Read more from Slate's Summer Movies.
Theaters now gave concession stands prime placement in their lobbies, and inventive sales campaigns took off in an effort to boost profits. Valentine says theaters adopted the up-sell, now so common in the fast-food business, way back in the '50s. Rather than simply ask, "May I help you?" smiling attendants were instructed to push the higher margin merchandise and suggest additional purchases. As Valentine writes, " 'Will that be a large?' proved a better response to a drink or popcorn order than 'Right away.' "
Today, movie houses are continually expanding their offerings. Newer-fangled candies—Sour Patch Kids, Gummi Bears, and others—which appeal to children, have largely ousted fruity mainstays such as Dots. Companies have capitalized on the moviegoing crowds by morphing large candy bars into shareable, bite-size candy more suitable for the movies, like Nestlé's Buncha Crunch.
Movie theaters have of course also branched out, serving chicken fingers and chili cheese fries to complement standard snacks. Landmark Theatres, which specializes in independent films, appeals to foodies by offering local items, such as hot dogs served with homemade relish on fresh La Brea Bakery buns. And more theaters are aiming to capture older crowds with reserved seating, alcohol, full-service restaurants, and other amenities.
Still, the old standbys are the real moneymakers. We may sigh when the kid behind the counter solicits that $9 for a small Coke and a medium popcorn, but traditional concessions are by now inextricably linked to the moviegoing experience. Not only is there the kid-in-a-candy-store excitement—here's one place where it's still safe to gorge on junk food—but the smell of popcorn that pervades every movie theater can bubble up nostalgia in even the most curmudgeonly customer. A trip to the concession stand might elicit memories of a first date—holding her hand, greasy with popcorn, in the dark theater, or the tug of your teeth on the licorice sticks you ordered as a kid, or the Good & Plenty your grandmother used to buy you on your Saturday trips to the movies. What's $9 for that?