Cinemas are matching grown-up movies with grown-up munchies

Children aren't likely to flock to the movies this holiday season, and that could be bad for movie concession stand sales. Kids are the big popcorn and Raisinets buyers, but this Christmas, there is no "E.T." or "Tootsie" to lure them in. Movies like "Sudden Impact" and "Terms of Endearment" are more likely to appeal to grown-ups, and adults are not very generous when it comes to movie munchies.

These kinds of movies -- and audiences drawn to them -- are indicative of the changing profile of film aficionados. And concession sales are crucial, accounting for 20 to 30 percent of annual movie theater revenues. To keep this menus that will appeal to more sophisticated or ethnic palates.

Some California theaters are already doing a booming business with flicksters feasting on nachos -- tortilla chips drenched in melted jalapeno cheese.

Hispanic candy is also a big seller at Metropolitan Theaters' Los Angeles movie houses. Such south-of-the-border treats as Camote (dried sweet potato slices processed in syrup), Calaboza (candied pumpkin slices), Jamoncillo (fudgelike confection), and Alfajor (shredded coconut candy) "collectively outsell American sweets," says Skip Stefanson, director of refreshment sales at Metropolitan. The 80-cinema chain is in Los Angeles, Palm Springs, and Santa Barbara.

Meanwhile, popcorn is no longer just popcorn. Mr. Stefanson and other concessionaires are licking their lips over the prospects of flavored "gourmet" popcorn -- such as caramel or pizza or cheese and garlic. "We're considering having a flavor of the month," he says. Plain popcorn is already a hot item, accounting for about 40 percent of total sales. Refreshment vendors hope the flavored variety will draw upon this established market.

Some theaters, mostly on the East and West Coasts, have been dipping into ice cream once again. The cool snack had disappeared from many theaters over the last 15 years. It was too expensive and too slow to serve. "Now, it's coming back because there's an ice cream culture out there," says William Glazer, executive vice-president of Sack Theaters in New England.

In February, when Sack opens a new cinema in Boston's Copley Place, a multimillion-dollar office, hotel, and shopping complex, Emack & Bolio's gourmet ice cream will top the concession menu. Croissants and espresso will also be offered. Fine foods tie in well with the fine "foreign and unique films," Mr. Glazer says.

Such cinematic appetizers appeal to the older audiences, which, demographers say, constitute a growing percentage of theater patrons. But in the past, this group has largely ignored the concession stand.

For example, "On Golden Pond" drew a large older audience which helped make it a hit at the box office. But the film flopped at the candy counter, explains Jack Leonard, vice-president of concessions at the 1,034-screen General Cinema Corporation.

"Your best [concession] sales come from comedies, westerns, and family Walt Disney-type films," says Charles Winans, executive director of the National Association of Concessionaires. Such films attract the under-30 crowd, which buys the most snacks. And, Mr. Winans says, "We did a joint survey with Coca-Cola and found that the likelihood of a concession sale increases 1,000 percent if a parent is accompanied by a child."

"The worst films [for refreshment sales] are the hard R-rated -- like 'Dirty Harry.' You don't get the under-17 big buyers," says Jack Leonard at General Cinema.

While cinema owners say drawing-power of a movie for refreshment sales does not dictate film selection, one snack vendor confided that a film still pulling in strong concession receipits might be held over even if ticket sales have dwindled.

In addition to the concession menu changes, some theaters are looking at movie-restaurant combinations to appeal to adult cinemagoers.

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