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{Published in the Colorado Springs Gazette, 12-27-07}

As we look back on 2007, I know you’re asking the same question I am: Would I like to make that a large for a quarter more?

I’m in the middle of a family movie marathon. With the holiday film season in full swing, my son home from school and the family at full strength again, we’ve been seeing a lot of movies. Tonight will make it six nights in a row, a Fagin family record.

But every night it’s the same conversation. Every night, I step up to the concession stand. Every night I get a medium soda. Every night I get asked if I’d like a large for a quarter more. Every night I say “No thank you”.

Just how good a deal am I passing up? A couple of days ago I did an experiment.

I just happened to have soda cups saved from previous movie outings. I filled each one from the sink, and poured the water into a measuring cup. Following standard protocols for experimental error, I performed each measurement five times and took an average.

The results? A small movie cup of soda holds 492 milliliters of liquid, suspiciously close to 1 pint. A medium cup holds 956 ml, suspiciously close to 1 quart. A large soda is 1296 ml, suspiciously close to nothing I’ve ever heard of.

How much do you get for your money? A small soda costs $3.50, giving you about 1.4 units of soda per dollar. A medium drink is $4.00, which rounds to 2.4. Not too shabby. But for only a quarter more you can get a large, with a whopping SSF (Soda Satisfaction Factor) of 3.0. That’s more than twice as much soda per dollar, for only 21% more. How is that possible? Think “fixed costs”.

I’m not in the theater business, but I suspect most of the cost in your tasty beverage is not in the product itself. It’s in the building to house it, the labor to pour it and other things that don’t change with the soda you order. Larger drinks mean more profits for the theater, because the fixed costs are the same. Hence the suggestive selling.

I know what you’re thinking: What about the Ice Factor? How does the inclusion of ice affect the discriminating filmgoer’s imbibatory experience? Funny you should ask.

Based on years of family nights out and careful scientific observation at the concession stand, I can state categorically that they put the same amount of ice in every cup. Ice appears to be part of the drink’s fixed cost. (Ice also dilutes the soda over time, but the mathematics to model that are inappropriate for a family newspaper).

After observing scientifically that the only scoop I have in my kitchen looks half the size of one in a movie theater, I can confidently report the ice in a movie cup displaces 165 ml of soda. This changes the SSF to 0.9, 2.0 and 2.7 for a small, medium, and large. If you super-size that soda, you get triple the sips for a fifth more money.

This seems like a great deal. Should the discerning cinephile take it?

Well, maybe. A large soda is a *lot* of soda. 1296 ml is way more than a quart, particularly if you’re going to finish it in two hours. I don’t know about you, but when I buy a large drink, I wind up with a lot of watery, flat soda when the credits roll. It’s not a bargain if you end up throwing it away.

That’s the bottom line. If you slurp to the bottom of your soda before the big chase scene, maybe you should consider getting that large for a quarter more. If you and your date usually get small drinks, switch to one large and an extra straw. You’ll spend less and get more. That never happens in real life.

But if you find yourself drinking the last drop of a large soda just because you’ve already paid for it, or if you’ve got a tooth decay problem (what economists call an “externality”), then drop to a medium or small. Just say no to the nice employees when they offer an upgrade. They won’t be offended, they’re just doing their jobs.

It’d be nice, though, if they offered us a Perrier.