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Pop the Corn Bubble Burst
March 31, 2010 — 7:45 pm

When first I saw the headline “Israeli MP plans ‘popcorn law’ for movie munchers’,” I was sure the corresponding article would have something to do with either taxing or banning popcorn at movie theaters because of supposed health concerns.

It turns out, the reason given was much less nuanced and rather refreshingly honest:

Carmel Shama, from the governing Likud party, plans to bring the “popcorn law” for a vote when parliament returns from its Passover break next week, the mass-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper reported Wednesday.

“We have to put an end to this. The public should not have to mortgage their houses for a soft drink and a snack,” Shama told the paper.

A large box of popcorn usually sells for about five dollars (four euros) at theatre concession stands, more than double what it costs at a supermarket and 10 times more than it would cost to make at home.

When I say “refreshingly honest,” I mean that there are no hidden overtones here. Carmel Shama doesn’t appear to be overly concerned with health. This doesn’t appear to be a redistribution scheme, where the proceeds from taxed popcorn would go into some government coffer. This is pure, straight-up theft.

This does raise an interesting question, however. Why is popcorn so expensive at the movie theater?

Economist Steven Landsburg isn’t so sure that it is. In chapter 16 (aptly named, “Why Popcorn Costs More at Movies”) of his book, The Armchair Economist, Steven Landsburg goes through a number of explanations for why the price of popcorn is as expensive as it is. The reasons may surprise you.

Intuitively, we would guess that the price of popcorn is high because once we enter the theater, we are a captive audience. They have, in effect, a monopoly on popcorn, since most theaters won’t allow outside food onto their premises. But, as Mr. Landsburg points out, at that point, the theater has a monopoly on pretty much everything within the sphere of its influence. There are no other restrooms, for example, other than those provided. There are no other drinking fountains or front row seats, etc… And yet, all of these conveniences come gratis with the ticket price. The reason for this is easy enough. Any ancillary charges once inside the theater would make said theater less attractive to customers. In order not to lose those customers, the theater would have to charge less for the ticket price. In essence, it’s a wash.

And so it may be for popcorn, as well. We pay higher prices for popcorn in order to pay lower prices for our tickets. But, in order to make prices attractive to all (popcorn munchers and popcorn abstainers alike), a happy medium must be found. This may be a matter of one part of the theater subsidizing another. Not everyone, after all, partakes in popcorn. They are only paying for the ticket to the movie and are therefore taking advantage of those who buy popcorn at a higher price point so ticket prices can economically be lower.

Another theory put forth by Mr. Landsburg suggests that since most movie goers go to movies in groups, it follows that some of them will want popcorn and some won’t. If a theater offers low popcorn prices and high ticket prices, those that don’t eat popcorn may not want to go. The same follows, visa-versa. The trick is to get both the popcorn and the ticket prices to a level both groups can agree upon.

This is economic theory backed up by the very theater owners that would be affected by such a law:

Yaacov Cohen, the owner of one of Israel’s largest theatre complexes, said owners made virtually no profit from ticket sales and would be hard pressed to survive if food sales were limited.

“It would destroy the entire industry,” he told Yediot.

Also, as a parting shot, it bears remembrance that those who trade $5 for a medium popcorn value the popcorn more than they do the $5. Even if said bags of popcorn sold at $100 per, the same holds true. And although the New Paternalists may have something to say about that (waiting periods for high-cost items, etc…), it is still a voluntary exchange, of nobody’s business but the two parties involved.

One last unintended consequence. Carmel Shama may well succeed in making high popcorn prices illegal. If so, people will no longer have to worry about mortgaging “their houses for a soft drink and a snack”. They’ll be doing that just to buy a ticket. Either that, or a whole lot of movie theaters will be going under.

[Cross-posted at The Lesson Applied.]

— Justin M. StoddardComments (1)

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1 Comment
  1. […] at Shrubbloggers.] Filed under: Economic Theory and Market Efficiency and Nanny State and Unintended Consequences […]

    Pingback by The Lesson Applied » Pop the Corn Bubble Burst — April 4, 2011 @ 9:49 pm

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