Ask LH: Can Cinemas Stop Me Bringing My Own Food To The Movies?

Dear Lifehacker, A thought occurs to me during your Consumer Power Week. A significant cinema chain in Perth still tries to stop you bringing in outside food/drinks and checks your bag for smuggled soft drinks. I’ve tried to find any information I could about the legality of this and all I could find is anecdotes and whinging. Can they do this? Thanks, Popcorn Pirate

Picture by Andrew Stawarz

Dear PP,

Cinema prices for food are outrageous, and there’s no way I’d want to pay them. I’m sympathetic to the fact that they’re often the main source of income for movie chains, but there’s no way I’m stumping up $5+ for a choc top in a sandwich bag.

That said (and while noting that I’m not a lawyer), as far as I can see there are no grounds for claiming that bag searches and insisting people don’t bring their own food and drink are “illegal” (or should be). Such policies create a bad experience for everyone and are terrible business practice, but that doesn’t make them against the law.

The key point to appreciate is this: a cinema is private property, not a public area open to anyone. The business owner can set the rules when it comes to what behaviour is acceptable, and if you don’t follow those rules, you can be asked to refrain or leave. We’ve discussed this issue before in terms of photographer’s rights: shopping centres can enforce “no photography” rules because they aren’t actually public places, even though getting the public to visit regularly is an essential part of their business model. The same logic applies to cinemas; they can enforce rules about what happens on their premises, just as many retailers display “no food and drink” signs to protect their merchandise from damage.

So what can you do? Go to another cinema chain (if that’s an option). Most cinemas I visit are so minimally staffed that no-one has time for anything like a bag check. Alternatively, eat a big meal right before the movie, or plan to go out afterwards, or wait for the DVD and eat whatever you like while you view it. Snacking can be a fun part of the movie experience and it’s a strong association for many of us, but not eating for three hours won’t kill you.


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