Food Fight at the Movies: Why Israel's 'Popcorn Bill' Could Be a Messy Proposition

Don’t underestimate the ability of Israelis to push the envelope when it comes to eating, especially in an air-conditioned movie theater during the hot summer months.

In Israel, just like anywhere else, it’s always nice to see our lawmakers looking out for our pocketbook. After all, who doesn’t like to save money?

But during a summer when people are setting themselves on fire at social protests, arguing heatedly over ultra-Orthodox army service, warily watching the ongoing bloodshed in Syria and the ongoing nuclear threat from Iran, it was a little unsettling to see that the focus of one legislator’s energy has been the high cost of junk food.

But indeed, that is what has happened and he appears to have been successful in passing what has become known as the “Popcorn Bill.”

"The Knesset's Economic Committee approved on Tuesday a bill, known as the "popcorn bill," which allows bringing food and beverages bought outside cinema complexes into the theatres. The bill is aimed at preventing a state where captive consumers are forced to pay excessive charges.

The bill also allows the public to bring food and beverages into businesses which sell their own food and are located in closed areas, such as concerts and movie theaters. MK Carmel Shama-Hacohen (Likud), who promoted the bill, said he is "glad that after a long struggle and despite the theater's objections, the committee approved my bill to defend the captive consumers in movie theaters, sport events, hospitals, etc."

Now, on one hand, this law is a stroke of political genius. Last year’s cottage cheese protests showed that the Israeli populace can get passionate about food costs. And the seasonal timing for Shama-Hacohen’s initiative is great.

During these hot summer months, with the kids out of school, there is a forced march to amusement parks, water parks, zoos, concerts, and of course, numerous trips to the movie theater. When you are forbidden to bring your own food in, you are indeed, subject to highway robbery, paying outrageously high prices for the highly processed junk served in the concession stands. Drinks are at least twice as expensive as they are outside the theater, and popcorn reportedly costs ten times as much.

And I have seen Israel concessionaires overstep their power to forbid outside food and drink on more than one occasion. The most outrageous example is when I went to an outdoor concert in the amphitheater in my town of Ra’anana, bought myself a small bottle of mineral water at a store before I entered, and when I tried to carry it in, was told that I had to pour it out (just like you do on the U.S. flights where you can’t bring in liquids) and buy another, more expensive bottle of water when I was inside.

The movie theater owners are clearly not pleased, pointing to the percentage of income they depend on from the concession stands. Because of the business interests at stake, when the bill was first proposed, it got international coverage and critical headlines like “Pop Goes the Free Market.’ I do have a little sympathy for the those in the movie theater business. It’s bad enough that they have to compete with DVDs, illegally downloaded films and giant HD plasma screens at home (soon to be equipped with 3D capabilities, I’m sure). It’s kind of a miracle that they are still in business, but I guess teenagers will always need an excuse to get out of the house and sit next to a member of the opposite sex in the dark.

But in the short term, I’m less worried about the financial future of these businesses than I am worried about my own moviegoing experience once the Knesset has given Israelis free reign to bring their own ‘snacks’ into the movie theater. Define ‘snack.’

It’s all good and well if moviegoers bring in their own home-popped popcorn or cheaper cola and candy purchased at the supermarket. But our people are capable of going to the extremes when it comes to food, as anyone who has eaten a buffet meal at an Israeli hotel well knows. Anything goes. Do you really want to watch a movie sitting next to kids eating chicken nuggets and fries? Or a guy chowing down on a massive pita filled with meat and dripping with tehina?

Don’t underestimate the ability of Israelis to push the envelope when it comes to eating. Allowing people to bring anything they want into the movie theater could be interpreted by some as the creation of a perfect air conditioned picnic spot on a hot summer day. Enthusiastic families could begin bringing in blankets and full hampers of food and drink and camp out in the lobby.

Will any of them have the chutzpah to fire up the portable grill between shows and start a barbecue? Time will tell.