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

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.

    • 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)

      • 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’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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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……………..

  • 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.

      • 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.

  • 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 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Can’t believe Lifehacker can’t get a decent legal opinon on this, really all this is pretty useless (as is Lifehacker) without a foundation to build upon.

    I suspect much of the answer lies in a contractual agreement based on the sale of the ticket. The terms of the agreement may (though I have reason to severely doubt it) include that you agree not to bring food or drink inside unless it is purchased in the Cinema. Even if such a term exists I doubt that would allow your bag or your person to be searched unless that too were a term of the contract.

    Again, it would be crucial to the enforceability of any of those terms that you have actually, not constructively, agreed to them, in other words that you were aware of those terms before you purchased your ticket.

  • My local cinema (Logan Hyperdome) allows outside food to theirs except the Star Class cinemas. The only exception is no food that has a smell that could affect other patrons (so most hot food). That is their official rule, not just what’s enforced – their website says you can bring outside food in.

    They still have their own candy bar, which often has a long line)

    But I don’t have an issue with any cinema that bans it. They’re offering a service with rules that they set. If you don’t like those rules, you don’t have to go.

  • Everything you say about it being private property therefore they have a right to dictate what is acceptable behaviour. However, in this case this is not an issue of acceptable behaviour. The behaviour is the consumption of food and they do let you consume food. What is actually wrong with this is it is a restriction of trade which I believe is illegal in Australia. Businesses cannot restrict a customers ability to trade with their competitors, and that is what a cinema is doing by forcing their customers to only buy food from them.

    • Again, I’m not a lawyer, but rights compete and have to be balanced. The cinema isn’t stopping you buying food elsewhere, but it is (in some cases) stopping you eating on its premises. By your logic, a cafe allows food to be eaten, therefore you should be able to eat whatever you like in there. Again, not all cinemas do this — but those that do aren’t creating a major legal drama I can identify.

  • I just had a quick look at the T&Cs at Event Cinema, they say individual cinemas have different policies which can be found at the cinema, there was no mention of outside food being brought in for regular or Vmax cinemas, but it does specifically say that you can’t bring food from outside into Gold Class, and that anything you buy in Gold Class must be consumed within Gold Class.

    So if in doubt, check at your local cinema or give them a call. They aren’t going to know who you are if the answer is no, if the answer is no, do a dodge and sneak it in.

  • Buy one of those mega cup drinks one time you go. Take it with you when you leave. Clean it out. Next time you go slip in a closed can of drink and top the rest up with lollies. For best effect pop a straw in the hole at the top. Solved.

  • Some of these suggestions about smuggling food in seem a bit troublesome just to save a few bucks. You’d save even more money (and your waistline) if you just didn’t snack.

  • Cineplex’s prices are actually pretty reasonable – still more than Coles, but better than a lot of convenience stores. Their tickets are cheaper than everywhere else too. I think it pays off – you can see it in the huge crowds and frequently sold-out sessions and big lines at the candy bar. Rather than going all police state on their patrons, cinemas ought to try harder to hit that sweet spot between price and volume.

  • I remember going to a certain Hoyts in Perth a few years ago with a friend. Being the idiot teenagers we were, we bought a 2 litre tub of ice cream and some spoons from woolies just before the movie was due to start. The cinema staff were definitely amused at what we were doing as we never even bothered to hide the ice cream, so they never stopped us from taking it in and eating it while watching the movie.

  • Before going to Erina Hoyts, I stop off at Kmart for lollies etc. Then go down to Hoyts. Most of the people working are young, tired and probably student so they really don’t care. One time I got pulled up about hot food so I said I’ll go get rid of it. Walked round the corner and put it in bag. Walked straight in. Guess it just comes down to the staff.

  • i work at a cinema and here is the secret, i really don’t care if you bring stuff in, even though our cinema says to not bring it in,

    just don’t make it obvious that you are bringing something in and we will let you through, put it in a bag, none of us can be stuffed checking them. also, lollies and chips are fine to bring in, it’s mainly drinks and popcorn that we are told to stop.

    the only thing i won’t let in is hot food like mcdonalds or hungry jacks, that shit stinks out the cinema, and 9 out of 10 times people wont clean up after themselves. actually, here’s an unspoken rule, if you sneak some food in, please PLEASE don’t leave your rubbish behind, nothing makes me madder when i let someone in with food, and they leave it behind, i did a nice thing for you, you do a nice thing for me.

    oh, and if we do stop you (usually only if a manager is nearby) please don’t make a huge fuss, you look like an idiot, and we WILL make fun of you afterwords. i’ve received death threats from people not being able to bring their mcdonalds drink into the cinema.

  • My mate takes the contailers home and refills them at home before a movie in only replacing the containers when they get beyond use. Persoanlly I can afford the $10 for a large popcorn and coke.
    Also I don’t take take away food into the cinema because I’m not and inconsiderate shyte head.

  • I’ve never been stopped bringing anything into a cinema.
    But taking burgers or other hot food into a cinema is just poor form. It stinks up the place and if you make a mess it’s a lot harder to clean up than just picking up some dropped lollies or popcorn.

    As for the earlier, irrelevent comments about bag checking upon leaving a store, the store always has a right to ask, and you always have the right to refuse.
    When asked “May I check your bag?” I always reply with a polite “No thanks, I’m fine” and keep walking.

  • Friend of mine was stopped once from taking in a litre carton of milk he was drinking. Nothing in it besides milk – but they were adamant. His comment that he’d rather drink something that’s good for him rather than the sugared water they sold didn’t go too well. They did offer – and he accepted – to keep it in the fridge at the snack bar for him though – but after the movie the snack bar was long closed, so, no milk.

  • I quite enjoy the stupid pleasure from breaking these rules, at my age it such a cheap thrill to sneak a packet of snakes past the “security” or even some vodka in my coke.

  • I used to be able to smuggle a lot more stuff in, until my wife started making me wear these tight ass clothes, that “fit” according to her. When will baggy clothes come back into fashion?

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