Going To The Movies: Thumbs Down

Mark Knoller is a White House Correspondent for CBS News.
I don't go the movies much but I had a day off last week and went to see an afternoon showing of "Michael Clayton," the George Clooney legal thriller.

The movie was fine. Not great, but no complaints.

Yet the movie theater experience left much to be desired.

Take the starting time. The movie clock in the newspaper said 1:00PM. But the film didn't start until 1:19PM. That's nearly 20 minutes of commercials and coming attractions.

That's an awful long time to ask customers to wait for something for which we paid in advance.

And by the time the feature came on, I had eaten much of my popcorn.

Speaking of which, the price of movie snacks seems exceedingly high – especially popcorn.

I bought a small popcorn and small diet soda. Total cost: $9.00. That was more than the $7.50 for the ticket.

The fact is, most movie theaters are glorified snack bars. On average, they keep only 50% or less of the ticket price, far less for blockbusters in their opening weeks. Much of a theater's profit comes from the concession stand.

Regal, one of the nation's largest multiplex chains, reported the 3rd quarter profit margin at its snack bars exceeded 86%.

And the markup – especially on popcorn – is eye-popping. The Los Angeles Times last year calculated that just $30 of raw popcorn can translate into as much as $3,000 in sales at the snack bar.

That sounds like a markup that would make the oil industry blush.

It explains why they don't let you bring your own snacks into the movies.

But it wouldn't surprise me if some consumer-oriented member of Congress tried to address these concerns in legislation.

Imagine "The Truth in Movie Start Times Act of 2007." It would require theater operators to begin their feature films within five minutes of their listed times – or members of the audience would be entitled to a refund.

Or how about "The Snack Bar Fair Pricing and Equity Act of 2007," restricting markups on popcorn, hot dogs and soda sold at theaters and ball parks.

It seems to me the movie theaters themselves could attract more business by advertising: "Our movies start on time!" or "Our popcorn is reasonably priced!"

Of course, that might mean the theater was more crowded, and would keep me from going. Even on a day off.

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    Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent.