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Does popcorn enhance a movie or not?

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Popcorn, nachos, sweets or monkey nuts? Stephen Robb puts them to the test

It's been a cinema staple for a century, but now popcorn is being banned by Britain's biggest chain of arthouse screens. Does the cotton wool-textured snack enhance or diminish the movie-going experience, asks Stephen Robb.

Noisy, messy and downmarket, seems to be the accusation being made within the cinema industry.

That's not an attack on most of Hollywood's current output, but on the long-favoured snack accompaniment to a cinema visit. Picturehouse Cinemas, the UK's largest arthouse chain, with 19 venues, is launching a trial of popcorn-free screenings at one of its venues.

In doing so, it is following in the footsteps of other popcorn no-go zones such as the Everyman Cinema Club - which has eight theatres. Its style of movie-going experience is hinted at by the menu for its flagship venue in Hampstead, north-west London, which includes wasabi peas, olives and Italian bread and a wine list that would not embarrass a small, family-run bistro.

According to Picturehouse's Gabriel Swartland, "Popcorn is a contentious issue. Lots of people absolutely hate it and have asked us to ban it."

Beatles eating popcorn
It's an entertainment institution... and popcorn's popular too

The artistic director of London's Tricycle theatre and cinema, Nicholas Kent, goes one step further, calling it "a form of junk food... that encourages junk entertainment". Of all the criticism being levelled at popcorn, the unlikely allegation that it is responsible for bad art is surely the most difficult to swallow (although it could explain Keanu Reeves' body of work).

Clearly the knives are out for a snack that has the distinction of being the only foodstuff socially acceptable to spill down oneself in the presence of strangers.

But popcorn has always been more than an afterthought for cinema owners, who like it most of all for its profitability - the boxes apparently cost more to produce than the popcorn inside them.

Phil Clapp, chief executive of the Cinema Exhibitors' Association, goes so far as to suggest major cinema chains "would struggle to be viable without popcorn".

"These cinemas considering going popcorn-free are creating a radically different model to any we've had before in the industry," says Mr Clapp.

Adult entertainment

Accounting aside, how important is popcorn to the cinema-going experience? I set out to research the matter by visiting two cinemas on opposite sides of the popcorn debate: the aforementioned Tricycle (mission statement: to provide "an artistic programme of the highest quality that attracts and reflects the culturally diverse local community") and a London West End Odeon (mission statement: "to entertain more people in the UK than any other cinema chain").

POPCORN IN THE CINEMA
With the advent of cinemas at the beginning of the 20th Century, popcorn-vendors began trading outside US venues as they had at fairs and sporting events
Cinema-owners realised they could be enjoying the profits from popcorn and other snacks sold outside, and the cinema concession stand was born
Popcorn grew in popularity in the US during the Great Depression, cheap to produce and a rare, affordable treat
Popcorn gained another boost from World War II, when American consumption trebled amid sugar rationing
Popcorn suffered a slump in popularity in the 1950s, the arrival of television decimating cinema audiences for a time
Most of the world's popcorn is grown in Nebraska and Indiana, with the US itself consuming more than one billion pounds a year
Unflavoured popcorn is high in fibre, low in calories, salt-free and sugar-free

While the Tricycle could be making a pointed statement with the sale of "roasted corn" - the hard seeds, roasted and salted - among its selection of gourmet snacks, these businesses are clearly more than a kernel-pop apart.

The film a friend and I have chosen to see at the Tricycle is Man on Wire. It is a documentary about a French tightrope-walker, with subtitles and sections in black-and-white. Its arthouse credentials could only be enhanced by adding three hours to its running time.

We order some of the roasted corn, gourmet crisps - poured into a paper cup "so the rustling doesn't bother people", says one staff member - plus a beer and a glass of wine also decanted into paper cups.

It may not rival the introduction of sound as an advance in cinema but the rise of alcohol in arthouses is gratifying, and more indicative than their rejection of popcorn that they view their audiences as grown-ups.

Similarly, the usual on-screen message asking mobile phones to be switched off is conspicuously absent here - the audience apparently credited with the foresight and consideration to do it without prompting.

There are a couple of dozen people at the screening, with conversation muted beforehand and few snacks in evidence: a paper bag brought in from outside here, a luxury ice cream there.

A woman two rows in front sneaks a couple of crisps during the film, visibly handling the bag with care and delicacy to minimise any disturbance.

The atmosphere throughout is serious and reverential. At the end credits, people file out slowly, likely beginning serious and reverential discussions of the film to be continued in the attached cafe/bar/art gallery.

Outsized portions

Some days later at the Odeon Shaftesbury Avenue, in central London, it's popcorn as usual, piled high and shovelled fast.

Popcorn close up
Cotton wool-like texture and apparently cheaper than its packaging

The "sweet or salted" dilemma dominates foyer discussions rather more vocal than at the Tricycle, while a group of teenage girls hanging out before the film plump for pillow-sized bags of toffee popcorn.

Armed with a regular tub (read: obscenely large) of sweet popcorn, diet drink (non-alcoholic, of course) and an ice cream tub, we are here to see Wall-E, Disney-Pixar's tale of a robot love affair on a garbage-covered Earth abandoned by mankind.

My friend knows nothing about the film in advance, but is "already more excited because I've got popcorn and a drink".

Her reaction is apparently not unique; there is an exuberant atmosphere inside the three-quarters full auditorium ahead of the film - people chatting, laughing and almost all of them guzzling outsized portions of food and drink.

While the arthouse experience was studious, even worshipful, this feels like more of a celebration, a party with a substantial buffet. And just in case the event is under-catered for, the mobile phone reminder is preceded by the advice that there is still time to purchase popcorn and a drink.

Communal thrill

I have friends who refuse to visit cinemas like this, for fear of being disturbed by other audience members.

While I understand their irritation, they are denying themselves the communal experience of movies at their most thrilling: an entire audience jumping at a perfectly-executed horror movie scare, or wiping their eyes together at a devastatingly effective tearjerker.

This can be manipulative and misleading: I laughed constantly along with everybody else on a Saturday night to Hot Fuzz; and considerably less alone on my sofa months later.

Perhaps the film industry hopes that when its product is substandard, audiences can be swept along by peer pressure, or distracted by sweets, fizzy drinks and, yes, popcorn.

Whatever, that evening in the Odeon, we laugh together; I can't be certain, but I'm pretty sure our eyes well up together; there is not a distracting crunch, slurp or murmur throughout; and we all leave with smiles on our faces.

The cinema could do with a trash-compacting robot like Wall-E to clean up afterwards, though.


Here is a selection of your comments.

I detest popcorn in the cinema, the sound of scuffling in the box followed by the constant munching turns any normal person into a robot as they make these actions over and over and over again, all the time it's resonating in my right ear.

With this going on for the entire first hour of the movie I find it worse than Chinese water torture. I just want to smack the box out of their hand and say "NO" firmly to their face. Seriously, can you think of any other food that you would sit and constantly eat for over an hour making those digger motions with your right arm.
James O'Dowd, Tadley, Hampshire

People should be banned from cinemas. Last time I went the film was entirely spoiled by teenagers and young adults munching, slurping, talking loudly, texting and continuously going to and from the toilets.
Helen, Manchester

Many years ago, a friend and I, armed with a bag of monkey nuts, went to a cinema. We shelled and ate the nuts, leaving the shucks on the floor. As people walked in front of us - crunch, crunch, crunch.
John, Northwood, Middlesex

Great. Just what we need. Cinema fascism...
Ash, London

I have stopped going to the cinema because of the incessant noise of people who can't engage brain without mouth. I once made an announcement before the start of a film. "Would the consumers of noisy sweets please unwrap them now so that the rest of us can enjoy the film?" There was a faint ripple of applause from likeminded people. For the rest of the evening the back of my head was pelted with popcorn. My wife said "Don't ever embarrass me like that again!" I haven't done so again, but I feel I made a stand. Things haven't changed though. I think that cinema chains would be surprised at the popularity of, say, one night a week when food and drink was banned. I would start going to the cinema again.
John Cunningham, Manchester

I can't recall ever having been disturbed by someone eating popcorn in a cinema, and I am a pretty regular patron. This article seems less about popcorn and more about the Tricycle's attempt to create a snobbish atmosphere wherein the self-appointed elite can laud themselves for having no fun and eating only mezze. Don't get me wrong, I like olives, but I'd rather have a carton of popcorn and a bright blue ice blast if I'm going to the movies.
Rich Williams, Loughborough

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