Want a three-course dinner at the cinema? No, I bleeding don’t

Donald Clarke: Food sales keep movie theatres going, despite the outrage it causes

‘At some point in the 1980s, we adopted the American habit of serving popcorn in vessels the size of Martello towers’

‘At some point in the 1980s, we adopted the American habit of serving popcorn in vessels the size of Martello towers’

 

“Fancy a three-course meal *in* a cinema?” Time Out asks. No, I bleeding don’t. Do you fancy a three-course meal during evensong at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral? Do you fancy spit-roasting a hog at a recital of the Goldberg Variations? Get up the yard and stay there.

Call this the second shoe dropping. A few weeks ago, we moaned about the ubiquity of smartphones in cinemas.

Today we tackle a complaint that has bubbled since Ephraim B Hickleplopper first spilt whelks on the Nickelodeon at Coney Island. There are those who view the cinema as a a warehouse-sized trough within which they and their fellow pigs can gulp as much swill as the concession buckets will allow.

Then there are those people who won’t be sent to re-education camps when I become First Secretary.

Just as we got rid of rancid ciggy smoke, the movie houses decided to turn themselves into down-market food courts

In the distant past the swill comprised larger bags of sweets stirred into modestly proportioned soft drinks. At some point in the 1980s, we adopted the American habit of serving popcorn in vessels the size of Martello towers and Coca Cola in volumes that could float a battleship.

Nachos and hot dogs followed. By the turn of the century, cinemas had taken on the quality of medieval feasts at which guests gnawed at fowl, swigged back mead and flung bones on the sawdust while paying only occasional attention to the gyrations of the jester on the dais. It hardly mattered if you’d bought a ticket for Gladiator or What Women Want.

The film was incidental to the social and culinary experience. Gulp down another EnormoCola. Yell hellos at your friend at the other corner of the room. Ethan Hunt doesn’t require our attention to find possibilities in an allegedly impossible mission.

Like the use of phones in cinemas, excessive grubbing in movie theatres is one of those outrages that draws such universal condemnation one wonders how it still goes on. Most everybody is appalled by murder and, sure enough, very few of us go in for killing our fellow man.

Articles such as this attract near-universal support. Everyone seems to be annoyed by the stench of popcorn, the rattling of ice cubes and the dripping menace from nacho containers. Just as we got rid of rancid ciggy smoke, the movie houses decided to turn themselves into down-market food courts.

Yet the ritual continues. Cinema chains could not survive without their food stands. Either everyone is lying, or you and I live sheltered lives.

Stinking comestibles

A degree of snobbery comes into these conversations. Arthouse cinemas used to serve little more than home-baked sawdust cake and organic wheat-germ punch.

That’s changed a bit now – you can even get popcorn with your Almodóvar – but the full-on avalanche of stinking comestibles rarely troubles those attending Peruvian folk dramas. Food with films was seen as a down-market experience. We expect nothing more of the appalling rabble at Super-Thing IV.

In recent years, that notion has been turned on its head. Upmarket cinemas such as the Stella in Rathmines and Ranelagh deliver actual hot food and jugs of wine to your seat before the film kicks off.

There is certainly a market for the luxury experience, but, if the medium is to flourish, it must also find a place in everyday life

It’s not enough for cinema to be an event, it now must also be An Event. The high-end experience is no more or less distracting for the food being served in a classier trough, but at least we’re not moving to the cinematic equivalent of full dinner theatre.

Hold on, Odeon Luxe & Dine is on its way to London. The story in Time Out points us to developments at that chain’s new Islington Square location. The freshly cooked food, aimed at the elusive “gourmet”, will take in “wagyu beef, Moving Mountains vegan burgers, wild boar hotdogs and flatbread pizza”.

Carol Welch, MD of Odeon, added: “It’s everything that our guests already love about the Luxe offering.” It’s not everything I want. I want a guarantee that nobody next to me will be eating wagyu beef, flatbread pizza or anything else more odorous than a salted peanut. 

All this reflects the latest panic at the death of the cinematic experience. This has been going on since television challenged the medium during the 1950s. Now the exhibitors are frightened of the streaming services. Once the solution was 3-D or Cinemascope.

Now, the idea is to talk up cinema as a special event. There is certainly a market for the luxury experience, but, if the medium is to flourish, it must also find a place in everyday life. Movies aren’t grand opera. They began as cheap popular entertainment and the theatrical experience will only survive if that core market is maintained.

Anyway, the food is going nowhere. It keeps the multiplexes in business. In fussier, more expensive form it defines smaller niche venues. The millions who object to the smell and the noise will continue to bellow hopelessly into the wind. That’s how the world works.   

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