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Going to the movies? 6 ways to save

Now that major cinemas ban munchies brought from home, you'll have to play their game to beat them. Start with snack coupons and a little planning.

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By SmartMoney

Do you enjoy sitting in a movie theater with a snack and a soda brought from home? Too bad, because theaters feeling the pinch of the recession are trying to lock you into pricey concession-stand fare, such as hot dogs made with Black Angus sirloin.

Last month, AMC Entertainment banned outside food and drinks. Previously, the chain had permitted moviegoers to enter its theaters with their own snacks. AMC did not respond to a request for comment on how it plans to enforce the policy or what punishment offenders might face, though a spokesman says the company is looking to add new items to theater menus.

Regal Entertainment Group and Cinemark also prohibit snacks purchased elsewhere.

Owners have good reason to push customers to the concession stand. Of each dollar spent there, roughly 85 cents is profit, says Warren Miller, a senior equity analyst for Morningstar who tracks the theater chains.

"Anytime someone brings in outside food, that hurts their bottom line," he says. "The more they enforce a no-outside-food policy, the better they'll be from a financial perspective."

And unlike raising ticket prices, it's a change that's unlikely to keep consumers from going to theaters.

For moviegoers, saving on snacks doesn't require going without -- or buying a bigger bag in which to sneak them in. (The latter isn't without risk. The major chains have policies saying they reserve the right to inspect the contents of your bag before allowing you in.)

Here's how to pay less for your popcorn and movie tickets:

1. Join the loyalty club

On weekdays, when traffic is slower, theater chains seek to bring you in with loyalty programs. They're free to join and offer gratis and reduced-price snacks. Regal Crown Club members get $1 candy on Mondays and $1 popcorn on Tuesdays, while AMC sends MovieWatcher members coupons for a free small popcorn with any fountain drink purchased during a midweek visit.

Both clubs also award points with every theater visit, earning you coupons for free drinks, popcorn and movie tickets. (Those you can use on a weekend visit.)

2. Pick your movies carefully

Theaters are well aware that, for many people, a bucket of popcorn completes the movie-watching experience, says Wesley Hartmann, an associate professor of marketing at Stanford University, who has studied factors that influence concession sales.

People are more likely to buy when they are particularly excited about a film, are attending with a large group or are watching a family-friendly feature. Keep that in mind when you're deciding which, and how many, flicks to see in theaters rather than waiting to see on DVD.

3. Buy a secondhand gift card

Theater gift cards can also be used at the concession stand, and you don't have to pay full price. At Plastic Jungle, a $25 Regal Cinema card goes for $22.50, a 10% discount.

There's also a big market on eBay, where recent auctions included four free small-popcorn vouchers at Regal for $1.99 and a $25 AMC gift card for $16.29.

4. Consider bulk vouchers

AMC sells 50-packs of Show Snacks vouchers for $3 each, good for a small drink or a small popcorn (regularly $3.75 and $4.75, respectively). Cinemark offers similar 50-packs of Concession Savers vouchers at $6 apiece, good for both a small drink and a small popcorn.

The good news: The vouchers don't expire. The bad news: You might lose them or forget about them.

5. Think big

Many chains, including AMC and Regal, offer free refills on the biggest drink sizes. So if you go with a bunch of friends, order the largest size and keep refilling.

Also, the combination of a large soda and popcorn often can be cheaper than the individual items bought separately, Miller says.

6. Cut your ticket price

You might still have to shell out $5 for a bucket of popcorn, but you can at least save on the price of your movie ticket.

Matinee pricing typically cuts ticket prices in half, while warehouse clubs such as Costco sell a five-pack of Cinemark tickets (worth $57.50) for $45, a 22% discount.

This article was reported by Kelli B. Grant for SmartMoney.

Published Dec. 28, 2009

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