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August 26, 2008


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Personally, I've got no problem with it but since I love movie theater popcorn I usually buy it there anyway. We almost always bring a bottle of water/soda and a bag of candy with us.

I can already see which way the voting will go on this one. ;-)

I don't think "ethical" is the right term. Perhaps "economical" or "appropriate" would be better.

I don't really think it's ethical to charge $7 for what probably equates to about $1 of popcorn.

As someone once said, if you have to ask, then it probably isn't because it is your conscience telling you it's wrong.

If you really analyze it, the movie theater is there to sell movies. Selling treats is a side business. Is it unethical, I don't think so. Is it unethical to bring food into an amusement park? People do that all the time because the food is just too expensive. It is the same at movie theaters. Just because they post a sign saying no outside food or drink doesn't make them right either. They are a public business and I just don't see how they can dictate something like that. If they started searching people as they come in the door, I would have to boycott movie theaters forever.

Personally, I do it too because I just can't justify paying $4.50 for a box of Hot Tamales when it costs $.99 at Target. That, my friends, is true highway robbery.

Also, I personally don't need to see a movie at a movie theater. I can wait until it comes out on Blu-Ray, rent it, and watch it on my 46 inch high def LCD TV at home. I get just as much enjoyment without all of the loud talking around me. Plus, I can rent it for a third of the cost of a movie.

Concession stands charge $7 for what probably equates to about $1 of popcorn because the concession stand is where the theater covers most of its operating costs. Very little revenue for theaters comes from ticket sales, as most of that money goes back to the studios.

CNN Money has an article discussing the basics, it's a few years old, but the same practices are in effect.

If nobody bought at the concession stand, there would be no movie theater.

When it's just me and my wife, we tend to sneak stuff in. But, when my kids are going with us, we don't sneak things in. The movie theaters don't allow people to bring their own food in and I don't want my kids getting an example from Dad that it's ok to break the rules just because the theater charges too much. So, when we just go with our kids to the movies for regular occasions, we really don't buy movie food. But, when the kids are going to the movies for a reward, we tend to get popcorn, etc.

I'm with the commenter above who says that their main business is to sell movies, and snacks are just a sideline service. You can't bring food into a restaurant because the whole point of a restaurant is to sell food. But people bring food to sporting events, parks, meetings, etc, so why not to the movies? It's sleazy of the theaters to try to prevent it. And if you don't want to break the rules, why not try not eating for 2 hours? You won't starve to death!

If the movie theaters wouldn't try to rob you blind with a $5.00 fountain drink or a $5.00 box of candy I wouldn't bother with sneaking in food. A family of four would have to pay $32.00 to get in to the movie, $20.00 for drinks and $16.00 for each to have a $4.00 treat, totalling $64.00 that is ridiculous!

I already feel like I'm being robbed by the $32.00 admission, which is the main reason I wait until they are out on dvd, it's not like the ending changes when you rent it. the entire experience from home costs only $2.75 per movie and all the refreshments I want plus I get to pause for bathroom breaks big plus in my corner!

Saying movie theaters are in business to sell movies is like saying McDonalds is in the business of selling hamburgers. Movie theaters are in the business to make money. They attract you to their seats with a blockbuster movie (which they pay royalties, etc on) they then hope to sell you at the concession stand. That is actually where their real money is made.

yes the popcorn costs them very little. But, you have to remember that they also pay for huge rent, payroll, utilities, marketing, insurance, etc. etc. The markup on popcorn may be higher than average because it's a low ticket item (compared to cars, big screen tvs, etc). It would take a lot of $2 popcorn and cokes to pay for operations.

BTW, McDonalds is in the real estate business - not hamburgers in case you were wondering.

P.S. If you have the mindset that you don't want your kids to learn to do it then it's probably wrong - don't you think?

I don't think I would say it's "unethical", but it is questionable. I'd put it in the same category as downloading/sharing copyrighted videos or music.

Movie theatres are private businesses, and part of their business model is to sell pricey concessions. If the theatre has a "no outside food/drink" policy, that's their choice (not all do, by the way). If you don't want to abide by those rules, go elsewhere or wait for Kung Fu Panda to come out on DVD.

And yes, the markups on movie food are excessive, but that's business. Virtually every retailer makes money by selling you things at more than it costs them to produce. If you think they're charging too much, don't buy it.

Aw man... now I'm craving movie popcorn! :)

I mean... I've always understood that movie theaters survive off of concessions, much like a gas station survives off of items sold inside the station store.

I think the appropriate behavior is to go to the theater in a condition in which you won't get hungry during the show and therefore won't be likely to decide that the popcorn brings you 7 dollars worth of utility... If you get thirsty, get the smallest cup of water so that you don't drink so much you have to pee multiple times and still save money.

The most economical way is to just get it on DVD and have your whole house of food to raid.

But if you don't get caught, you're not breaking rules... haha

I personally don't think it's unethical. I can understand banning items for safety reasons, but not allowing it to force you to buy their higher priced items is a questionable practice, too.

Lawyer --

I believe copying music/DVDs is illegal (copyright law.) Bringing popcorn into a theater -- though questionable as we're discussing -- isn't illegal.

Just wanted to point out the difference since it is clearly a matter of law.

I've had this debate with friends, and half say it's a normal thing to do, and half think we're crazy (I'm on the side that sneaks it in because I'm not paying $5 for a 16oz soda and $4.50 for a candy bar.)

But they brought up an interesting debate...would you sneak beer into a bar? I know it's not an apples to apples comparison, but it was an interesting counterpoint.

Most of the comments seem to be saying "no, it's not unethical because theater food costs too much" as if ethical or unethical behaviour is relative to the price tag of something.

I say it is unethical. Before you go into that theater, you know they do not allow outside food and drink. By buying that ticket and sitting in that theater, there is an implied agreement between the business and the moviegoer; the business will provide a movie and the moviegoer will abide by the rules of the establishment. The business won't sell you a ticket for "Dark Knight" in IMAX and show you "SpongeBob SquarePants" in Mono and you won't talk on your cell phone, will reign in unruly kids, not set the curtains on fire, not smoke or drink booze and not bring in outside food or drinks.

I say the question should be "Is it ethical to break an implied agreement? Is it ethical to break your word, so to speak?"

This is not to say that I don't think concession prices are outrageous, but I either pay the price or go without. I do not break my word, implied or otherwise.

FMF, downloading is a copyright infringement, but generally not a criminal offence. Infringement is a private wrong, much like a breach of contract, or trespass... or failing to abide by a private theatre's terms of entry.

First, let me say that this is such a trivial, minor thing that I'd consider it 'no big deal' along the lines of speeding 5 mph over the limit or downloading a single MP3 without paying. If this is the worst thing you've done lately then you're doing better than most of us.

I would say that *technically* this is unethical.

You are breaking the rules set by the establishment. Its their business so they get to make the rules, if you dislike the rules then don't go there or simply do without food during the film. Sales of snacks at movies are how theaters make the bulk of their profits. The fact that you are smuggling the food into the theater means you are actively deceiving the business. That point right there is a big sign that its unethical behavior. If you have to hide it then you're probably doing something wrong. To me this all adds up to technically unethical behavior. However you are not outright stealing from them and worst case they would kick you out of the theater. I'm sure you're not breaking any laws.

Some food for thought: I'd be concerned with what kind of example this would set for children. If children see this rule being broken then they will be taught that its ok to break some rules. But do they have enough maturity to know which rules are ok to break and which are not?

This is not a black / white issue really and I'm sure many people will not see it as unethical. I admittedly am taking a very conservative stance to consider this unethical.

Thats my $.02


Yes it is. This bugs me like it bugs me when you go to a fast food place and ask for water. You get your water cup (no charge) and then go to the fountain and get cola.

Has nobody brought in food out in the open? I've been to many AMC theaters where my friends and I have brought in Chipotle, whole pizzas and two liter sodas and they don't say a word. What are they going to do, tell a customer no? I don't think so. I'd be willing to bet most theaters would let you do this, they just don't advertise it.

Ticket prices for first run theaters here vary greatly from 3.75 (matinee rate in lower income part of town) to 12 (night rate in upscale area). I do not like buying food at theaters because it is outrageously priced and not very nutritious. In the past, I’ve stuck in water, dried fruit (peaches, apricots, dates, and prunes), and chocolate covered raisins.

Back in college, buddy of mine at the time smuggled (with the help of duct tape) an entire case of beer into the theater!

Earlier this year, friend took me to the movies. She ended up paying $40 for movie tickets and food (chips, candy, water, and a soda). Enjoyment level was okay, but going to a park with her for $3 bucks left a bigger impression on me then any time we spent together in that theater. I think every time, I’ve gone out with her we have visited a park and to me those are the best times I have spent with her.

When are you going to ask, "is it okay to buy a ticket for one movie and the see several at the same theater in succession"?

BeesKnees, I was asked to finish my drink before the ticket attendee would take my ticket. I complied.

I go to the theatre so seldom now because of the prices ($9.75 per adult/matinee $8.00) that it is not an issue for me anymore. I wait for DVD. Going to the movies now is a treat, so that treat includes a small diet soda to sip on. My body does not need the calories and I cannot justify paying crazy prices for popcorn, so I don't. I would rather put that money towards a nice meal before or after the movie to really enjoy.

I would say this practice is unethical. It is the same as sitting at Starbucks and using their internet and not buying anything.

If no one bought concessions, then there would not be a theatre for you to enjoy the movie, therefore, the right thing to do is either 1) don't eat while you are there, or 2) buy the stuff they sell.

However, while I do feel it is unethical, it rates pretty low on the scale of seriousness.

I think its unethical for movie theaters to charge so much. My family and I (my parents, my 2 sisters & their boyfriends, my brother and his wife, and me and my boyfriend) go to the movies every Christmas day. This last year, we spent upwards towards $100 on just food. This was not including the tickets ($11 bucks a pop). This is a family tradition we may have to stop soon, as prices keep soaring.

Cory, I live in the Bay Area, and ticket prices are outrageous, with discounts slipping away (student prices, which are still more than I can afford, are only given on Thursdays). Going to the theater has become a rare outing for me. And when I go, I either bring my own food, or don't eat while I'm there. The theaters in my area make a pretty penny off ticket prices. I can understand that maybe a small theater where tickets cost 7 or 8 bucks (I hear in stories there are places like that, where you can sit in a cushy chair, and be surrounded my strangers who talk, and laugh at stupid parts), that they need to up charge their concessions, but in the Bay Area where tickets cost $11 and are only climbing to see a movie in a theater, they are making more than CNN may have showed you.

On the flip side, there is a local drive-in that plays brand new movies, is open all year long, and only charge $6.75 on a normal night, and only $4.50 on Tuesday. You have to pay cash, and if you get food there you'll pay more than in the regular theater, but sneaking food in is easy there. I've even seen people BBQing out there. I guess its good if you don't mind going to the movie a little later in the Summer, and watching a movie through the rain in the winter. :-)

I worked in and managed movie theatres for years, and of course, we had a policy of not allowing outside food and drink. However, I didn't try to shake down ladies with large purses, or even question parkas with bulging pockets which probably contained several cans of soda. I was well aware of how we made our money (movie theatres are glorified candy stands), but I was also aware that families that can't afford our premium-priced candy occasionally wanted to see a movie in the theatre. It didn't bother me a bit if they brought in some of their own candy and pop. Obviously, I would prefer that they throw away the trash, but that wasn't even a big deal to me, since people were such pigs in the theatre. An errant can was far outweighed by the mountains of trash left by paying customers.

I was, however, annoyed with people that didn't even bother to try and hide their outside food. I've had to turn away pizza boxes, McDonald's bags, etc. (Well, not turn them away, but require them to eat their food in the lobby.) It was a bit insulting to my intelligence not even to bother to try and hide the food.

What about your earlier post where you said "As usual, I had a coupon for a free regular popcorn"?

I do it, and I don't think it's that big a deal unless it's obvious. Like a bottle of water and a box of candy is ok. Heck - I usually have that in my purse normally. Bringing in your own popcorn is a little over the edge, like if your purse is steaming from the microwave bag :)

Things like downloading music, seeing 2 movies while paying for 1, are STEALING, so there's no question about whether it's wrong. But bringing in your own food isn't stealing. They don't lose any money on you. Personally, I don't usually buy anything at the concession stand, so whether I bring something in or not, they are getting the same amount of money from me.

Another somewhat related question is: When you are with a group of people and going out for fast food, is it appropriate for 1 person to get food next door and bring it over to eat with their friends at a different restaraunt? Like if everyone wanted McDonalds, but one person wanted taco bell, could they bring it over rather than eating alone?

Is it ethical to charge 200-300% more than what it costs normally

Is it unethical to buy a soda then mix it with bourbon that I sneak in? They don't offer bourbon at my local theater!

Technically, it is unethical if the theater you're going to has a "No outside food or drink" policy. Not a huge deal, maybe, but yes it is unethical. I think charging $5 for candy is outrageous, but 2 wrongs don't make a right.

At the theater we go to (in a very upscale community in the Bay Area) they allow you to bring in whatever you want, so we usually bring our own bottle of water and buy their movie popcorn. We never buy stuff (like candy) that we could get anywhere, but there's just no substitue for movie popcorn!

In the words of the great Steve Martin:

"Is it ethical to yell 'MOVIE!' in a crowded firehouse?"

In this instance I'd say it's unethical. Those exorbitant prices aren't just for the food itself. They're also for cleaning up after it. Target or super markets will happily sell you candy and soda very cheaply knowing that in most cases, you'll take it off the premises to eat it, so the mess isn't their problem. Even if you're full of good intentions not to leave a mess at the theater, stuff happens. If you accidentally spill a can of soda, are YOU going to go fetch the mop and clean it up?

Additionally, in answer to those who say the snack stand is a sideline business, I don't accept that premise at all. It's their main profit center, so in a sense, MOVIES are the sideline business; just a way to get you to hang out for a couple hours so you buy their food.

The solution, from both the ethical and personal finance standpoints is to break the habit of eating at the movies.

Look at how many people rationalize their actions around this - it suggests that a part of them knows what they are doing is in violation of their own ethical standards or they wouldn’t have to justify the action at all. It's insignificant. Prices are too high. The theater does it, so that makes what I do okay. I don't like candy, so I bring my own snacks. Everyone does it so it's okay. It's not harmful (exception given to children witnessing the behaviour.) Nobody has just said "Nah - it's not unethical" (MoneyMonk comes closest to this.)

Nobody is a villian in their own mind, after all. A co-worker of mine nearly caused an accident while coming to work one day. He was speeding and engaging in aggressive driving and after forcing a driver into another lane, was pulled over. He spent the rest of the week complaining that he got a ticket, saying that "the cops should have better things to do than bust him for reckless driving." He was actually offended that he got a ticket for speeding when "the cops should be looking for murderers and other criminals and leave regular people alone". Try to show him that his behaviour was unacceptable and he'd say "but everyone drives that way."

I suppose it all boils down to what your individual ethical standard is. If you believe that agreements that aren't enforced by some means aren't valid and therefore can be ignored, then you'd naturally believe that this would be ethical. If you believe that if you can "get away with it, then it's okay", then you'd also believe it. If you believe that rules are for everyone but you, then yes - this is perfectly acceptable behaviour. If, however, you believe that agreements should be honored, circumventing rules is "cheating" and that as a member of society, perhaps we all should be following rules regarding one another.. then this shouldn't be acceptable behaviour.

Don't get the wrong idea; I'm not some straight-laced, never speed, follow-every-rule-that's-presented-to-me guy, even if I'm taking that side right now. But, I do have a pretty developed set of ethical standards I follow, and I think it would cheapen those standards (and therefore me) if I was to flout one of them on something so minor as breaking the food and drink rules at a theater. Too many people, in my opinion, lessen themselves with these sorts of "minor infractions" to their personal standards without any thought about the matter, ad quod damnum.

Not ethical. If you have to hide it that should be a sign it's not right. However, I've openly carried an outside drink into a theatre before with no comment by the guy taking tickets...I wonder if that is ethical?

And those movie theatres wouldn't be there if they didn't sell $7 popcorn and $5 sodas. That's how they pay their bills, people.

Gas Stations are surviving from what they sell inside???? HUH! Have you seen their profit margins or their financials?

I think it is a supply and demand sort of thing. If people are willing to pay $4 for 16 oz of soda then the movie theaters will continue to charge that. If NO ONE buys that because they feel like they are being gouged and they choose to just watch the movie, then guess what, either concession stands are done or they lower their prices. JUST LIKE GAS! Supply and Demand.

Personally I love the drive in, it is less expensive, you can bring your food in, and it is different!

I don't really like to eat junk when I'm at the cinema, but do you really have to "sneak" it in? Where we go to see films people just head on in with their home-brought sweets and drinks and I've never seen anyone stop them. Which always suggested to me that, while they might have a problem with you bringing in a roast-beef dinner, a bottle of water or something similar isn't an issue with the management.

While a bit off topic, the gas companies make their margins off of refining and selling on, they own very few stations and, they are usually franchised, and those who own and operate the stations have almost no margins on the gas which they sell. Do you know how much is costs them to explore? In the same way that a movie theatre has little margins on a first run movie and has to make it up elsewhere.

We go to the movies so rarely nowadays... but I've always felt that bringing in water or food that you can't GET at the theater is probably OK. Even so, I'd rarely do it.

If you really want to bring your own snacks, why not go to a drive-in theater instead? They'll usually let you bring in whatever you want. And the per-head price is nearly always cheaper, too.

Gas stations really do usually make most of their profits off of food and beverages sold in their shops.

While the oil companies and refiners themselves may make large profits the local gas station is a different matter.



Why do so many commenters think they have some right to go see a movie or eat concessions items for cheap? They aren't forcing you to go see the movie. Seems like this is just another symptom of the pervasive attitude that you can do whatever you want if you think it is ok, rules be damned. If you don't like how much it costs to go to the movies, DON'T GO! If you don't like how much the food costs, DON'T EAT AT THE MOVIE! It is as simple as that. You don't get to pick and choose what rules/laws you follow just because you don't like them. It is a private business, they can set the rules how they want and if you don't agree then you don't have to go. I just don't understand why you think you have some RIGHT to do this.

Nicely said Rod!

shine, it is a private business setting a price for a good/service. You are free to avail yourself of those goods/services at those prices or you could, wait for it, not. Your argument about the prices is just a way to rationalize your loose ethical standards, similar to so many arguments made relating to digital downloading of copyrighted material.

Where in the Constitution or any other set of laws does it talk about our rights to see movies at the theater and get some cheap eats while we are at it?

Implied agreements? Nothing of the kind. When I buy a ticket to a movie, that's all I'm doing. They can refuse my business or ask me to leave, carried food or no. When you park your car at a parking garage and take the ticket, there's a "we disclaim all liabilities" boilerplate on the back. Does anyone actually think writing "we disclaim all liabilities" makes someone immune? People can write whatever they want and hope you agree to them, but a contract it does not make.

I'll make it simpler. Bringing food into a theater has not yet created an ethical problem. Telling someone you'll finish it in the lobby then sneaking it under your coat is lying, and unethical. Having a can of pop in your jacket while walking in is not anything at all. Of course they would prefer you to buy their items, in the same way every business in the world would prefer you to buy their goods or services. But sometimes people make smart decisions with their money.

Finally, for those who thinking hiding the can denotes a lack of ethics, choosing not to get in squabble does not make something unethical. Do I go to McDonalds and tell them I won't be eating at their restaurant because their food quality is so low? Do I go to the theater and tell the concession person I don't buy from them because their prices are so high? For the same reason I don't tell random strangers my political views, I don't go around showing off my financial decisions. "Sneak in" all the food you want.

Yes, It is unethical. Any time you feel you must hide what you're doing or look over your shoulder for fear of being seen, then you are doing something wrong. And especially if it's something you don't want your kids to do, don't do it yourself. Villifying the movie theater doesn't negate your responsibility to do the right thing.

"Any time you feel you must hide what you're doing or look over your shoulder for fear of being seen, then you are doing something wrong."

No, then you are doing something someone who claims power over you says is wrong. The two are not necessarily the same. Extreme example for illustration of the general point only: the people who fed Anne Frank and her family.

I rarely go to see movies at the theater anymore because of their high prices and lack of food choices. I am a type 1 diabetic, and the choices at the concession stands are not on my diet list. The only diet soda choice is cola, and many do not offer water. Movie popcorn is too high in fat, and I am not going to eat candy that will ruin my blood glucose control. None of them offer any sugar-free alternatives, either (of course, there's another thing to make one run to the bathroom!)
Glucose tabs are considered food, and I always carry these with me in case my blood glucose levels get too low. These aren't something anyone would care to "snack" on.
So I do carry my own beverages/snacks in with me if I don't have something to eat beforehand. If that is unethical, then so is the ADA law that states that I have the right to take care of myself anywhere.

The AMC and Regal we regularly go to ALLOW you to bring in outside food. There aren't any big visible signs announcing that, but if you ask, they'll tell you it's okay. We don't hide our food; we just walk in with it in hand.

If we were ever told we couldn't have outside food, we'd definitely put it away, but we've never had that problem.

The only time I was ever told I couldn't have food was at a dollar theater.

Next time you go to the movies, ask someone at customer service for their policy. You might be pleasantly surprised. :)

I brought a BigMac and Fried from McDonald's in.

If they don't like them, I'll simply eat whatever I want at my home theater from then on, see what's losing in the end.

Is it ethical to charge $20 bucks for two tickets (or more), plus another $20 for popcorn and a soda?

Bring in your kitchen. Plus the sink.

The solution to this ethical dilemma is Netflix.

Would it make any difference if the choices were either "not eat" or "bring food in" rather than "eat food there" and "bring food in"? If I don't "sneak" something in (I don't think my theater cares, I don't remember if there is a sign or not) I'm not eating anyways, the theater isn't getting my business at their concession stand either way.

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