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preet banerjee

You would be surprised how many food smugglers there are in Canada. Based on a very unscientific survey of about 20 people I talked to in the past week, 50 per cent of us regularly smuggle food.

Well, into movie theatres, that is.

The recent class-action lawsuit launched against an AMC theatre in Michigan by Joshua Thompson has ignited a lot of debate. His suit claims the prices of popcorn, snacks and pop are so high that it contravenes the state's Consumer Protection Act because similar products can be bought for a fraction of the price.

Mr. Thompson didn't have a problem with AMC until the theatre started barring him from bringing his own food into the shows. Outside food and drink is normally not permitted in movie theatres in Canada, and people have complained about the grossly inflated prices at concession stands for years. My survey respondents amazed me with the magnitude of their exploits: entire pizzas, two-litre bottles of pop with plastic cups, even multiple courses of Chinese food.

It's easy to see why people flout the rules so brazenly. Kerry K. Taylor, author of the book 397 Ways To Save Money and the popular personal-finance blog, says you can make popcorn for about 50 cents a pound. For less than a dollar, five people can enjoy popcorn, flavoured any way they want, at home. At the theatre, it's pretty much the reverse: A medium-sized bag with topping can run close to $7.

The concession stand is where theatres make the bulk of their profit. Sure, the ticket prices are not exactly cheap, but very little of that actually goes to the theatre. Movie studios lease movies to the theatres and can demand an 80-per-cent cut of the box office for the first week or two of a blockbuster, with that ratio declining throughout the run. It's been reported that some blockbuster releases, like Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, commanded the full 100 per cent of ticket sales in the first week for some theatres in North America. For your local theatre to stay open, they have to make money somewhere. And quite frankly, any company competing for your discretionary spending has the right to set prices wherever they like. It's a free market. No one is forcing Apple fans to line up for the new iPad this week.

Of course as a consumer, you can vote with your wallet. You can do the obvious, and simply refuse to pay inflated prices for snacks. We've always had that option and lots of people exercise it. Others refuse to go to the movies at all. Considering a family of four can easily spend $100 for tickets and snacks, not to mention parking and transportation, it's pretty easy to justify a home theatre as a long-term investment.

But just as we can brown-bag lunches and prepare meals at home, some of us choose to eat out now and then in spite of the cost. I'm a big movie fan and I don't mind lining up on opening night, buying high-priced snacks, and putting up with all the people who just can't stop talking during a movie. There is something about going to the movies that you can't capture at home.

Sneaking food into a theatre is ultimately hurting that experience. While pirating movies off the Internet hurts studios and everyone involved in the making of films, food smuggling is hurting the people involved in the showing of those movies. If you're opposed to high-priced concessions, then skip eating at the movies altogether and hope that supply and demand leads to lower prices.

Launching a lawsuit against high-priced snacks is something I would only expect to see in the movies.

Ways to save at the concession stand

Sometimes the largest sizes of drinks and popcorn come with free refills. If you have a big group, instead of each person buying an individual bag of popcorn, you can get one large one and keep getting it refilled.

Dinner and movie combos: Local restaurants may offer specials (typically earlier in the week) where you can get a ticket and main course for a bundled price.

Costco has special packages like the "Cineplex Night Out" package which provides two general admission tickets, 1 regular popcorn and 2 regular soft drinks for $24.99. They also have a similar package with one extra regular popcorn for $27.99 from Empire Theatres.

Preet Banerjee, B.Sc, FMA, DMS, FCSI, is a W Network Money Expert, and blogs at You can also follow him on twitter at @PreetBanerjee

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