Down with popcorn! (Or buttered popcorn, anyway.)

Business owners never like to be told how to run their companies, so it caught theater owners off guard last week when Sony Pictures Entertainment topper Michael Lynton, delivering the keynote speech at ShoWest, implored exhibs to help fight childhood obesity by adding healthy snacks to their concession stand menus.

Sony came well-armed, enlisting the aid of former President Bill Clinton and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, the org that has brokered deals with the beverage industry to reduce soda sales in schools.

Lynton stressed that he wasn’t asking theaters to stop peddling candy and soda, he just wants them to also offer items like yogurt, veggies with dip, fruit or fruit cups, granola bars, trail mix, baked chips and air-popped popcorn. As it stands now, people generally have to sneak such items in.

Speaking to reporters later, National Assn. of Theater Owners topper John Fithian said

going to the movies is about escapism and that part of the experience is munching on something that’s naughty.

He’s got a point. The thought of gobbling down carrots during a 3D adventure doesn’t sound as appealing as a bag of M&Ms.

According a recent report issued by NATO and the Motion Picture Assn. of America, the average American goes to the movies 4.3 times a year. So it’s not as if kids are relying on concessions for their entire nutritional intake, argues Fithian.

But Dr. Mehmet Oz, who delivered a taped message at ShoWest after Lynton’s speech, said that’s not the point.

Good nutrition doesn’t mean eating spinach at every meal. But with so many children and teens going to movies so often these days, I think we’ve got to be mindful about what they’re eating and drinking, and giving them the chance to choose healthier food makes a lot of sense,” Oz said.

Sony even conducted a study on movie snacks, which found that 75% of parents are more likely to buy healthy snacks, while 42% said they’d buy concessions more often if healthier ones were offered.

Fithian wasn’t antagonistic in his informal remarks, but he did question why Sony is appointing itself food monitor of the theater lobby.

At least Sony is trying to lead by example: The studio recently revamped its commissary with healthy lunch specials and a bigger salad bar.