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.

Cheers Lifehacker

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    I swear cinemas would make more money out of their food if they just made it AFFORDABLE!! I don't WANT to have to smuggle in snacks, but the prices pretty much force my hand.

      couldn't agree more, i dont have to smuggle food into my cinema, they fit into the category of "not enough staff to check bags" , but i never buy food at the cinema because of the price, whenever a cinema trip is planned a time space before getting to the cinema is allowed to "stop by the shops for snacks", id rather just get it from the cinema but not at 4000% markup

        I usually don't buy any food or drink at the cinema (I actually often don't eat or drink at all during a movie, because I don't want to be needing to go to the toilet halfway through :P). The only time I do is when it is special occasion like a birthday or something for a treat. Sometimes you just get a hankering for popcorn.

      calling it "food" might be a bit of a stretch.

      True, but one of the reasons they do this is because they actually make very little money on ticket sales (with the producing studio taking a large portion of the box office sales, especially during opening weekends)

    go to the drive in!

      I've never seen a drive-in outside of American TV and movies.

        You're missing out! The picture is poor, the sound is crap, but the atmosphere is awesome!

        There's still a drive in south of Brisbane at Beenleigh. I think there's also one in Emerald in central Qld. I immigrated to Australia from the UK in 1980 as a kid. We thought the drive in was so cool. The yused to have a big box speaker wired to a pole. You parked next to a pole and hooked the box over your side window - glorious mono! I can't remember what we saw the first time we went. The parking area was finished in a series of waves running parallel to the screen so that the front of your car was angled up at the screen. When the movie finished, my Dad just started up and went to drive off - forgetting that the speaker box was still attached to his side window. Fortunately, they must have been designed for this as the cable just pulled from the pole. Dad was pretty embarrassed though. To make it worse he didn't realise that you drive down the end of the row and turn towards the screen to exit, he was pissed off, just put it in first (HG Holden with column shift - I learnt to drive in that car), and headed towards the screen. It was like a bloody roller coaster going over the 'rippples'. My brothers and I in the back nearly wet ourselves from trying so hard not to laugh.

        There are 2 in Vic, Dromana (the best one) and Dandenong

          There's one in Coburg too.

            There's one in Sydney as well, near Eastern Creek. You can see it from the M4 motorway.

              Also, Blacktown has one.

          Theres definitely no drive-in in emerald anymore.

        The Moon Light Cinema in the Melbourne Botanical Gardens. Also there are a couple more scattered around Victoria.

          Not really a drive in, more of a walk in

        There's one in WA, The Galaxy Drive-in in Kingsley. It's usually less than the cost of a single movie and more often than not, is a double-feature (two movies)

    I don't live in Perth any more but when I did, Ace Cinemas in Subiaco was a great option. I don't know if they would stop you bringing food in, but the food at their kiosk was extremely reasonably priced. So much so that when passing by I would sometimes go and get a choc top without even seeing a film...

    the only issues i've ever had with cinemas not allowing food is when it is hot food. i've had no problems bringing in lollies and drinks from anywhere else.

      This. Especially at any village/Hoyt's I've been too.

    the local cinema where i used to live tried to do this, lasted a whole of week before before everyone was pissed about and newspaper articles were had, mostly from people whining about rights unfortunately rather then just annoyed, but being the small city it was they reversed the decision and havent tried is since

    Unfortunately the candy bar is pretty much the sole source of revenue for cinemas, so prices aren't about to change any time soon. I know for a fact that you can bring in as much outside food as you like to all hoyts complexes, however it is a condition of entry that hot food is not to be consumed inside any of the theaters.

    As far as bag checks go, it is perfectly legal, but there is a level of privacy that the person doing the search must uphold. For example, no physical contact with the bag, i.e, you must hold it open for them and they cannot rummage at all. They also cannot ask to see the contents of jacket pockets, etc.

      I still feel as though cinemas could increase their revenue (and hopefully profit) by decreasing the price and therefore increasing demand for their food. At the moment it seems like their prices are far higher than the desired equilibrium point.

        You have to think of the candy bar at the cinemas as a local monopoly. They will charge more than the equilibrium point because that way they will maximise their profits

    Bear in mind that a cinema doesn't make much money from direct ticket sales. Some movie studios demand up to 100% of the earnings for the opening week of a movie. So the cinemas are left with advertising and food sales to make their profits.

      It's never 100%....typically around 90% opening week.

    Stack as much food as you want in a bag and place towel over it. Then on top place a very large Dildo. No further looking will be attempted. Of course explaining WHY you need to take that in to the movie might be a little AWKWARD

    Just saying.................

      have one sealed in original packaging excuse "Oh i've just been the the adult store"

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      Amen, the last movie I saw was Dark Knight Rises and there was a fat guy directly behind me eating chips (loudly) for an hour and half through the film,I didn't know they made bags of crisps that big.


    Are you not within your rights to say to anybody who wants to check your bag: "Not without a warrant!" Sure, a cinema could then say, "Well we won't let you in."

      In Victoria (and perhaps everywhere else) the only people that have the power to search your bag is Police.

      Non of the door security at shops are the guy working at the cinema.

      ALTHOUGH since it is their property they have the right to refuse you service and ask you to leave under trespassing laws.

        speeling >_<

        'shops or the guy'

        You're right, but I think the point has been made that the cinema isn't "searching" your bag - they're asking you to hold it open while they look in it. The word they use at most shops is "inspect", I've noticed. The difference is probably the minimum amount they need to avoid someone laying charges.

      you've got it, we have the right to check your bag only if you are entering the cinema, if you refuse, we wont let you in and tell you to get a refund.

      also, we aren't allowed to touch your bag, we have to ask you to open it for us.

    Birch Carroll & Coyle/Greater Union did this for a while about six or seven years ago. The trick is to buy a large popcorn just once, and then keep the box and use it to smuggle in food. You may need to reinforce the base a bit.

    Luckily they realised it was a dumb fucking policy, and got rid of it after a year or two.

    I worked for one of the major cinema companies for 11 years;

    Opening week is typically 90% distributor, 10% cinema and then going down by 10% increments per week for a standard contract. None of that really matters though, as at our chain all the box office money went on paying bills, rent, wages etc. And the profit? Well you can all guess.

    And the mark up is in the 10,000% and above range for softdrink and popcorn. 1-2 cents per litre I think it was 4 years ago when I last worked there.

    So reducing the price means reducing profit. Not going to happen. Hoyts don't do the bag check, and not all GU cinemas do either.

      By those figures a 500ml coke would cost over $10.

        A 10,000% mark up on 2c/L would be $2/L. 500mL would cost $1.
        I'd suggest the mark up is significantly higher than 10,000% IF Alex Hamilton is accurate and the cost to them is 1-2c/L.

        Unfortunately, maths cannot determine the accuracy of Alex' statement.

    If they want to make it clear that you can't bring in your own food, there is a solution. PUT UP A SIGN!

    Now that I got that off my trunk, some customer-friendly options are also a go-er. How about an price-match on goods of the food variety? If Wollies sell a bag of M&M's for $3, then you can get yours for $3 from the cinema.

    And what about a 'if it's not stocked' policy. If we don't sell it, you can bring it in - i.e triple stack cheese and bacon burger, soap on a rope, mega pack of sweet and sour roll-ups.

    Until the cinema makes it clear, I am continuing in bringing in my six-pack of special brew and family pack of beef jerky.

      where i work, i have counted 6 signs that clearly state you cannot bring outside food.

      we aren't ebgames, we don't do pricematching.

      bringing in outside foods we don't sell are fine, as long as it isn't hot food such as burgers and hot chips, as it stinks the cinema and can be difficult to clean.

      however, most cinemas will deny any type of drinks you bring in, i don't particularly like that rule, i will usually let people in if they have a can of ginger beer or something, but if my manager is around, i value my job more than your drink.

        It's also because an asshole took a scalding hot cup of coffee into a cinema, burned himself, and sued the cinema. The argument basically was if the cinema staff were fulfilling their duty of care they would not have let him take the hot coffee in with him. Top brass don't give a shit how much the cinema smells or how hard it is to clean, they just don't want to be sued.

    I buy food and drink from Maccas down stairs, then walk into the cinema with the food and drink. I have never been questioned about it, lots of people do it. I guess my local cinema is decent.
    If I was stopped then I would go somewhere else. Vote with your feet and $$.

      I don't have a problem with brought in food, but thats lollies, chips and drinks etc. Not meals that stink out the cinema.


          I'll second that - hot food is a no no at the cinema for me - has me asking the cinema staff to do something about it.

          As for everything else - I always schedule a few minutes for a trip to coles before hand or I plan my lunch/dinner around the movie to remove the need to purchase anything.

    Look, how the hell they gonna gouge you for food if you bring your own ? C'mon, we live in a capitalist society.

    I feel sorry for the owners of the cinema knowing their days are numbered. You would like to think that with the declining patrons who are still willing to pay high prices for something they can almost replicate at home, they would do anything to hold on to those last few people... Oh well I welcome the days where you will be able to legally download a movie the day it's released and watch it in my own comfortable home theatre without having to put up with the people in front of me slowly opening that bag of malteesers... God I wish they wouldn't do that

      Until we all get 20+ metre screens at home, cinemas aren't going anywhere.

    On the subject of bag checks,
    It's a legal requirement for retailers in NSW - not sure whether it differs state to state - that if you intend to exercise your right as a retailer to perform a bag check, you need to advertise that you will on a sign that is readable from outside the store.

    The thinking is: if you don't want your bag searched, you should not enter the store. If there's no signage indicating that staff can/will perform bag searches they can still ask for permission, but you should not feel compelled to agree. If it's noted on a sign that is not readable until after you've entered the store, the same applies.

    I've not seen any such sign at a cinema myself, so I'd probably use that method myself.

      Yes but they stop you before you enter the cinema, not after. So even if you use that method. They'll point it out then. They will refund your ticket (they refund tickets up to 30 minutes into the movie)

    I worked for a few cinemas as an usher when I was a student. It's really hot food that wasn't wanted as the odour travels really quickly through a theatre and is very distracting to an audience. If there's a spill then getting it cleaned up properly before the next session so no odours (of food or cleaning products) remain is very difficult.

    It's not just saving money, there are health issues too. Someone I know in Perth (probably attending the same cinema chain as in the story) would make popcorn at home for her kids and take it to the cinema in a container at the bottom of a bag. That way, she knew how it had been prepared and her kids weren't consuming all the added salt and fat of cinema popcorn. Similarly, she'd take tap water in aluminium bottles since her kids pretty much only drank water. I don't think she was ever caught, but it was clear that discretion and a little bit of sneakiness was required to pull this off.

    It's not hard to sneak food in. I like the towel trick someone has suggested.

    When I worked in a cinema, we learned how much profit we'd make from selling popcorn etc. Like the cost to us of a small/med/large popcorn was something like 1/2/3 cents.
    One night we were a bit bored, and out the back of the kitchen we had a massive popcorn fight. Bags and bags of the stuff everywhere. It looked like a ball pool, about a foot deep in popcorn in places.
    The assistant manager walked in. Silence. He started to turn purple.

    "Erm, about $3 worth?"

    I go to event cinemas regularly.
    Carrying a plastic bag of coles snacks and a maccas/hungry jacks meal with drink
    My friends and I have been doing this for years.

    It's called implied consent, places like shopping centres, allow the public to enter without having to ask permission but that right of entry can be refused, usually by centre security as they are authorised by the owner in his stead for this right of removal.

    SImply say you have numerous allergies, I doubt any cinema would be stupid enough to argue the point after you let them know death is a real possibility.

    Up here in Brisbane I go to the Sunnybank Cinemas, the staff usually don't care.

    I buy Pearl Teas and bring them in all the time, and I have even seen a couple of guys once bring in KFC.

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