The Popcorn Shortage Is Nothing to Sniff At

Food and beverages have been an important source of revenue for cinemas amid falling attendance. But we would miss the true economic point if we focus solely on the direct effects of this shortage.

[Editor’s note: This is a version of an article published in the Out of Frame Newsletter, an email newsletter about the intersection of art, culture, and ideas. Sign up here to get it in your inbox.]

The Wall Street Journal reported on fears of a popcorn shortage, and the details are pretty crazy.

Amid growing supply-chain snags, theater companies and distributors say that they're running out of concessions, but they also have had trouble finding popcorn supplies like bags, containers, and liners that keep butter from seeping into your lap.

"Cups are so hard to come by that some theater owners are buying unused inventory from closing theaters—even if they have that competitor’s logo on them," WSJ reported.

Product shortages have caused some strange situations, and I think most of us have observed them in our daily lives. In this case, movie-snack shortages are particularly important to the cinema industry because food and beverages have been an important source of revenue amid falling attendance, particularly during COVID-19. But we would miss the true economic point if we focus solely on the direct effects of this shortage.

What this shows us is that there are numerous details to the economy that no one would ever think to consider when creating policy. Would you have predicted, or even considered, a shortage of popcorn-container liners?

Likewise, this shortage itself may have indirect consequences that we can't even think of. The economy is a complex set of connections, where mandates or regulations affecting one corner of that network can alter other relationships in unpredictable ways. It's like what we talked about in an Out of Frame episode when the theater industry was forced to shut down in 2020: Economic changes that are intended to be specific and limited cannot just be reversed with a flick of a switch, and they do not only affect one set of people. We're still feeling the echoes of that economic chaos that started over two years ago. Many of us are privileged that we only experience it as no popcorn at the theater and not an absence of food​​​​​—or baby formula​​​​​—in stores.