Ask LH: Are Cinema Food Pricing Practices Illegal?

Dear Lifehacker, I'm a fan of seeing movies at the cinemas. I know the food is very expensive but what annoys me at one chain is that they have package deals and "add-ons" but no individual pricing for specific items. I know supermarkets are expected to display unit pricing, but at the cinema there is no way to work out if you're being overcharged. Is this legal? Thanks, Budget Film Fan

Popcorn picture from Shutterstock

Dear BFF,

You don't need unit pricing to work out if you're being overcharged at the movies. It's cinema food — of course you're being overcharged! But to answer your question, a cinema chain has zero obligation to display specific pricing information to customers.

Back in 2009, the ACCC introduced compulsory unit pricing in a bid to make comparison shopping easier for consumers. However, the law only applies to large supermarkets and online food stores. Cinemas are not required to provide unit pricing or to price items individually. In other words, they're free to push combo deals to maximise profits and can basically charge whatever they like.

That said, most cinemas will happily sell you individual food items outside of the advertised combos. If you just want a single popcorn or choc top, all you need to do is ask. Just be aware that you're not going to save much money by avoiding the combo. Cinemas are notorious for overcharging on individual food items — it's one of the reasons they keep this information off the price board. (If we charged upwards to $10 for a single popcorn, we'd be embarrassed about it too!)

In any event, unit pricing isn't really necessary to work out the best food prices: the bigger option is nearly always more cost-effective. This is especially true at the cinema where a small popcorn is typically only slightly cheaper than the jumbo bucket-sized version. As with most fast food, the pricing model is geared towards gluttony: either your wallet or your health is going to take a hit.

Alternatively, you can always bring your own snacks with you. Most cinemas in Australia are surprisingly relaxed about this practice. While attempts have been made to prohibit outside food, the public outcry usually sees the ban lifted before too long. In my experience, nearly every cinema will turn a blind eye to it, regardless of their policy. As long as you're not too blatant about it you can usually smuggle in anything you like.

Cheers Lifehacker

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Comments

    I nearly always take in a can or two depending on movie length. As long as you aren't holding it in your hand you'll probably get away with it.

      I walked into the cinema with a large maccas drink in my hand while buying the tickets, and they didn't bat an eye about it.

        I've done Subway once with my wife (not hot (the Subway, not my wife)).

        Although my brother was asked to eat his Big Mac before going in once.

          I understand a burger might make more mess if dropped than popcorn, so up to a certain point, I agree with them asking your brother to eat it before going in.
          Picture this: a handful of popcorn falls to the ground, someone steps on it - no biggie, vacuum & done
          half a burger falls to the ground and someone steps on it - yuck! You got sauce stuck in the carpet, starts rotting etc.
          Understandable.

            Hot food also smells a lot more.

            edit - as say a lot of people under me. Should read all comments first.

            Last edited 04/03/14 3:39 pm

            I don't know if it's really a mess thing, or more a smell thing. After all they do sell choc top ice creams, they'd make more mess than a big mac if you drop it.

          Did your brother make any attempt to hide it? As an usher I was very accomodating as long as people made an effort not to wave it in my face. There's only so much my blind eyes can turn.

          You can hit up ushers that are super jerks or just in a bad mood though. I always put my stuff in a nondescript bag that I bring especially.

          Last edited 05/03/14 10:03 am

        I work in a major cinema and we don't enforce a strict 'no outside food policy', it's actually more so 'please don't bring in outside hot food'. We're more than happy to allow you to bring in drinks or your own popcorn or snacks or something, but when it comes to hot food (such as takeaway, which so many people try to bring in), we can't let you. The reason is that hot foods generally stink up the cinema, and often make a mess (which takes the cinema cleaners even longer to clean up since it's not something we're used to cleaning up -- popcorn is relatively easy to sweep up in a manner of minutes).

        One time when cleaning a cinema, I had found a McDonalds McNugget box under the seat... with the sweet and sour sauce everywhere. It was a mess. It was horrendous to clean up.

          The reason is that hot foods generally stink up the cinema and often make a mess I'd be more inclined to believe that before the major cinemas started selling pizzas, hot dogs and other smelly hot stuff. I've even seen pasta served in some Hoyts outlets. Pasta!

            At least nobody is bringing in a fragrant curry from home or similar, there's food smell, then there's smelly food. A blanket ban on outside hot food keeps us on the safe side of that line.

            That's a relatively new phenomenon (and one I celebrate). It's also probably in response to the fact that it is very difficult to enforce the hot food policies.

            As a former Usher (Hoyts and Dendy) I can confirm that hot food smell can fill a cinema quite easily. I can also confirm that hot food can be a real pain to clean but considering the mess that popcorn makes it wasn't that big a deal. We never had a ban on outside food, only hot food. I of course can't speak for the period after I left that industry (2009 onwards) but I don't recall any outside food bans at any of the Cinemas I frequent.

            I can also confirm that I snuck in hot food all the time and still do to this day. It's very easy. YOLO!

            I think overcharged is a weird term, especially when you aren't trapped in your options. You get overcharged at festivals and stadiums when their policies prevent outside food and drink. Can you get overcharged at a cinema? Unlikely.

            Cinemas primarily make their money through Candy Bar sales (box office tends to go to the distributors and up the chain so that the actual movie makers can make money). They need to cover their operating costs through Candy Bar prices AND you are also paying for convenience. Cinemas are hardly a boon industry either. Many of the years when I worked at Hoyts (most of 2000s) the business was running at a loss and was sold numerous times.

            When I would work the Candy Bar and people would complain about the prices I would happily (and I don't mean that sarcastically) point out the Supermarket that was about a 300m walk. Management had no problem with me doing this.

            The proportion of grumpy customers that availed themselves of this option was quite low because the extra cost was worth the convenience. The truth is that people are lazy and they love to complain. I make this choice myself probably half the time but the difference is I don't pretend I'm hard done by when I choose the convenience over the price.

          Hot food sure does stink a place up! It's bad enough in the office or on the train, but I for one am glad there's always been a no hot food rule in cinemas I've visited.

          As for other food. I grab a drink ANYWHERE else before going, even a servo is going to be cheaper, and I'll take a pack of chips or similar before forking out for popcorn.

          What Cinema chain do you work in? Grand Cinema has a warning on their website stating that they don't allowed it. Whether they enforce it or not is another question but it is a strict policy. So is it not a policy at all or just one you don't actively enforce because you don't care? Its hard to believe because of the sheer cost of candbay food. Surely if you were allowed to bring (cheaper) outside food in they would lower their prices to match.

          Can I bring in my own food or drink?
          Grand Cinemas has a strict NO FOOD or DRINK policy. We reserve the right to refuse admission into the cinema halls, screens or beyond the ticket control area with food, drink or Ice Cream bought from outside the premises. All cinemas display the necessary signage, raising awareness of the policy.

          As a food operator we offer a wide range of snacks which will cater for our patrons, in addition to protecting cinema furnishings and customer clothing.

        I've taken a cheeseburger meal in & they were fine with it. I wouldn't do it again because of the smell. I'd consider others a bit more now though.
        It would be cool if cinemas included unlimited popcorn and soft drinks in the ticket price.

          It would be difficult for cinemas to provide unlimited soft drink and popcorn, the reason being that a large percentage of cinema profit actually comes from their confectionary/concession sales at the Candy Bar. Only a small percentage of profit is made at Box Office because so much of the ticket cost goes back towards royalties and studios and whatnot. (this also explains the exorbitant prices at Candy Bar because they are trying to generate a profit).

            I'd believe that if there weren't cinemas that completely buck that trend.

            Southbank Cinemas in Brisbane is an example, cheap tickets and cheap candy bar. I assume their plan is that by being cheaper all-round, people prefer it over the other cinemas so they make their money back due to large crowds. Being in the middle of the Edward Street precinct means that it must cost a pretty penny to run the complex.

            But seriously, if a cinema can sell tickets and food at at least a 30% cheaper rate, and still be profitable, that just makes the other outlets look like they are ripping people off.

          La premiere used to do that, haven't been in ages so not sure if they still do

            They still do last time i went a couple of months back. Of course la Premiere tickets are a lot more expensive.

        Large McDonalds drinks look a LOT like the cups you get from the candybar. Unless they are really looking hard, they probably won't even notice.

        That and the only people who are likely to actually notice are the ones taking your ticket and those people care the least out of everyone working there.

        Hell at my local theatre, like 40% of the time, there isn't even someone there to take your ticket and people just walk in and out. Its hilarious.

    We make popcorn at home and take it in paper bags. The savings are outrageous.

      I once saw a show and they said the bag costs more than the popcorn so don't rip them! It was in the UK but I'm sure it's similar here.

    Friend worked at Hoyts Carousel, he said the attitude was if it's not hot, it's ok (smell).

    I haven't been to the Cinema in forever but I'm sure Choctops are about $50 now, and made in china.

      For the sake of the cinema workers I certainly hope so. Making Choc tops was one of my least favourite jobs.

      Dendy and Hoyts seem to have moved to outsourcing their Choc Tops these days which makes sense to me. I believe I was around when they made the switch at Hoyts but I can't remember the company. It seems unlikely to me that Ice Cream manufacturing would be something that would make sense as an import business.

      Where I live Choc Tops are about $4

    I never got why people feel the need to eat or drink during a movie anyway. Seriously, you can't go a couple of hours without a snack?

      I eat pretty healthy, so it's nice to indulge a bit at the cinemas & make it a bit of a special occasion.

      It's hard to break habits that are ingrained in us from almost birth. Go to cinema, eat popcorn.

      I ended up breaking it by just taking in a bottle of water in my bag instead, kept my mouth and hands busy and satisfied. Really need to pee after a long movie though.

      I enjoy combining the two activities. Plus there is a local fast food joint near my cinema that cannot be resisted.

      I tend to see a movie around lunch time so the timing is right. Even then I'm happy to say that I don't 'feel the need'. It's simply a desire, as most things are.

      Last edited 05/03/14 9:57 am

      When I go and see a movie, thats my time to relax and indulge. Thats why i get popcorn, or an icecream, or a drink or something. Because its an couple of hours out of the week where i get to relax and treat myself.

    And this is why I don't need food while I'm watching a movie. I just chew some gum and go for something to eat after.

    Every cinema (in australia) i've ever been to has a big sign saying "no outside food" and i like to smile at this sign as walk in to the theatre with pockets full of chocolate.

      I haven't seen one. Although I don't really travel much :)

        From the Grand Cinema website (which is the ones near me, there are others but they have similar things)
        Can I bring in my own food or drink?

        Grand Cinemas has a strict NO FOOD or DRINK policy. We reserve the right to refuse admission into the cinema halls, screens or beyond the ticket control area with food, drink or Ice Cream bought from outside the premises. All cinemas display the necessary signage, raising awareness of the policy.

        As a food operator we offer a wide range of snacks which will cater for our patrons, in addition to protecting cinema furnishings and customer clothing.

        (Italics mine)

        Last edited 05/03/14 6:35 pm

      I have never seen a sign like that either while working at cinemas for almost 10 years or while visiting cinemas in 5 cities.

      Which is not to call you incorrect. You may just have a knack for hitting up cinemas with poor terms and conditions.

      Most cinemas would have a big sign with a whole bunch of terms and conditions. Maybe that sign says no outside food. Most likely it says no hot food.

      Last edited 05/03/14 9:55 am

        Mostly it says things like "only food bought on the premises". Though i've seen the signs, i've almost never seen anyone actually stopped for it. I've heard people opening cans in theatre, i've smelt McDonalds. I think its just one of those 'we reserve the right' thing so they can if they want, but they don't actually care.

        Sometimes i buy a drink, but usually i just get something locally and sometimes to do McDonalds and its so much cheaper.

        Edit:
        From the Grand Cinema website (which is the ones near me, there are others but they have similar things)
        Can I bring in my own food or drink?

        Grand Cinemas has a strict NO FOOD or DRINK policy. We reserve the right to refuse admission into the cinema halls, screens or beyond the ticket control area with food, drink or Ice Cream bought from outside the premises. All cinemas display the necessary signage, raising awareness of the policy.

        As a food operator we offer a wide range of snacks which will cater for our patrons, in addition to protecting cinema furnishings and customer clothing.

        (Italics mine)

        Last edited 05/03/14 6:34 pm

          HAHA bugger that chain.

            Trust me when i tell you that it doesn't seem to stop anyone. But technically they could kick you out.

    Question: Why don't cinemas provide a page on their fancy websites dedicated to the candy bar where people can check out the latest combo deals before getting there, saving everybody lots of time?

    it would be nice to browse their list of lollies to decide what you want too.

    Last edited 05/03/14 11:17 am

    I used to spend $20 on food at the cinemas, they put the price up by 50cents, i told them thats crazy and from then i rarely ever buy anything there (unless im in a big hurry). I almost always bring water from home of buy from supermarket, if i want a choctop ill buy some drumsticks from the supermarket for less.

    Then the movie prices went up too much so i rarely go to the cinemas at all now, just wait for DVD when it costs $3 instead of >$30 (for two). And now i have a baby will probably go even less often.

    Another reason why I rarely go to the movies. last time was gravity....

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