Why Are Coffee Cups Empty in Movies? (Always!)

There’s nothing worse than watching a movie or show and the actors swig from obviously empty coffee cups! Why do productions allow this as it completely destroys the magic?!

Coffee cups are empty in movies because directors take multiple shots of scenes, meaning actors could end up drinking a bucket-load of coffee. However, the backlash against Empty Coffee Cups breaking the fourth wall in films has meant many actors now do put real coffee in their cups on set.

So let’s call ‘lights, camera, action!’ and delve deeper into why coffee cups are always empty in shows and movies, and discover who the worst offenders are…

Why Are Coffee Cups Empty in Movies?

Why Do Actors Always Drink From Empty Coffee Cups in Movies & Shows?

S​ometimes TV shows are set on intergalactic freighters. The actors walk around the spaceship like normal – in zero gravity – thanks to boots with magnetic soles that they can turn off and on by clicking their heels together, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.

We’ve got no problem with any of that. It’s all OK. Science fiction is fake, right?

But for TV shows that are set in hospitals, cafes, fire stations, homes, and offices here on planet Earth, we like our shows to be more realistic.

TV p​roducers like to have actors drink coffee because it’s what we all do in our actual lives. Producers want us to identify with – even bond to – their characters. 

Drinking coffee creates a bond between a viewer and a character because it’s an authentic, actual thing we all do in real life.

But while TV producers may want the realism of scenes where actors walk, talk and drink coffee, they don’t want the real noises of swishing liquids, the real coffee stains, the spills, dribbles, and the possibility of burned tongues. 

Plus, in the world of TV show production, time is money. Producers say they simply can’t risk any additional time cleaning up expensive clothing, props like sofas or the time it takes to mop an actor’s chin. 

Instead, they use Empty Coffee Cups. Instead, TV producers expect actors to hold and fake sip them like they were actually full of hot coffee.

After all, they’re actors, right? Isn’t that why they are paid the big bucks? To do fake stuff realistically?

But the TV producers were wrong. Turns out, acting like you are holding a heavy, hot cup of coffee, taking sips and then speaking afterwards isn’t something that they teach actors at Juilliard. Or wherever. 

Actors just couldn’t pull it off realistically. Empty Coffee Cups were waved around. Some actors didn’t want the Empty Coffee Cup touching their lips, so they sipped it an inch away from their lips.

Other actors held a cardboard holder with several “full” cups with only two fingers. Like it was almost weightless. Which it was.

The intent of the cup of coffee in the scene was for us to develop a real people connection with the characters. Paradoxically, though, when the coffee cup is blatantly empty and an actor is fake slurping, it shocks us right out of our show immersion. 

Musicians must feel the same way about actors fake playing a musical instrument. But this is so much worse. This is coffee drinking, a sacred ritual.

Some folks, once they have noticed an Empty Coffee Cup (aka ECC) in their favorite show, they simply can’t look away. When a character enters a scene with an Empty Coffee Cup – they have to close their eyes. They look away.

U​ltimately, they may rage-quit the show. All for the want of coffee.

Do Producers Not Realise Empty Coffee Cups Make The Show Unrealistic?

They know. F​or some years now, producers have realized that Empty Coffee Cups annoy viewers. In fact, in 2014, TV critic Myles McNutt was so annoyed he created the Twitter account #EmptyCupAwards and made the timeless Slate video, linked below.

W​hat followed was a viewer revolt. On Twitter feeds, Instagram, Quora, blogs, and TV news, viewers spoke out about Empty Coffee Cups. TV shows were named and actors were shamed. 

Along with The Empty Cup, other pet peeves were shared. Next on our personal hit list – Empty Forks.

H​ere’s a link to Slate’s groundbreaking 2016 video, #EmptyCupAwards: Why Do Characters Always Drink From Empty Cups?

Which Shows Are Some of The Worst Offenders For Empty Coffee Cups?

Shows that are fairly notorious for Empty Coffee Cups are shows where a greater-than-average amount of coffee drinking happens.

Apparently, everyone that works in a hospital (Grey’s Anatomy) or a police station (Law & Order) drinks coffee nonstop. These two shows rank first place in the worst offenders list.

Second place goes to shows that fit into the category of super warm and fuzzy. Lots of Empty Coffee Cups are enjoyed on Gilmore Girls, Friends and Seinfeld. relatable. But then. Empty Coffee Cups.

Slightly better but still bad place goes to S​upergirl, Frasier, Jane The Virgin, The Flash, Big Bang Theory, American Crime Story, and Hawaii Five-O. 

C​heck out the hilarious Emily Perry throwing “full” coffee cups around on the videos linked into this Digg article.

Which Shows Are Some of The Worst Offenders For Empty Coffee Cups?
Which Shows Are Some of The Worst Offenders For Empty Coffee Cups?

Is Grey’s Anatomy The All-Time Worst Offender For Empty Coffee Cups?

G​rey’s Anatomy is tied for all time worst with Law & Order, where they also drink from Empty Coffee Cups like, a lot.

These two shows are both super long-running, at 19 and 22 seasons respectively, which doesn’t help their low scores.

H​ere’s the Cracked article on Empty Coffee Cups.

What Do They Put in Cups on TV Shows? (When They Aren’t Empty)

O​ne of the reasons viewers are so annoyed about Empty Coffee Cups is that there are plenty of full wine glasses and beer bottles on display. Martinis in martini glasses. Aged whiskey in cut glass.

O​f course, most of the time the whiskey is iced tea and the beer is just colored water. But the point is that there is actual liquid in the glasses or bottles that can slosh, spill and dribble but that’s OK – while coffee is not.

I​t’s a form of prejudice. 🙂

Since the outcry against the Empty Coffee Cup in 2016, m​any producers began allowing actors to fill their coffee cups with the beverage of their choice.

Many actors realized that fake drinking and fake carrying heavy, hot coffee around is not the easiest thing to do, so they fill their coffee cups with water, tea or even coffee. 

W​ith actually full coffee cups, actors can’t speak right after drinking (or even sometimes during drinking). They have to hold the cup level and not gesture wildly with it, which would send actual coffee everywhere.

With an actually full cup, setting it down on a table doesn’t make that awkward empty “thock” sound.

W​ith actually full coffee cups, a tray with two or four cups is pretty weighty. They can’t hold it with two fingers, and they have to keep their eyes on those full cups.

Conclusion: Empty Coffee Cups in Movies

Part of me says that actors using empty coffee cups while filming scenes in movies is the worst thing in the world as it breaks the magic of the fourth wall.

However, another part of me thinks I’m grossly overreacting and should just let it go.

Perhaps I’ve had too much coffee? Perhaps I’ve not had enough? But at the end of the day, can’t these actors just keep the audience happy by using brown water or something?

Throw us a bone here! 🙂