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By Marissa DeCuir
Special for USA TODAY
March 27, 2008
Movie theater owners from California to Massachusetts are increasingly giving patrons the option of sipping a beer or a glass of wine with an expanding array of snacks.
About 150 first-run theaters serving alcohol have opened within the past three years, bringing the total of such establishments from 14 in 1997 to more than 400 today, says Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research for the National Association of Theatre Owners.
The growth is happening, Corcoran says, despite concerns that those theaters could draw underage drinkers — concerns that have kept some theaters in Illinois, Idaho and California from selling alcohol.
“The boyfriend’s 21 and the girlfriend’s 19, and next thing you know, she’s already had three drinks underage,” says Alderman John Hanson, who voted against a proposal last year by a theater in Bloomington, Ill., to serve alcohol.
The increase in alcohol at the movies comes amid a decline in ticket sales in the USA and Canada. About 1.40 billion movie tickets were sold last year — up slightly from 1.395 billion in 2006 but lower than the 1.52 billion in 2003, according to the theater owners’ association.
Liquor sales began as a way of “repurposing single-screen theaters,” Corcoran says. Theater owners are struggling to get the growing 30- to 45-year-old audience into ticket lines, he says.
Larger, multiscreen theaters are swapping traditional movie chairs for lounge chairs, opening kitchens and offering a full menu of food choices and servers, Corcoran says. “The real trend now is in multiplexes,” he says. “It’s going to grow as communities begin to accept alcohol.”
•A theater across the street from Disneyland got the Anaheim planning commission’s OK this month to serve alcohol after deciding to prevent anyone younger than 21 from entering, says Sheri Vander Dussen, the city’s planning director. The theater awaits a license from the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
•Village Roadshow, an Australian company, is partnering with a company in California to open within five years more than 30 Gold Class Cinemas across the USA that will serve alcohol, according Kirk Senior, CEO of the joint venture. Grand openings are set this fall in South Barrington, Ill., and Redmond, Wash. Thirteen leases have been signed in California, Kansas, Florida, Arizona, Nevada and Pennsylvania, he says.
•National Amusements, a Massachusetts-based company with 83 theaters in the USA, plans to add three more “21-plus” areas in its theaters this year to serve up martinis and margaritas, says spokeswoman Wanda Whitson.
•Dick Westerling, spokesman for Regal Entertainment Group, a company with 527 theaters nationwide, says the success of the full-menu Cinebarre theater that opened in Asheville, N.C., last July could soon lead to debuts in Charleston, S.C., and Denver.
The Asheville location’s revenue more than doubled after it began serving alcohol and unconventional movie food, Westerling says.
The added services come with a price, though. The average cost of a U.S. movie ticket last year was $6.88, and luxury cinemas charge more, Corcoran says. A ticket at Regal’s Asheville location with alcohol is $9. A ticket at Showcase Cinemas in Randolph, Mass., costs $10.25, plus $10 to sit in the 21-plus level. That includes a $5 coupon for food or drink.
Getting permission to serve alcohol in theaters isn’t easy. An Oceanside, Calif., complex wanted to serve alcohol in half of its screens and only allow those of drinking age to enter them after 6 p.m. Robin Van Dyke, supervisor for the North County area of California’s Alcoholic Beverage Control, says the feeling was some movies overlap and could lead to minors staying in theaters when alcohol becomes available. The theater has pulled its request, Van Dyke says.
David McNeil, owner of Nebraska’s Lincoln Theater, says he avoided an underage drinking problem by changing his theater that opened last year to “21 and over.” The theater allows minors to attend with their parents.
“There weren’t that many people underage trying to come down here so it wasn’t that big of a deal for us,” McNeil says of his theater that serves 30 different beers. Fifty percent of the theater’s income comes from tickets, 10% from food and 40% from alcohol, he adds.
“We have a bar in the middle of the theater,” McNeil says. “It’s the coolest concept ever. People say movie theaters are on the downward, but this is two steps ahead.”