Arts Extra: Food Fight!

It's not quite as bloody as Hannibal vs. the FBI. But the stakes in this duel at your local multiplex are higher-billions of dollars a year-and the competition is sometimes just as ruthless. It's the battle between popcorn and other concession-stand stacks.

Most of the nation's biggest movie theaters are either in bankruptcy protection or perilously close. What keeps them going are lawyers and snack stands-and only one of them engages in price markups that would embarrass loan sharks. Did you know that the $4.50 tub of popcorn you bought at the multiplex last night cost the theater but 17 cents?

That explains why, as Hollywood studios showcase their new movies at the annual National Association of Theater Owners' ShoWest convention in Las Vegas this week, the real drama is on the convention floor. That's where vendors for every snack imaginable-and unimaginable, like the new Burgerpipe-are fighting to reel in more theatre-chain customers.

"The upside is unbelievable!" boasts Michael Rosenberg, whose candy company has developed a "paperless" fruit roll (in fruit punch, strawberry and watermelon flavors) available in kiddie-size "snack attack" portions. "Because there is no paper, there's less mess on the floor for theater owners to clean up. We're going to get a patent on this," he says, adding that General Mills until now has controlled fruit-roll sales because no one else could figure out how to make it without the company's patented liner.

Nowhere is the competition saltier than between pretzel makers. J&J Snack Foods, makers of the SuperPretzel, which racked up sales of $19.3 million last year, is unveiling a new stuffed snack called Pretzel Fillers, with such varieties as "twisted pizza," "cinnamon apple harvest," "hollerin' jalapeno" and "sweet dream cream cheese." "The soft pretzel itself is a commodity item," says J&J's Michael Kulka. "The stuffed pretzel, however, is at the top of the gourmet market." And the profit margins are pretty lofty, too. The new stuffed pretzels will retail at about $3 to $4 apiece, a steep markup from their wholesale cost of 70 cents, but still a better deal for moviegoers than popcorn. "The nature of the theater business is they have to charge a lot of money for concessions," Kulka says. "That's where they make money-not on a film."

Indeed, according to figures released by the Motion Picture Association of America, actual movie theater admissions in 2000 fell from the previous year. In fact, admissions are the lowest they've been since 1997. Overall box-office receipts rose to $7.7 billion thanks to higher ticket prices. But the number of tickets sold decreased by 44 million from 1999-about a 20 percent decline.

With theater owners making as much as a third of their income (or close to $3 billion annually) from concession sales, 44 million fewer customers queuing up to buy Goobers and Raisinets is worrisome. And that's why Josh Schreider thinks his Bavarian Bros. pretzels are part of the solution.

Using aggressive sales tactics usually reserved for getting rid of used cars, Schreider launched his pretzel company with one remanufactured machine seven years ago and today is in United Artists, AMC and General Cinema theaters. "Pretzels became the hot item in the '90s," he says, adding that his brand has a "fresh-baked taste"-even though theater owners need only thaw and warm them. Like his rivals, Schreider's twisted dough comes in flavors, including "super cinnamon" and "garlic parmesan." He boasts that his low-spoilage recipe keeps his pretzels fresh after six hours in the warmer and helped make other pretzels obsolete. ("We took 'em out," is what he says of one gourmet pretzel company that no longer has a booth at ShoWest.)

Some concession sellers are repackaging old concepts in the hopes of sparking new demand. The movie theater equivalent of a fast-food value meal is taking off, where younger moviegoers can get a scaled-down soda, popcorn and candy in one tray. Ken Vance's Baer and Associates has cooked up a new mini-nacho and cheese package called "Nachos to Go" that he promises will leave theater owners with 18 percent fewer leftover chips and cheese and more profits: The chip packs cost theater owners about 13 cents and sell for $3.50 and up.

Among other new snack offerings are frozen Oreo cookies, Zours candy ("They are just sour enough to be enjoyed and not endured," says Just Born's Greg Pappariella) and Crispy Critters, miniature chocolate-chip cookies that first debuted in a Miami storefront. Now in eight theaters, Crispy Critters could soon spread across the country, hopes company president Larry Berrin. "It's elevated the level of snack items," he says of his baked goods, which come in five varieties. "These are the best cookies that money can buy, and customers like them because they are different." So may theater owners, as the margins are yummy, too: A bag of 40 small cookies sells for about $3.50, but costs exhibitors about 75 cents, and Berrin says some theaters are selling $400 worth of his cookies a day.

Some of the new snacks being unveiled at the convention are best seen in a darkened theater.

Some of the new snacks being unveiled at the convention are best seen in a darkened theater. That would include the destined-to-be-infamous Burgerpipe, which is a flavored hamburger formed in the shape of a hot dog. Thanks to no artificial dyes, the resulting snack has the pallor of an infant with jaundice, but the Burgerpipe's makers say the taste more than compensates for the appearance. "They are nothing like a hot dog, except for the shape," says Burgerpipe's Nova O'Brien. The tubular sandwich also comes in BBQ, chicken, potato and vegetable flavors. While we couldn't get past the unusual hue, the appeal to theater owners is obvious. Selling for as much as $3.95, the Burgerpipe carries a wholesale cost of 50 cents.

All the same, it will be popcorn that both audiences and theater owners continue to crave. Weaver Popcorn has a new hybrid that it says fills more bags per pound of kernels than other brands, with a 50-pound sack of Weaver yielding 7,000 tubs of popcorn. And at a markup of more than 2,500 percent, it will be a long time before theaters ever pack up the popper.