reasons, it's for monetary ones. Their overpriced snacks are a ripoff and they should feel horrible for charging 5000% profit on a Snickers bar. So keep sneaking in your healthy snacks, it's not hurting their profit margin. ReplyCancel

  • Caity@Penny Couture - Where I live, tickets cost $10 at the "normal" theater, a 30 screen cineplex.. The theater is packed, so I have no guilt bringing in my own water or going without. I usually slip a snack into my purse — and then throw away all my trash so as not to increase costs of cleanup.

    In comparison, my grandpa's small hometown, the local theater (a nonprofit, national historical register building) has movie to try to generate a little income with $5 tickets. When I go to the little theater, I'd feel bad bringing something in. Last summer, there were about 10 people seeing Transformers about a week after it opened, so there's isn't a lot of profit after paying a teen to sell tickets, run the movie, clean up. I'd feel much more guilty about bringing in food there, although the people are much more friendly and less likely to mind! ReplyCancel

  • Jasmine - I bring my own food into movies all the time. I have absolutely no problem with it. If they sold the stuff at more reasonable prices I would buy it there. The actual ticket price is expensive enough but the markup on food is astronomical. I cannot bring myself to buy candy that is marked up at least 300% more than the place across the street, it's almost criminal! Lots of times I go and get a drink and candy for less than two dollars right before entering the the theater. I try to always pick up after myself because it's terrible how much stuff people leave laying around when there's a garbage can right by the door. That takes extra unneccessary time/energy by staff that then translates to higher costs.

    There was one time I needed to eat at the movies and was paying attention to the offerings, I was shocked to read I only had a choice between a hot dog and nachos. Talk about limited options!
    ReplyCancel

  • Money Reasons - At big full price theaters, I don't mind bringing in a drink and food (it's hard for a guy to sneak them in, unless it's winter).

    But at the $1.50 local theaters in our area, I usually do buy a tub of popcorn for the kids and a drinks. The cost of the food and drinks compensates the theater for the cheap tickets, and partaking in the theater amenities feels a bit norman rockwell-ish to me… and I like that! :)

    Hopefully the kids will remember these time, but most likely not :) ReplyCancel

    • Bucksome - The kids will remember. My 20-something sons remember fondly our trips to the movies (at a $1 theatre) where we'd spend the afternoon seeing two movies and having popcorn and soda. ReplyCancel

  • FFB - I can see the ethical dilemma but its not illegal. If theaters made their prices more reasonable and their choices healthier I would have no problem buying there (though I still do). ReplyCancel

  • L.A. Daze - I bring my own food since I don't want to waste money and my calories on eating that junk they sell at the concession stand. I also bring my own water in a Sigg bottle. It all fits into my purse so nobody can really stop me.

    I don't think it's wrong to bring your own food :) ReplyCancel

  • Angela - I have taken in everything from candy to a Venti Strawberry Frappucino to Graeter's ice cream. My feeling is that the prices are so outrageous, I don't have to honor it. And it all fits into my purse.
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    • WellHeeled - Wow ice cream? That's an adventurous choice. Fresh fruit is about as perishable as I get. ;) ReplyCancel

  • Savings - I know it's so expensive, because theaters really don't make money on the movie… only on the food. Still, I think it's a complete rip off (4-5 dollars for water!?), so most of the time, I bring my own snacks, but I am discrete about it. I do have friends who bring in meals… burritos from chipotle and such. That's just rude (smelly) and a tad unreasonable. ReplyCancel

  • Jin6655321 - I'm pretty disappointed in the responses so far.

    I'm not trying to sound high and mighty, troll-ish, or rude but… We all know the reason concession prices are so high is because theaters do not make much money off the ticket prices. The amount theaters have to pay to the movie company are pro-rated so the first two weeks, the weeks where most people want to see the movie, most of the ticket prices are going to screening fees (or whatever you call it).

    If concession sales goes down then they're just going to raise the ticket prices.

    I honestly do not under this, "Yes, let's stick it to the theater for daring to over charge us for popcorn!" They are just trying to stay in business. Honestly, I feel like it's the equivalent of not tipping/under tipping a waiter/waitress because you feel your meal was overpriced. You enjoyed the food, you enjoyed the service and the ambiance, you knew what the meal was going to cost when you ordered. You shouldn't screw over the waiter to cut cost. it's the same with theaters. You still watched the movie, you enjoyed the service and ambiance. You knew how much the tickets were going to cost. You shouldn't screw over the theater to cut cost.

    I'm not saying everyone should feel obligated to purchase over priced pop corn, I'm just saying you shouldn't feel entitled to bring your own food.ReplyCancel

    • lindaroony - I agree with you.

      Last night, I went to see Harry Potter at the regular theatre—something I rarely do. I decided to sneak in some chex mix in my purse. However, I felt quite guilty as I nibbled on my goodies. This rendevouz with my conscience motivated me work out this ethical question in my head….

      Your analogy about tipping waiters makes sense. Businesses do have to stay afloat…and the truth is that money matters.

      Also, businesses should be allowed to set their own customs and policies (within reason). That's part of having a free market full of private businesses. If we're really upset about concession prices, as consumers, we have power by choosing whether or not we go to a certain theatres. We do not, however, have the power to just override other's policies or laws if there is no real ethical benefit. ReplyCancel

    • Bobke - I suppose I am screwing over the hot dog sellers at the ballpark when I don't buy their $10 hot dogs. You can't bring your own food into the ballpark because they check your bags and enforce their policies by making you hand over illicit items. But that doesn't leave you with a moral obligation to buy their overpriced weeners! I paid for the ballgame, I get a ballgame. I didn't pay for the hot dogs, I don't get hot dogs. Two separate things. ReplyCancel

  • Bucksome - I didn't even realize that first article was yours and it's included in today's weekly roundup.

    Like the other commenters, I don't see anything wrong with bringing your own snacks. If I want candy, I buy it at the dollar store beforehand. We typically buy one soda and one popcorn that comes with free refills and share. The concessions add up to about the same cost as our two tickets (matinee). ReplyCancel

  • Hedy - I bring my own sometimes. It falls into the land of skills I learned at my parents' knee-I remember once asking my mom why were bringing our own snacks. She replied that movie snacks were over priced, and everyone, including most likely Ross Perot, did it. ReplyCancel

  • Eric - I am also in the camp that it is not a big deal to bring snacks. When I am paying $8 to $15 per ticket (depending on the day and time at the theater across from where I live), I have no qualms bringing in my own drink and snack.

    The only place I would feel bad is at the "cheap theaters" that charge $2 for old movies. They make their profits from pop and popcorn, so I usually buy my snacks there, if I want one at all. ReplyCancel

  • Mike - It costs $17.50 to watch Avatar and $13 to watch anything else in New York City.

    I don't feel bad about anything. Hahaha.

    Just kidding – well half kidding.

    I wouldn't think twice about sneaking in something that the theater doesn't sell like water, a piece of fruit, etc. but I probably wouldn't sneak in a bag of chips or soda.

    For me, it's not an ethical question but just a nutritional one. ReplyCancel

    • WellHeeled - I'm with you on that – I feel less bad when I bring in fruit or munchies that the theater doesn't sell. And $13?! If you go to AMC or Regal theaters, buy Costco's movie ticket packs. Even though there's a surcharge of $1.50 to $2 on Manhattan movie theaters, the total ticket price still comes out in your favor ($7.50 per ticket + $2 surcharge = $9.50 per ticket). ReplyCancel

  • Kathleen - I don't see a problem taking food into a movie theater, but I also don't blame the theaters for charging the prices they do. It's hardly "criminal" to charge $5 for a bag of Sour Patch Kids, and the theaters shouldn't "feel horrible" about their pricing. It's business. Those who are willing to pay will. Those who aren't willing to pay – like me – won't. Popcorn pricing hardly has a moral component. ReplyCancel

  • Kate Ashford - Like many of the posters here, I sneak healthier options into the theater, like a bag of Smart Pop popcorn that has 200 calories, vs. 1000 in movie theater popcorn. I also sometimes bring a can of caffeine free diet soda (like Sprite Zero or diet root beer), because if I don't want a sugary soda or water, there are no other caffeine-free options. When I was pregnant, I definitely brought food with me, because I was always hungry, but I was trying not to eat junk food. ReplyCancel

    • WellHeeled - I think movie theaters should expand their concession offerings to include healthier snacks, but beyond that, kettle korn. I love kettle korn so much more than popcorn, and while I can resist popcorn, I'm pretty sure the minute a theater sells kettle korn is the minute I'll be out $8. ReplyCancel

  • SeeJaneGetRich.com - I bring in foods because the concession stand doesn't have any healthy snacks. I think it is unethical to bring in something that they already sell. It is a business afterall, to bring in the same thing would be completely disrespectful and unethical. ReplyCancel

  • Investing Newbie - Technically, no, you shouldn't be bring your own food to the movies. However, since it isn't illegal and we are just talking about a moral dilemna then, I don't think it will take much for people to start bringing in their own food.

    The idea behind concession stands is actually price discrimination. It's the same reason why food is expensive at airports or amusement parks: you are human. You will get hungry. We have food. But how badly do you want it? Are you willing to eat before the movie and then get the sleepies? Or are you willing to starve during the movie?

    I've brought everything from my own popcorn to an entire CHIPOTLE meal (complete with chips and dip) to the movies. I don't feel bad about it because I totally enjoyed the movie more. LOL. ReplyCancel

    • WellHeeled - A Chiptole meal?! Hahah I'd worry about it smelling up the theater, but I suppose nachos aren't much better. ReplyCancel

  • gingercorsair - I mostly bring my own food to the theatres and I don't feel bad about it at all. I'm paying a ridiculous price to see a film at a giant chain, so they don't have to charge such high prices just to cover the cost of the film.

    I also don't like popcorn and the drinks that are offered, so it works out. Perhaps if they offered better choices and had better service I would be more likely to purchase something.

    If I'm going to a small mom & pop place, I will either abstain from eating, or purchase something small. I feel differently about large corporate chains vs. small independent businesses. ReplyCancel

  • Kathleen - Growing up, my parents would smuggle in their own popcorn and drinks to movie theaters. I was always embarrassed by this, which might explain why I always buy my food and drinks at the concession stand even though it pains me to do so. If I ever were to go on a much stricter budget in the future, I would not be opposed to bringing in my own food (or skipping the movies all together).

    However, my b/f has a friend who is a vegan and he always brings in his own food/drinks; in his case, I think this is perfectly acceptable as I'm sure a lot of the food at the concession stand would not fulfill his dietary restrictions. ReplyCancel

  • Ronnie - I go back and forth. Sometimes I'll smuggle food in, sometimes I'll buy. I always go to the movies with a coupon so I don't mind spending at the concession, cuz lord knows I don't smuggle in healthy stuff!

    And quite frankly, I'm not worried about the "concession recession" at all. I don't want the stupidly large "medium sized" popcorn because I'll waste it, and they don't serve gingerale, which is my drink of choice. And if I can smuggle in 50-cent m&ms instead of paying $2.50 for them, well, so be it. ReplyCancel

  • Tella - I bring in my own snacks. And when I'm with the kids, box drinks, home popped popcorn and fruit. I don't feel bad at all! ReplyCancel

  • Amy - I am very much in support of bringing your own snacks to the movies. It isn't only that they charge so much, it's that they charge so much for items you can buy 50%-75% cheaper down the street! When we were kids, part of the 'going to the movies' experience was my mom taking us to the drug store first to get a (cheaper) snack, or packing something from home (juice boxes, crackers, etc). And now that I'm older and health-conscious, I prefer to bring my own water and a granola bar/piece of fruit rather than load up on calorie-laden snack bar food that will just make me feel gross later. ReplyCancel

  • Carolyn - I rarely go to traditional movie theaters anymore, but when I do, I def. bring my own water and usually a snack. Once my friend and I brought Chik Fil A… that’s probably no bueno. Luckily for me, in Austin we have a place called Alamo Drafthouse that serves food that is cheap and delicious and can be healthy. Yay!
    .-= Carolyn´s last blog ..Le Weekend! =-.ReplyCancel

  • Kim - I always bring my own water bottle, and usually cookies or candy as well. I sometimes splurge on a small popcorn, because sometimes a girl needs her movie theatre popcorn…but ever since they started posting the calories (and since prices are so high anyway), I'm more hesitant to splurge. ReplyCancel

    • WellHeeled - I wish concessions sold kettle korn. It can't be that difficult to add a kettle korn popper next to the popcorn popper, right? ReplyCancel

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  • Weekend Links - Amateur Asset Allocator - [...] Should You Bring Your Own Snacks To Movies? by Well-Heeled Blog.  My feeling is no, you shouldn’t.  Theaters make very little money on movie tickets.  Instead, they rely on concession sales to pay the bills (including their employees’ paychecks).  If theater owners lowered their concession prices, they would have no choice but to raise their ticket prices dramatically, which would create a negative ripple effect throughout the entire film industry.  No bueno. [...]ReplyCancel

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  • bestworkingmom - My family and I love the movie experience but hate the price. If we see a movie and buy snacks it costs us close to $60. We do this often enough to not feel guilty when the occation arises when we must be a little more frugal. I have been known to take my own snacks and drinks. Some are the same as provided by the theater and some are not. I do try and be covert but do not feel guilty. My main two reasons for bringing my own: 1. I cannot always afford the concession prices but like to snack during long movies. 2. I never get a stomach ache after bringing my own food but hardly ever feel well after eating theater food.
    If theaters provided healther snack options I may be less inclined to pack my own. ReplyCancel

  • birthday banners - i think that if cinemas dont want you to bring your own food and drink that they should lower there prices a little, as a regulaer pepsi can cost more than a cheap pair of shoes. ReplyCancel

  • slh - I have to bring my own food. I have kidney problems so I have alot of food restrictions…I also bring a doctors note.:) ReplyCancel

  • Shawna - I have kidney problems so I have to bring my own food. I cant have any preservitive or food additives..Plus I bring a doctors note. ReplyCancel

  • Patrick - I love sneaking in burritos… wrapped up well they are good pocket foods. But I tried going to the movies last night with only my water bottle and they refused me entry due to this water bottle. I spoke to the manager and the manager's manager, and they all said no. In 33 years of going to movies this has never happened before. I promptly asked for a refund and left. I will never go to a movie at that theatre again (the only big one in my town) until I can get their policy changed. Suggestions? ReplyCancel

  • Plan on taking a date to the movie, empty your bank account first « jasminebenns - [...] Limiting food from entering a movie theater forces viewers to either buy food that is sometimes three and four times the regular price or watch their movie snack-less. After factoring drinks, food and tickets, this leaves a sour taste in consumer’s mouth with the whole movie experience totaling anywhere between 25-35 dollars for ONE adult [...]ReplyCancel

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  • charlie mammoth - one time i was hungry but wanted to go with my friends so i put pasta in a bag and ate it out of it with a plastic fork and had garlic bread in anothr bag the theatre smelt like pasta when i left l. ReplyCancel

  • Still.... - Buying 9 large cokes from the movies can cost you more than a pair of nikes or jordans so no I’ll keep sneaking food in. ReplyCancel

  • Floofy - When they start selling snacks I can eat, I'll buy them. I still buy their overpriced bottled water because I don't bring an oversized purse and I do think they deserve some money. The last time I saw a movie, they wanted $4 for offbrand bottled water. Now, I don't really care what brand my water is, but I found it in poor taste. I bring in my own little snack baggy of dried fruit and nuts and no, I don't feel bad about it. I can't eat their nasty popcorn. I can't eat their candy. I can't eat their nachos. What else do they sell for someone with allergies? Jack shit, that's what. There was one nicer theater I went to that sold frozen bananas and I bought one of those. I didn't even care(or remember) the price for it. I was just relieved to see a new option. Years ago I just used to eat dinner before going to the theaters, but now I have to carry emergency snacks with me for my medication. If they searched my purse for that and took action, I'd be done with overpriced movies for good. :( ReplyCancel

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