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Popcorn, the snack that saved the movies

(CBS News) POP goes the cash register at a movie theaters where pop goes the CORN! Mo Rocca has a bucket of facts and figures:

The biggest moneymaker at movie theaters last year wasn't from a comic book or Steven Spielberg, and didn't involve werewolves or vampires.

Just like every year, the number one blockbuster was the concession stand and its most bankable star, popcorn.

Each year Americans eat on average about 13 gallons of the stuff - a lot of it at the movies. The bag you pay $5 for only costs the theatre about 50 cents.

That $5 bag of popcorn costs a theater 50 cents to make. CBS News

"A lot of people buy popcorn," said Melissa Rocha, a manager at Film Forum, an independent movie house in Manhattan. The New York Times gave their popcorn a rave review!

She says the sound of the popcorn machine makes her a little bit nervous, "because usually when it starts happening that means it's starting to get busy in the theater."

"So you associate this sound with crowd control?" Rocca asked.

"Yes, And it getting busy," she laughed.

But popcorn and the movies didn't always go together, says Andrew Smith, the man who wrote the book on popcorn.

"Movie theatres early on had no popcorn whatsoever," said Smith. "They had no snack bar. They had grand lobbies and they had gorgeous rugs. And the last thing that they wanted was people with popcorn."

So what happened? The Depression.

"When the Depression hit, lots of movie theatres closed," said Smith. "But then they found out if they lowered their admission fee, then they could actually make a larger profit if they could sell snack food, which popcorn was by far their largest profit margin."

"So just get people in the seats, get them into the movie house, and then they buy a lot of popcorn?"

"Yes. In the 1930s, the best comment was, 'Find a good place to sell popcorn and build a movie theatre there."

Popcorn not only saved movie houses, says Smith, but also played a role in what ended up on screen.

"Let's All Go to the Lobby," a memorable theater advertisement for the concession stand. CBS News

"What theatre owners found was those movies that were targeted at children were the ones that sold the most popcorn," said Smith. "And so consequently they made their profit on Saturday matinees and on Sunday matinees."

It wasn't just kids' movies that turned out to be popcorn-friendly, says Smith. Grown-ups were chowing down during suspenseful dramas.

"What they found very quickly was adults would eat a lot more popcorn when you have drama in the theaters -- It's almost an automatic thing that it's there and there's tension going on."

"So people were probably eating a lot of popcorn during 'The Poseidon Adventure,'" suggested Rocca.

All quite the accomplishment for a snack with not a lot of flavor.

Which is where that neon yellow stuff -- no, it's not really butter, it's mostly soybean oil -- and salt come in. The saltier the popcorn, the more you'll need a giant soda to slake your thirst. And that's just fine with theater owners!

"When I'm leaving a movie house, and I feel that stickiness underneath my shoes, should I blame popcorn or soda for that?" asked Rocca.

"You should be proud that those products helped make that theatre possible, and make those movies possible," said Smith. "Because I don't think there would be movie theatres, and I don't think there would be films, at least in theatres, without popcorn."

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