In the midst of this Pandemic, there have been some gentle beacons of hope that have shone through. The Historic Artcraft Theatre opened Friday and Saturday nights to off their popcorn (locally grown, internationally known) and amazing creamy Root Beer floats with only the best vanilla bean ice cream and Triple XXX Root Beer from Lafayette, Indiana. There have been dark evenings during this tsunami of COVID where a ginormous bucket of Artcraft popcorn, seductively wafted into my arms and those exploded kernels, adorned with the faintest hint of coconut oil and Flavacol found their way into my awaiting mouth.
As if I was pulled back by a tractor beam, Rob Shilts was on stage, the National Anthem then played followed by a Warner Brothers Cartoon specifically picked by the projectionist extraordinaire, Mr Steve Blair (a classically trained projectionist and a teller of tall tales from the projection booth) and then finally the feature. Oh how I miss the days when the night sky was seduced by the pulsating glow of the Artcraft marquee. The pieces of popcorn are consumed and I am further convinced that there is nothing better than a community based motion picture theater. It is glorious, comforting, and at the same time reassuring.
In the past, I spent many nights in a projection booth. The dancing wisps of ozone, the acidic wash of splicing glue, the slight smash of the carbon arcs and the bell that signals a reel change. Like all things done very well, projection is an art and I am so lucky to witness the ballet of changeover in the adept hands of Steve Blair.
I have seen the adoption of the platter, the loss of the union projectionists, the movement from acetate prints to polyester and the most disheartening blow with all its machinations and posturing, the movement to digital. I had gone along with these changes, and even made some money as a result, but in the end I think a lot has been lost. Maybe a better way of putting it is that classic movie going has retreated, retreated into the Basilica of movie going like the Artcraft, The Roxy, or The Belcourt. Something tells me that there is about to be a realization that what was can be again.
I think I can make a fine allegory between movie going and streaming. Streaming is popcorn you throw in the microwave, let the kernels get superheated by the bombardment of waves, the kernels explode and the bag expands, you have popcorn, but it is not the same. Movie popcorn, much like movie going, is so very much better. There is a marriage between the oil as it heats and the addition of the Buttery flavored salty seasoning sold by Gold Medal called Flavacol. It is that Cincinnati based company’s greatest gift to the world. Yes, they make a fine popper and their other product line is dandy, but the opiate of movie going is that milk carton looking package filled with all that salty (and unhealthy) goodness…it is the secret weapon of theaters the world over. The flavor can only be produced in a kettle which is a professional grade and can reach a temperature only attained by a professional popper. The two mac daddy’s of the popper world are Cretors and Gold Medal products. In my mind, they are the only machines capable of seducing this flavor out of oil, kernels and salt.
A true showman; the real deal will always walk into a theater and if they are worth their salt (or Flavacol) will notice the kettle capacity of the incumbent poppers. The size of the poppers will indeed tell a story. A real showman will be sporting a 32 oz kettle enabled popper, which is capable of producing 640 one ounce servings of that fluffy goodness every hour. I personally favor the Cretors new creation, The Mach 5 Popper with the 48 oz kettle or the equally capable 48 oz kettle equipped Cornado from the good folks at Gold Medal. Neither is cheap, but they both will quickly pay for themselves. Foundationally that kettle is why theaters are able to remain open.
Let’s say a movie ticket costs $9.00. Out of that $9.00, after paying inflated box office rental, the theater gets to keep say $2.70. The theater owner gets to keep 30%, that is before paying for staff, rent, utilities, equipment cost, and maintenance. A restaurant owner on the other hand should be looking at a 25% food cost. So for the raw material that is the foundation of the business of exhibition, the theater owner is only allowed to keep a third of the revenue.
So the reason that the concessions prices are so high in theaters is not because of some foul plot by the theater owner, but because they are forced to by the insidious machinations of the movie studios. Another informational tidbit is that the price of a movie ticket hasn’t gone up much in the last 90 years. In 1929, a ticket was $0.35; today, it’s $9. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $6.72. Movie rentals charged to theaters have gone up considerably more than that.
Theater owners could charge higher prices, but most of that would be grabbed by the studios. Theaters owners know that movies in many ways are a loss leader: the goal of all theaters is to get as many people through the door as possible so you can sell them popcorn. Do you know that the shelf life of a movie which is solely produced for streaming has a shelf life of say 4 years, but a movie that has a theatrical release can have decades more value.
So as I eagerly consume handfuls of the Artcraft’s popcorn, not only do I hold a taste treat in my hand, but also an economic powerhouse.