This is part two of a three part investigation into the cost of going to the cinema. Last week, I looked at the cost of cinema tickets, showing that the average UK cinema ticket costs £9.84 off peak and £8.40 during peak times. Next week we’ll hear from frontline cinema staff, sharing their experiences and stories from the foyer.
There’s an old adage in the film industry that the cinema business can be described as “Renting seats and selling sugar”. That is obviously a simplification but it does highlight the importance of the money generated from the snacks sold to moviegoers. The high price of cinema sugar is a fact of modern life and everyone has their own way of dealing with it; you can suck it and pay, smuggle in your own snacks, go hungry or sue the cinema for extortion. But how much does cinema popcorn really cost? I took a look. In summary…
- Odeon charges £4.75 for a medium and £5.15 for a large
- Vue charges considerably different popcorn prices depending which Vue cinema you visit
- Cineworld charges £4.60 and £5.10, Showcase is £4.65 and £5.30 and Empire cinemas are £4.35 and £4.65
- Each chain has different sizes: Empire’s Large is only 77% of the size of Cineworld’s
- The increase from a medium to a large popcorn means an average of 49% more popcorn but at an average cost increase of only 8%
- 100g of Vue popcorn can cost £3.85, whereas cinema popcorn bought in bulk costs under £0.43 per 100g
- Sweet popcorn is much heavier than salt popcorn
- There are more calories in a Pizza Hut medium Italian Hawaiian pizza than in a large sweet popcorn at Odeon
- Pick & Mix sweets at Odeon cinemas cost 42% less than at the most experience Vue cinema sites
How much does cinema popcorn cost?
Most cinema chains charge the same price for popcorn in all their sites. Odeon charges £4.75 for a medium and £5.15 for a large. Cineworld charges £4.60 and £5.10, although their regular is smaller than Odeon’s and their large is larger than Odeon’s. Showcase is very similar at £4.65 and £5.30 whereas Empire cinemas are a bit cheaper at £4.35 and £4.65.
Last week, we saw how Vue has four price brackets for tickets to see movies on release, no doubt cleverly worked out by data-crunching experts in head office. Well, Vue has a similar approach to popcorn, which differs considerably in price depending which Vue cinema you visit. A large cinema popcorn in the most expensive of the Vue sites I surveyed cost 30% more than at the cheapest.
Which brand of cinema popcorn is the best value?
Each chain has a slightly different definition of “large”, with Empire’s Large being only 77% as big as a Large at a Cineworld site.
- Odeon has four sizes – Kids (44g) , Small (88g), Medium (150g) and Large (200g)
- Cineworld has three sizes – Small (60g), Regular (123g) and Large (250g)
- Vue’s three sizes are Kids (60g), Regular (148g) and Large (198g)
- Empire’s three sizes are not named on their site but weigh in at 55g, 141g and 192g
When we adjust for the differing sizes, we can see that Vue cinemas offer both the cheapest and the most expensive cinema popcorn, depending on which site you visit.
Is the upgrade from medium to large worth it?
One of the peculiar pricing strategies all cinemas adopt is the very minor price difference between the medium and large sizes. The increase from medium to large means an average of 49% more popcorn but at an average cost increase of only 8%.
How can this make business sense? Well, because popcorn is extremely inexpensive to buy in bulk; I found a UK popcorn supplier selling popcorn by the pallet at an equivalent price of £0.43 per 100g. With the volumes the major cinema chains operate at I’m sure they can get considerably better prices, meaning that the cinemas still make a profit when you upgrade from medium to large.
So for you as the consumer, the additional popcorn you get when you upgrade is much, much better value than the popcorn you buy in an original medium.
How many calories are in cinema popcorn?
If the price of popcorn doesn’t put you off, let me see if the calorie count will. I took a look at the calories contained in sweet cinema popcorn and compared it to a number of other fast food options. It turns out you would do better to take an entire Pizza Hut medium Italian Hawaiian pizza into the cinema than to eat a large sweet popcorn at Odeon, Empire or Cineworld.
Pick. Mix. Eat. Repeat.
If I’ve put you off popcorn then you may turn to the art of curating a bag of Pick & Mix sweets. Due to the variety of options I can’t give you a single chart showing the calorific cost of each type of sweet but here is a very typical example, from Empire cinemas…
- Across their sites, Empire cinemas offer a choice of 46 types of Pick & Mix sweets
- On average, they have 379 calories per 100g
- £1.00 of Pick & Mix sweets provides 291 calories, compared with 147 calories for £1.00 of sweet popcorn
- The least calorific sweets are the ‘Turtles’ at 316 per 100g
- The highest are the Chocolate Flavoured Brazils at 585 calories per 100g
The difference in price between chains is quite considerable, with Pick & Mix at Odeon cinemas costing 42% less than at the most experience Vue cinema site.
Popcorn and Pick & Mix may be the items mostly reserved for cinemas but what about something more ubiquitous, like water? Well, there are big price differences there, too.
As an aside, one of the other quirks about cinema drinks is the huge sizes you can buy Coke or Pepsi in. The largest drink size in Vue and Empire cinemas is equivalent to over three and half drink cans, or five and half cups of tea.
Data and Methodology
In gathering the data for today’s research my first port of call were the cinemas’ websites. They all offer the calorie information (links: Odeon, Vue, Empire and Cineworld) but no prices. Next, I spoke to the customer helplines, which gave me some of the missing nutritional information (such as the weight of Odeon popcorn) and I enquired about prices. They all seemed a bit cagey but eventually gave me some info. I then used Facebook targeted adverts to reach out to staff at cinemas across the country, asking them to confirm how much things cost in their site. I wasn’t able to cover as many sites as I did for ticket prices (i.e. 340) but I do feel I have enough to be confident on the pricing structure. Huge thanks to Eleanor, Charlie and the 39 members of cinema staff who helped me research this topic and fill in the blanks.
Because of Vue’s highly varying prices, it’s possible that there are some branches which charge more than the maximum I found and/or less than the cheapest. Odeon’s head office confirmed that their prices are set nationally and my survey of Cineworld staff all produced the same prices across the UK. Empire cinemas are all out of London, save for the highly expensive Empire Leicester Square. Despite calls and emails, I didn’t get any info out of Empire cinemas so I don’t know if their prices differ as much as their ticket prices do. As always, if and when I get new information on this topic I’ll update this post.
The weights quoted for popcorn are for the sweet variety (i.e. the tastiest option). Salt popcorn weighs less, presumably the sugary coating is heavier than the grains of salt. For example, a large Vue sweet popcorn is 198g whereas a large Vue salt popcorn is 158g. This is consistent across all chains.
One thing I am clearly not taking into account is quality, which is undoubtedly an important factor when judging the ‘value’ of a cinema’s popcorn. I hope to look at this soon.
When reaching out to cinema staff to confirm prices I also asked a number of other questions. The answers to these will form the basis for next week’s article, looking at the views of the people who work in the major cinema chains. They talk candidly about their work, their bosses and you, the customer. Stay tuned for more…
At Vue Omni Centre in Edinburgh I just get charged £5.20 for a regular popcorn. I nearly passed it back to her and said “Don’t bother, I’m not paying that”. Outrageous price.
Looks like I might have to start going with Empire or Vue, thank you for all the great info!
Keep up the great work,
Interesting read. I think the moral of the story is not to buy food from the cinema at their inflated prices. I stumbled across this because I am particularly concerned regarding a recent experience where my 12year old daughter was being intimidated by aggressive ‘up-selling’ techniques. I am trying to find others who may have had similar experiences. Up-selling to adults is fine but not when your customer is a child. These tactics must stop. Trying to get hold of policy makers in these organisations is almost impossible.
The reason for the small difference between medium and large is because the medium is only a decoy to make you upgrade from small to large.
Should be noted that the reason that the commercial model operates on renting seats and selling sugar is because the studios take the lions share of ticket prices so the cinema’s don’t make their margin from there – so they charge higher on areas where the studios don’t get a large revenue share – like snacks. They also end up selling lots of ads.
With the weight gain epidemic I’m sure people can stay without sugar filled calories for 2 hours of the day if they don’t like the prices though. I find them outrageous so never buy. I find the coffee much better value because it costs the same as any Costa/Starbucks.