Quirky, sometimes edgy popcorn buckets are now part of the moviegoing experience

A Minion-themed baby carrier. A sandworm bucket that looks a little too NSFW. A “Burn Book” tin that many online joked would be a perfect storage box for illicit goods.

Collectible, movie-themed popcorn buckets are having a moment, embracing strange designs that have drawn attention online and creating something of a competition to come out with ever more creative or absurd containers.

The buckets come as theaters continue to try new ways to convince people to leave the comfort of their homes, embracing everything from alternative content such as concert films to exclusive merchandise.

The most high-profile example of that merchandise push, wacky popcorn tins are a unique type of tchotchke that also means more revenue — most buckets cost around $20 or $25, with more expensive versions costing up to $50 or even $65.

Some have risen in value on the secondary market. The infamous “Dune 2” sandworm popcorn lid, which now goes for upward of $800 on eBay, became major meme fodder a few months ago as many online joked that the lid, meant to portray the mouth of a sandworm, looked suspiciously like an adult toy.

“It’s a bit of a Rorschach test for everyone’s individual thinking. If you see something raunchy in a popcorn bucket, well, that may say more about you than the popcorn bucket. But that’s not happening by accident,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at Comscore, a company that tracks box office data. “They’re doing that very smartly because that’s how you get things to go viral.”

Many others are also flying off the shelves. The most recent bucket, AMC’s light-up “Inside Out 2” memory orb popcorn and drink vessel, was sold out by Saturday morning when the movie hit theaters last weekend, according to a spokesperson for the theater chain.

Meanwhile, the yet-to-be-released “Despicable Me 4” popcorn holder is already making waves weeks before its July release, as many online joke about being able to cradle their popcorn in a wearable baby carrier that resembles a Minion wearing Gru’s scarf.

And last month, Ryan Reynolds, who stars as Deadpool in “Deadpool & Wolverine,” also stirred a flurry of conversation online when he teased a collectible popcorn lid for the upcoming film: a Wolverine head with a comically wide-open mouth, complete with a tongue but no teeth.

The rise of creative popcorn tins is a reaction to the post-pandemic “eventification” of moviegoing that saw crowds flock back to theaters — often dressed up in themed outfits — for blockbusters such as “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” or Taylor Swift’s and Beyonce’s concert films, Dergarabedian said.

“And now that the genie’s out of the bottle, audiences are going to expect the popcorn bucket of today to be much more elaborate and collectible than what they used to be,” he said. “The pressure’s on for creatives and studios and the marketing teams to really amp this up, because not every popcorn bucket is going to go viral.”

Whereas collectible popcorn tins of years past tended to offer nothing more than a themed movie poster wrapped around a traditional plastic bucket, studios and theaters nowadays are investing in more intriguing designs.

Some popular popcorn vessels in recent years include the Batman cowl replica from 2022, the pink “Barbie” Corvette from 2023, and the mini “Ghostbusters” ghost trap from this year, among dozens of others.

Nels Storm, vice president of food and beverage product strategy for AMC Theatres, the country’s largest movie theater chain, wrote in an email that this industrywide proliferation of bizarre popcorn tins began in 2019 when AMC introduced its “Star Wars”-themed R2-D2 popcorn bucket.

“As the R2-D2 vessels sold out at AMC locations around the country on opening night, it was clear there was bigger potential in this space,” Storm wrote. “Following that success, we put a plan in place to make these fun, creative, innovative popcorn and drink vessels a part of our long-term product strategy.”

AMC did not record any significant revenue on movie merchandise before then, he wrote. But ever since, the theater chain has seen popular demand for popcorn vessels in the shape of everything from Thor’s hammer to Willy Wonka’s hat. In 2023, collectible popcorn tins and other movie-themed merch brought the company $54 million in revenue in the U.S.

And at Regal Cinemas, it’s common for collectible popcorn buckets to nearly sell out by opening weekend, according to Matt Willard, the company’s head of business development.

Some, however, are more skeptical about the popcorn bucket craze. Nicholas Janzen, a Toronto-based creator who discusses movies and the film industry online, said it’s hard to justify shelling out so much cash for what’s essentially a mass-produced trinket.

But Janzen said the collectible buckets are starting to grow on him now that he’s seeing more novelty in their thematic designs. He said he would have wanted to get his hands on the “Dune 2” sandworm lid if it hadn’t been sold out in the theaters around him.

“The more outrageous, the more you stand out. Like this new ‘Deadpool & Wolverine’ one, which is kind of a parody of something like the ‘Dune 2’ popcorn bucket — just this absurd product — and I saw just yesterday the ‘Despicable Me 4’ baby carrier,” he said. “I think that’s where we’re headed now, where we’re going past just the character head or whatnot in order to really capture attention.”

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