From the perspective of a movie theater owner, all those lethargic explosions in Inception were just very expensive commercials for giant boxes of Goobers and Raisinets. Likewise, Colin Firth’s carefully modulated anguish in The King’s Speech. The Regal Entertainment Group — America’s largest movie theater chain with 548 theaters in 39 states — reports that its average patron spent $3.09 at the concession stand in 2009. That may be chocolate-covered peanuts compared to the revenues theaters generate from admissions at a time when tickets typically go for $7.95. But theater owners don’t have to split concession sales with distributors, and the mark-ups on salty tubs of popcorn and watery vats of Coke are huge. According to Smart Money, approximately 85 cents of each dollar spent at the theater candy counter is pure profit.

 

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On Virginia’s Eastern Shore, in the middle of a patchy square of lawn that fronts a fading seaside motel, a plywood sign emblazoned with orange spray-paint letters announces the motel’s latest amenity: free Wi-Fi. A continent away, in the gray outer reaches of San Francisco, in a part of town where tiny, dingy laundromats outnumber Starbucks by a ratio of about five to zero, the tiniest, dingiest laundromat in the neighborhood displays a similar notice in its smudgy front window. This sign is fashioned from laser paper rather than plywood, but the slapdash aesthetic and straightforward message are the same: free Wi-Fi.

 

In between these two down-market outposts of communitarian idealism, approximately 42,361 other establishments — including a truck stop in Gila Bend, Arizona; the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky; and the oldest strip club in… More…