Chew On This: Popcorn Sales Decline a Little

TIMES STAFF WRITER

First Americans heard about the high fat content in movie theater popcorn. This week we ate less of it. And soon many theaters will be making the salty snack differently.

Sales at the nation's cinemas dropped an average of about 10% after release of a report conducted by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, according to exhibition officials.

For theater operators who depend on concessions for the largest chunk of their incomes, the report and drop in popcorn sales were hard to swallow. But the bad news appears to be only temporary.

Companies representing about 25% of the nation's theaters say they have switched to the lower-saturated-fat canola oil, to hydrogenated canola shortening, or are offering air-popped corn.

"There was a perceptible decline in popcorn sales," acknowledged Barrie Loeks, co-chairman of Sony Theaters, which operates at 175 locations in 15 states. "The message we're getting from our customers is they want the low fat. The drop gave us enough cause for concern that we've made the change to canola oil."

Yet not all popcorn sales were off. A number of exhibitors said the decline was highest in the urban centers and art houses and not even noticeable where action and broad comedy movies were playing. Said one, "You could see no difference at theaters where the futuristic-prison breakout story 'No Escape' was playing, but there was a drop at the romantic film 'Four Weddings and a Funeral.' "

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Some theatergoers seemed totally unfazed when queried about the issue. Musician Sage Guyton of Los Angeles was at the Cineplex Odeon Fairfax, where corn is popped in coconut oil. "If you like it, then I say do it," Guyton said.

At the same theater, student Catherine Howard said she would not be deterred. "I'm going to buy popcorn because it's the movies!"

Stephanie Cornelison, who works at Mann Theaters in Valencia, recounted how a woman approached the concession counter and declared: "I'm outraged that you put all that fat in your popcorn when you don't have to"--and then ordered a large popcorn.

Before the results of the nutrition survey were announced, about 70% of the nation's theaters popped their corn using higher-in-saturated-fat coconut oil, which produces the familiar, good smelling aroma Americans have been used to for decades when they enter the lobby of a movie theater.

With this week's modifications, closer to 50% use coconut oil, with the other half using a version of canola oil or air-popped corn.

That's because of changes by the nation's biggest theater chains: Denver-based United Artists Theater Circuit, the largest with 2,300 theaters across the country, will continue using coconut oil but will also sell air-popped corn. The other two, Kansas City-based AMC Theaters and New York-based Sony Theaters, formerly known as Loews, will switch from coconut oil to canola oil. They are joined by a number of smaller chains, including Orange County-based Edwards Cinemas, which has already converted to canola oil.

James Edwards Sr., head of the Edwards circuit, said his theaters use less oil when they cook with canola, which he claims results in better-tasting popcorn.

For the next week, Edwards Newport theater and a new 12-plex in La Verne will conduct taste tests where customers can sample coconut oil versus canola oil.

Edwards, 87, and the dean of Southern California's exhibitors, said that as soon as he learned of the fat contents, he decided to change. "We're all interested in our health," he said.

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It was the same for Philip Singleton, the chief operating officer of AMC theaters, who runs 30 to 50 miles each week. "I had no idea I was putting all that fat into my body. The study prompted us to look at this as a social issue."

Jayne Hurley of the Center for Science in the Public Interest said she has been overwhelmed by the response to the study. "People are talking about it. And we're thrilled that the nation's theater operators are taking these steps so quickly."

A number of exhibitors from around the country are discussing the issue today at a board meeting of the National Assn. of Theater Owners in Boston.

But the story doesn't end there. Optimistic commodities market traders are buying up canola futures, traded on the Winnipeg Commodity Exchange. According to Rochelle Atlas Maize, a commodities broker at Smith Barney Shearson in Beverly Hills, the price of canola futures has risen "substantially" since April 25--the day the center issued its report.

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