It’s Not Just That Sexual ‘Dune’ Sandworm. People Are Obsessed With Collecting Popcorn Buckets

After seeing a movie in a theater, most of us will dump our cardboard popcorn bucket — greased with butter, some leftovers rattling around the bottom — in a trash bin. But over the last few years, some moviegoers have developed a passion for limited-edition plastic or tin buckets commemorating the film they’re seeing, objects they’re meant to take home and keep forever.

The most recent (and extremely viral) example is the sandworm bucket tie-in for the sci-fi epic Dune: Part Two, which has inspired a raft of jokes and a Saturday Night Live sketch about its resemblance to a sex toy. Even the movie’s stars, including Timothée Chalamet, and director Denis Villeneuve, were forced to weigh in on the memes. It’s been an undeniable marketing coup for AMC, the theater chain offering the $24.99 tub as exclusive merch, despite some issues with its performance as an actual popcorn bucket.

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Of course, if you know anything about the world of bucket collectors, you know the popcorn is almost beside the point. For fans of blockbusters like Barbie or extended cinematic universes from Star Wars to Marvel, each new bucket is a must-have memento. Across theater franchises Regal, Cinemark, and AMC, the items have proved a successful strategy when it comes to extract bonus revenue from highly devoted audiences. Adam Aron, CEO of AMC — the undisputed king of these promotions since teaming up with Disney to sell an R2-D2 all-in-one popcorn and beverage container for The Rise of Skywalker in 2019 — is hardly shy about saying so.

“It’s a new form of keepsake for the movie, given the fact that physical tickets are mostly a thing of the past,” explains Heather, a popcorn bucket collector who tells Rolling Stone that she currently owns five different “vessels” (as they’re called in the industry). In addition to buckets for The Hunger Games: Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, the musical remake of Mean Girls, and Kung Fu Panda 4, she has two versions of the buckets sold for Taylor Swift‘s Eras Tour concert film — the movie that launched her bucket obsession.

“I hadn’t taken much notice to them prior to that,” Heather says of the pricier, reusable vessels. “I genuinely saw the popcorn buckets at first as just another form of Eras Tour merch. However, following the movie, I began to take more note of other films’ buckets and developed an appreciation for them.” Now, as she’s tweeted, collecting them “tickles the joy in my ill brain,” and she looks forward “to seeing the new kinds of creativity that unfolds for movies as they get released.” (Yet Heather observes that this “isn’t always a good thing,” pointing to the Dune bucket as a design gone awry.)

Theater employees who move these products can have a more ambivalent relationship with them. “The collectible buckets have become so overdone and overpriced throughout the years,” says one employee of a smaller chain who used to work at AMC. “It used to be maybe one or two a movies a year had them. Now it’s how many movies can we make a bucket for? People also tend to get upset when you tell them you don’t have them, because your location/chain/area or whatever it may be isn’t participating in the promo.” Competition over supply — and the difficulty in knowing which buckets will become popular — means either selling out quickly or getting stuck with too many. “In particular, the Taylor Swift fans were not accepting ‘sold out’ as an answer,” another theater worker says. On the other hand, they add: “If you go nearly any AMC you will see offices and stockrooms overrun with boxes of unsold merch.”

There’s also the sometimes confusing etiquette around the souvenir buckets. “The only thing we deal with are people bringing the promo tub back in to serve themselves,” explains one employee. “Even though our policy is that it’s refillable day of purchase, sometimes people get up in arms because we don’t allow it [after that]. ‘But I paid so much for this, why can’t I bring it back?’ Because it’s super unsanitary.” The same theater worker says the better-looking tin buckets, like the Creed III tin, can leak butter through their bottom edges.

And whether a concessions employee serves popcorn in the collectible vessel or on the side depends on arbitrary corporate directives, the shape of the container, and the customer’s interest in keeping their purchase in mint condition. “Filling them is weird,” says one theater worker. “Sometimes we were told we couldn’t fill them ourselves due to food safety or whatever, and we’d give them normal bags instead. People were sometimes annoyed at that, but like, that’s way above my pay grade. Other times we could just fill them directly, so I’m not sure what the difference is.” (Commenting on the flip side of this dilemma, a moviegoer on Reddit wrote, “If they would’ve put popcorn in my Spider-Man head, I’d [have] been pretty upset. As I did not want to eat popcorn out of a superhero’s skull.”)

A new coveted item can trigger a deluge of phone calls to theaters and a general consumer frenzy. “Popular movies (Mario, Wonka, Barbie and Taylor Swift) had customers buying them no matter what kind of promo item it was,” says an employee struck by how fandoms flock to these items. “I even had women offer me ‘favors’ for a Taylor Swift bucket,” they claim. That level of demand is also reflected in the resale market: you can find a Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness foldable transparent popcorn box in its original packaging listed for $89.99, and Cinemark’s Ghostface bucket and cup set for Scream VI at over $100.

Most enthusiasts have a lower price ceiling, however. Heather says that “$28 is the most I’ve spent” on a bucket, “and $45 is the most I would.” Cameron, another collector, tells Rolling Stone that he would pay “probably $30 on a movie I’m moderately excited about,” and, at most, “$50 for a movie I’m dying to see,” assuming “the bucket is exquisite.” He got into buckets in 2021 with the release of Black Widow: “I was so excited to go back to the movies [after Covid-19 restrictions lifted], I felt like splurging on a memorabilia to commemorate the event,” he says. “My girlfriend loves popcorn and the upgrade to the tin was only about $10, so I thought: why not?” His favorite of several he’s bought since then is a 20-sided die bucket made for the release of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. (An eBay seller is currently asking $299.99 for one still in the box.) And, unlike Heather, he considers the Dune bucket “special and unique” — he bought his before the movie officially came out.

Both Heather and Cameron display their most prized buckets at home while making practical use of the others — Heather fills them with popcorn she makes herself, while Cameron finds they’re convenient storage bins for “small items like keys and lip balms.” And, of course, they keep an eye on forthcoming products. “I have friends that collect,” says Heather, “and we all just talk about funny popcorn buckets we see for other films as they are released.”

Which is as fine a way as any to share your excitement about upcoming movies and sequels to long-running series. Some prefer action figures, others like to dress up in the costumes, and not a few will write torrid fanfiction. The bucketheads, however, are looking to preserve a piece of the shared theatrical experience. As long as they do the proper research on how and where to obtain these trophies, it seems that everybody wins.