Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Movie Theaters

By Jake Schroeder
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Photo Courtesy: gautherottiphaine/Pixabay

You probably pay a visit to your local movie theater every once in a while. The concession snacks, the soft seats, the big screen — it's a fun night out that people have been enjoying for decades. But unless you've been an employee at one, how can you be sure you really know anything about movie theaters? What takes place behind the scenes that customers never hear about? Well, today you can find out. Take a look at these insider cinema secrets.

You Might Not Be Getting the Best Quality

Just like any other business, movie theaters have to make a profit in order to stay afloat. One of the ways they do this is by using a slightly lower screening quality. The highest quality is harder to maintain, and therefore costs the theater more to use.

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Photo Courtesy: John Fellner/Flickr

If a movie is listed as "extreme digital," that’s code for "second-tier quality." It's not the end of the world, though. You can always choose to spend a little bit more to see the movie in the highest quality available, which isIMAX digital. The extra bucks could be worth it!

Why the Popcorn Smells so Good

You know how you walk into a theater and are immediately hit with a wave of delicious popcorn smell? Well, it turns out that this enticing scent isn't created entirely by accident — workers have a variety of ways to boost this popcorn perfume to its fullest potential.

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Photo Courtesy: Dan/Flickr

Some theaters mix a concoction of oils and chemicals into the popcorn to strengthen its smell, and they install special vents in the popper to blow the scent through the theater. It may seem extreme, but it makes sense — they know that once customers smell that buttery goodness, resistance is futile!

Don't Look Too Closely at the Theater Seats

It may be for the best that lights are dim inside the theater. Sometimes showings are scheduled almost back to back in the same room, and employees don't have enough time to clean all the spilled soda and discarded chewing gum before the next round of people show up.

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Photo Courtesy: Bru-nO/Pixabay

This means that your seat could have trash underneath it, the floor could be scattered with popcorn and your arm-rest could be sticky. Try not to get too angry with the employees, though — they can't help that customers are messy. On busy weekends, it's especially hard to keep things clean.


Why Tickets Are Pricey

Let's face it — at most places, movie tickets aren't cheap. You could easily spend the cost of a fancy dinner just buying tickets and snacks alone! When you understand where that money goes, however, it starts to make more sense.

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Photo Courtesy: star5112/Flickr

When a movie premieres, theaters only keep 20 to 25 percent of ticket sales, while the rest goes to the studios that made the movie. It's only after a few months that the theater is able to keep the entire cost of tickets. Now that you know why tickets are so expensive, it might not hurt so much to buy them.

They Need You to Buy Concessions

Since they're not making much off of tickets, movie theaters depend heavily on concession sales. That's why your small popcorn costs $5 and a box of skittles $4! These high prices are infamous, and customers love to complain about them, but if things were cheaper, the movie theater likely wouldn't stay in business.

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Photo Courtesy: Liz West/Flickr

Now you know why they pump up the popcorn smells and force you to walk by the snack stands on your way to the movie — they desperately want you to spend a little more on food so that they can keep screening your favorite films.

They Might Be Switching It Up on You

Movie theaters have control over how much popcorn goes into a small portion, how much goes into a medium, and so on. Because of this, the sizes often change from theater to theater and from one year to the next within the same business.

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Photo Courtesy: Leonard J Matthews/Flickr

This is partly because portion sizes in the U.S. have increased in general — we expect more food in our orders, and popcorn isn't an exception. To keep customers happy, a small might have been the medium a few years ago, and the same goes for drinks. In other words, don't order concessions on a diet.


They're Keeping an Eye on You

This secret is shocking for many people, but it's true. You may feel anonymous hidden in a dark theater with nothing but a movie screen in front of you, but workers have their ways of keeping an eye on people.

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Photo Courtesy: R.J. Oriez/Warren Air Force Base

Many theaters have cameras facing the audience so that employees can see any shenanigans happening. That means they can see when you make-out with your girlfriend or throw popcorn at someone in front of you. Maybe it feels like an invasion of privacy, but it's for safety's sake — most employees don't care if you decide to have a popcorn war.

They Aren't as Strict as You Think

This one varies from theater to theater, but most places aren't too concerned with under-aged kids getting in to see R-rated movies. If you look young, they're not going to sell you tickets without a valid ID, but if someone over 18 buys tickets for other people, no one will be the wiser.

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Photo Courtesy: igorovysannykov/Pixabay

Another way of sneaking in is by purchasing tickets for a movie that starts around the same time as the one you actually want to see, and then simply finding the room for the R-rated flick instead. If you're subtle about it, many employees won't care.

You'd Be Surprised How Many People Try to Get It On in a Theater

It's a bit of a teenage cliche, but that it makes it all the more appealing to young couples out on a date — or older ones reliving their youth. They pick a pair of seats way in the back and proceed to play tonsil hockey for an hour and a half.

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Photo Courtesy: Fabrice Florin/Flickr

If employees see that a couple is taking it too far, or another customer complains, workers will come and break things up. It's a relatively common occurrence in theaters, but that doesn't make it any less annoying to bystanders — at least pick a movie that's going to be empty!


Viewers Can Have Strong Reactions to Movies

If you've ever seen a gruesome scene and felt sick to your stomach, then you know what we're talking about. Some directors like to push the envelope when it comes to intense scenes — whether they be sad, violent, shocking or scary — and not every viewer can handle it.

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Photo Courtesy: Whitney Tucker/Cannon Air Force Base

Talk to a movie theater employee and chances are they'll have stories of people who ran from theaters with their hand over their mouth about to puke, or people leaving with tears streaming down their faces. There are also cases where people faint during a movie, though it isn't as common.

They Know You're Sneaking in Food

Do you really think they don't know you have candy shoved into your bulging pockets? Or soda from the corner store in your purse? Theater workers know that everyone sneaks food into a movie, and most workers don't particularly care. After all, they would probably do the same thing in your position.

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Photo Courtesy: Lee Campbell/Wikimedia Commons

The only time they might stop you is if your food is literally overflowing from your bag — otherwise, just try to be respectful and clean up after yourself. If they were kind enough to let you in the theater with food, then it's the least you can do.

3D Isn't So Hot Anymore

When they first started releasing 3D movies, they were all the rage. Imagine a movie that leaps from the screen and into your lap! Nowadays, however, 3D isn't as popular an option when it comes to watching movies. The numbers show that most people prefer a classic 2D viewing experience.

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Photo Courtesy: Mediamodifier/Pixabay

Why is this? Apparently, humans aren't wired for these kinds of virtual experiences — the protruding images make your eyes think you're moving, but the brain knows you're sitting still. These signals conflict with each other and make the viewer feel very uncomfortable.


Previews Are Only Getting Longer

Cinemas are always looking for ways to improve their profits. With dwindling crowds, it's not always easy to stay alive. Their main income is concessions, but another important source of revenue is previews. That's right — your least favorite part of seeing a movie.

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Photo Courtesy: sampane/Pixabay

In recent years, the length of previews has increased as theaters search for more ways to make money. It's not the most exciting part of a trip to the movies, but it's necessary for your theater to continue functioning. And hey — thanks to previews, you don't have to worry about missing the movie when you're running late.

Employees Get Some Sweet Perks

Sure, employees get discounts on food and free tickets for their friends, but they also get secret perks that the public doesn't know about. For example, many theaters give their workers the opportunity to watch movies before they open them up to the public. Oh, and it's free, of course!

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Photo Courtesy: Kenneth Lu/Flickr

This keeps workers up-to-date on the latest releases so that they can give customers informed advice about which movie to see. It also keeps workers happy, because who wouldn't love to see Star Wars before anyone else? The best part is that they get the whole theater to themselves.

Seeing a Movie Can Be Bad for Your Health?

Who knew that going to the movies could put your health in jeopardy? Studies have shown that the noise level in theaters can be so loud as to damage your hearing — the equivalent of going to a rock concert without earplugs. Unsurprisingly, action movies are the most dangerous when it comes to loud sounds.

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Photo Courtesy: TPHeinz/Pixabay

If you're worried about protecting your eardrums, you might want to consider bringing along a pair of earplugs, especially if you like to go to the cinema often. After all, better safe than sorry, right? You don't want to lose your hearing over Fast and Furious.


They're Not Actually Watching You From the Projection Booth

Many people think that little square window in the back is where workers sit and look out over the audience. If something goes wrong with the movie — like glitching — crowd members tend to shout at the projection booth because they think an employee will hear them.

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Photo Courtesy: Towpilot/Wikimedia Commons

You can shout as much as you want, but no one will hear you because no one is up there. Workers test out the movie beforehand, but when it comes time for the show, the projector does all the work. That means you'll have to look for a worker in the lobby if problems arise.

People Get Revved Up in a Theater

With so many people in a theater at once, it's not surprising that they sometimes get into arguments. It doesn't take much to set some people off — just a well-timed phone ring or people laughing too loudly can be enough. It's not a strange occasion when a theater employee has to break up a fight between customers.

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Photo Courtesy: Wikimania2009/Flickr

You'd think people would be relaxed at a movie theater — after all, it's a leisurely activity meant to be fun. Even so, fights break out all the same. If you find yourself tempted to lash out at the loud teenagers next to you, try asking kindly instead.

Piracy Is No Joke

Plenty of people see a lucrative opportunity when it comes to movie theaters. There are always people searching for recently released movies online, and other people looking to provide them. A pirated version that's shaky and low-quality might sound unpleasant to you, but there's someone somewhere who will watch it.

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Photo Courtesy: Paul Komarek/Wikimedia Commons

Filming a movie in the theaters is breaking the law, and it's no small offense, either. Employees are encouraged to look for perpetrators and are offered monetary incentives for catching them — sometimes even an extra $500. So know that they're on the lookout, and you could very well be arrested.


They Might Be Ripping You Off

We know that movie theaters want you to spend money on concessions and that concessions are expensive in order to keep their business afloat. Sometimes, however, they try to trick you into buying more using combo deals that aren't actually worthwhile.

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Photo Courtesy: GohRo/Flickr

They peddle something as a combo when it's not any cheaper than it would have been otherwise. A hot dog and popcorn combo, for example, might be the same price as buying popcorn and a hot dog separately. Before you fall for it, do the math. It might just be a way to get you to spend more!

Employees Have Fun After Hours

It seems like there's no end to the perks that movie theater employees enjoy. Not only do they get to see movies before anyone else, but some theaters allow workers to play video games on the big screen after everyone's gone home.

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Photo Courtesy: Peakpx

It's not as easy to do these days with changing projector technology, but it used to be more common. Imagine playing guitar hero on a 30-foot tall screen! It's not every day that you get that kind of opportunity. That combined with crazy customers means working at the cinema can give you more stories than you think.

They Don't Control the Showings

If you've ever been bothered by which movies the theater shows and when, taking it up with the theater's manager won't get you far. Corporate is the one responsible for choosing the films and showtimes, so you have to take it up with them instead, and it’s not likely to work.

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Photo Courtesy: Max Pixel

The exception, of course, is small, independent movie theaters, but such places tend to show fewer blockbuster films and more artistic ones, anyway. They're the businesses to go to if you're looking for a less mainstream viewing experience, and also if you want to support your local community.


You Won't Believe What Employees Find Under the Seats

We've already established that moviegoers can be messy. The extent of their messiness, however, will shock you. Many theater employees have reported finding baby diapers discarded under seats. That's right — someone is changing their baby in the middle of the movie theater.

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Photo Courtesy: Peakpx

Yes, it's gross. When you think about it, though, it's also kind of impressive. You really have to be a master at parenting to change your baby on a theater seat without the people around you noticing. It's probably a good idea to throw it away yourself after the movie is over — diapers shouldn't be an employee's responsibility!

If You're Polite, They May Reimburse You

Going to a movie should be a pleasant — and quiet — activity. Every once in a while, something can ruin your movie that's out of your control — for example, crying babies, disruptive audience members or a wonky projection. If this should happen to you, try speaking with an employee and explaining the situation.

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Photo Courtesy: Bridget Coila/Flickr

If you're polite about it and don’t shout their head off, the employee may give you a pass to a free movie another night. They understand when an experience gets ruined, and believe it or not, they want to help you out, especially if you're not blaming them.

The Food Isn't Always the Freshest

Despite the fortune you spent on that theater popcorn, it might not be the freshest batch. Popcorn lasts about two days before going stale, and cinemas use as much as they can for as long as they can; your bucket of butter and salt might be a day old.

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Photo Courtesy: Mercury Jane/Free Stock Photos

The same goes for other concessions snacks, specifically those that don't come pre-packaged. Hot dogs, nachos and pretzels are all notorious for being old and dried out at a theater. If you get a snack that's hard and chewy, just let a worker know and they shouldn't have a problem replacing it.


What Employees Don't Care About

Employees generally don't care when people sneak food into a theater or when under-aged kids sneak into an R-rated movie. The other thing they usually don't care about is when you go for a double feature — aka seeing two movies for the price of one.

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Photo Courtesy: Vladvictoria/Pixabay

It's not particularly hard to do, either — when the first movie ends, just head over to a second movie that's just beginning. Unless it's a particularly busy showing and you're taking up a paying customer's seat, no one really cares. If it's a weekday, go ahead and spend the whole afternoon at the cinema!

They Have the Power to Blacklist You

Movie theaters don't play around when it comes to inappropriate behavior. If there is a particularly difficult customer who is constantly stirring up trouble or someone gets caught trying to pirate one of their movies, the theater has the power to blacklist that person from ever visiting the theater again.

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Photo Courtesy: Aaron Burden/Good Free Photos

If the infraction is bad enough, they may also inform other theaters in the area about that person's hijinks — cinemas tend to look out for one another. Long story short? If you ever want to enjoy a movie in the theater again, don't get on the theater's bad side.

Small Theaters Can't Stay Alive

As technology has developed, more and more movies are digitally filmed. This saves money for film-makers, but it requires special projectors for screening at theaters. These projectors don't come cheap, and smaller theaters have gone out of business because they couldn't afford the new technology.

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Photo Courtesy: anokarina/Flickr

If there's a small theater in your town, consider supporting it more often. You'll enjoy yourself with a nice film in a more intimate setting, and they'll certainly appreciate your business. Some small theaters even serve alcohol these days, so you can grab a beer while you're at it! And what goes well with beer? Popcorn.


They're Worried About Your Safety

The United States has seen a tragic increase in shootings over the years, and one of those shootings took place at a midnight showing in a movie theater. Following this incident, many theaters removed midnight showings and began taking extra safety precautions.

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Photo Courtesy: Max Pixel

As a result, you'll find that many theaters don't allow backpacks or larger bags in showings anymore. It's an upsetting topic to think about, but it's comforting to know that cinemas care about their customers and are working to make them feel safe. No one should have to worry about their life when they go see Wonder Woman.

Try to Order Quickly at the Snack Booth

On an empty weekday, you can take as long as you want to pick out your size of popcorn and type of soda. If there is ever a line behind you, however, try to make it snappy. It might seem like common sense, but it's a pet peeve for movie theater workers.

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Photo Courtesy: Vladvictoria/Pixabay

Ordering food at a theater isn't the same as at a restaurant — you want the perfect snack combination that will last you the entire film. But so does everyone else, and they might be late to the movie if everyone takes five minutes to think of their order.

Why They Won't Give You Extra Cups (or Change for a Dollar)

Ask a concession worker for an extra cup and they'll probably say no — but not because they don't like you. It's because theaters have strict inventory at the end of the night, and if the number of cups they handed out doesn't match the number of soda sales, the employee could be in trouble.

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Photo Courtesy: Steven Depolo/Flickr

The cash drawers are also monitored. If a worker's drawer is one dollar off, it's a point against them. They also don't have the power to open the cash drawer unless a transaction is taking place, so they can't give you change unless you're buying something.