For many theaters, the transition to selling snacks helped save them from the crippling Depression. In the mid-1930s, the movie theater business started to go under. “But those that began serving popcorn and other snacks,” Smith explains, “survived.”
Natasha Geiling provides a fascinating account of how we came to eat popcorn at the movies. Early cinemas, who were trying to replicate a high-class theater experience, didn't want anything to do with popcorn. Because it would have ruined the expensive carpets and upholstery, many cinemas expressly forbade popcorn.
During the Great Depression, however, many cinemas were saved because they started selling popcorn and other snacks at a high markup.
In a way, cinemas have now come full circle. Many new cinemas are following what I think of as the Alamo Drafthouse Model. They're no longer trying to replicate an experience based on the theater, but one that owes more to our behavior when watching movies at home combined with what we want from a nice night out. Many newer cinemas offer a nice meal along with good wine and beer. Often the experience will be tied to the film itself, offering something that we couldn't get just watching Netflix on the couch.