Theaters hopes to cash in on mixing pix, alcohol

Theater owners started reaching for the bottle long before this summer’s hand-wringing about B.O. began.

Eager to uncork greater concession revenue — and woo fickle auds — more exhibs have been encouraging moviegoers to drink up in lobby-area lounges or, these days, in the auditoriums themselves. Long popular in certain arty Euro venues, alcohol until recently has been the province of second-run drafthouses or quirky cinema pubs Stateside.

Now, however, the boozing trend has spread to the National Amusements and Pacific Theater chains, with Regal Cinemas toying with the possibility. According to the National Assn. of Theater Owners, there were almost 400 theaters serving alcohol as of early this year, with more than 270 of those devoted to first-run offerings. And the numbers continue to rise.

Why the high spirits?

Proponents say moviegoing is an inherently social activity that goes hand in hand with wining and dining. Besides, it’s easier for exhibs to make a buck on alcohol than ticket sales — and liquor can take the edge off a disappointing movie.

“We can’t control the content, but we can control the (theater) experience” says Shari Redstone, prexy of National Amusements, which now builds lounges into all of its multiplexes — domestic and overseas — under its Cinema De Lux model of upscale services for a price. “In Europe people were actually ahead of us in terms of creating an entertaining experience. We’re catching up.”

“It’s pretty clear there is money to be made with this,” says Tim League, co-founder of the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas. “Most theaters make most of their money from concessions to start with.”

While the tippling concept is going down easy with theater owners, local standards remain a hurdle to wider adoption.

Communities get squeamish about alcohol being served in theaters kids frequent.

Northwest theater pub impresario Brian McMenamin learned that the hard way.

He and his brother Mike have been serving alcohol at their theater pubs since 1986, when they branched out from their pub business. McMenamins allows children at early matinees under the reasoning, “parents bring their kid to ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ and order a glass of wine to get through it.”

But, says McMenamin, when Regal Cinemas applied for a liquor license in Oregon and the concept threatened to go wide, “the public became unglued.”

Regal dropped its license request this summer, but the Oregon Liquor Commission is still tightening the restrictions on serving alcohol near minors.

Redstone says alcohol restrictions vary depending on the country or state, “but in no instances have we not been able to go ahead.”

National Amusements operates Cinema De Lux theaters in the U.K., Russia and the Northeast, along with the original location in Los Angeles, where the brightly lit 12 Lounge resembles more of an airport restaurant than the upscale martini lounge it’s marketed as.

Last summer, Pacific Theatres’ ArcLight went one step further, becoming the sole L.A. chain to allow alcohol inside theaters at restricted screenings for those 21 and older on weekends.

The trick is choosing the right film. A crowd at “Wedding Crashers” might be more inclined to drink up than those at a painfully empty screening of the Depression era-set “Cinderella Man.”

CineSpace, an upscale Hollywood supper club that has been running a dinner and a movie program on weekends since early 2003, has been most successful with comedies that tie into upcoming releases or with musicals.

“One movie we show annually is ‘Grease,’ and the last time we showed it, one quarter of the crowd was on its feet singing along,” says co-owner Errol Roussel. “Same thing with ‘Purple Rain.’ “

Theaters like the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas and the Bay Area’s Parkway rely on creative programming designed to bring in the community.

Alamo flies in celebs monthly — Peter Bogdanovich, D.A. Pennebaker and Werner Herzog have all stopped by — and next month will again host Quentin Tarantino’s QT Festival benefiting the Austin Film Society. Parkway offers everything from transgender festivals to cult horror fare under its ongoing Thrillville series.

And every film brings in different auds, each with their own alcohol interests — and tolerances.

“The early show is the chardonnay crowd,” says Parkway co-owner Catherine Fischer. “Later show, maybe they’re stoned and want a pitcher of beer and brownies.”

At a movie like “Crash,” observes Fischer, the Oakland crowd might be thoughtful, whereas at “Devil’s Rejects,” the aud tends to be more animated, cheering on the good guys and the bad guys.

But if someone’s a problem, she says, “We tell them to come down to the lobby and chill for a while.”

Other exhibs admit the mix of movies and martinis can lead to a certain exuberance — if not outright rowdy behavior — that bears extra attention from staff.

The Arlington Cinema ‘N’ Drafthouse, which has been serving up beers with second-run pics in the Washington, D.C., suburbs since 1985, is known for sometimes rowdy crowds. Chicago’s Vic Theater warns moviegoers upfront that its Brew N View theater is the wrong place to go if you want to quietly concentrate on the movie.

League, who opened the original Alamo Drafthouse with his wife Karrie in 1997, maintains a silence-is-golden policy (“We’ll throw people out if they’re talking during the movie.”) but admits it’s not a hard and fast rule. His three theaters sometimes host singalongs and the ultimate interactive viewing experience, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

He says the only problem he really runs into are guests who show up drunk at midnight shows, then need a cab home.

Some auds will even self-police rowdy moviegoers.

When a moviegoer threw a glass at the screen, Fischer recalls, the East Bay Rats, a biker gang that frequents the theater, “made him come down to the front and apologize to the manager.”

Despite all the challenges that come with serving alcohol, exhibs show no signs of backing down.

CineSpace’s Roussel has been scouting for a Gotham location, and Oregon’s McMenamin always has his eyes peeled for new locations.

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