More Booze May Be Coming to a Theater Near You

More Booze May Be Coming to a Theater Near You
Popcorn and cocktail at Nitehawk Cinema Williamsburg. Courtesy of Nitehawk Cinema.

Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to reform antiquated prohibition-era laws and support New York’s growing craft beverage industry by allowing booze in cinemas that don’t serve food.

The proposed amendment to the Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) law would allow any movie theaters to sell beer, wine, cider, mead, and spirits. Currently, in New York state, only movie theaters with full-kitchen and table service are allowed to serve alcoholic beverages.

As this proposal requires an amendment to the Alcoholic Beverage Control law it requires passage by both houses of the New York State Legislature, the governer’s office informed Bklyner. If adopted, movie theater operators would need to apply for a license to sell alcoholic beverages with the State Liquor Authority (SLA) and are required to notify their Community Board or local government 30 days prior to applying. This would mean traditional theaters would not need to make any physical changes, they could obtain licenses without installing full kitchen facilities and tables inside their screening rooms.

Competition from online streaming platforms like Netflix or Amazon has been tough on the movie business. The change in the law would open a new revenue source for many movie theaters. Last time there was a spike in moviegoers was when the subscription service MoviePass came out in 2017. At first it offered one movie screening a day for $9.99 a month, but soon changed its monthly rates and access, cutting off blockbusters and peak showtimes, before shuttering in the fall of 2019 for business reasons.

To stay in business, movie theater ticket prices have grown by 53% from 2002 to 2017, resulting in fewer people showing up to the big screen.

In 2011, Matthew Viragh, the director and founder of Nitehawk Cinema was first to lobby the state legislators to change some prohibition-era laws about drinking in cinemas. Nitehawk Cinemas currently has two movie theaters, one in Williamsburg and one in Park Slope, with full-kitchens, table service, and a bar. When Nitehawk first opened in Williamsburg, they operated the bar separately and didn’t allow the beverages into the theaters, but their lobbying efforts were successful and Nitehawk was the first theater to serve alcohol in New York.

Bar in lobby of Nitehawk Cinema Williamsburg. Courtesy of Nitehawk Cinema.

“They [lawmakers] had some concerns, like drinking on an empty stomach and taking mass transit,” Viragh told Bklyner about lobbying for the amendment. “There’s a bigger concern in the state with drinking and driving, but having a full-kitchen service mitigated that.”

The new bill would allow adults seeing PG-13 rated movies or higher to purchase only one alcoholic beverage at a time.

“That’s going to be difficult to monitor,” Virgah noted. “For us, we’re a boutique, indie theater — we do a pretty complicated service and we take it very seriously, but trying to monitor the Empire on 42nd Street and monitoring one drink in a particular theater seems difficult.”

Typical theaters do not have tableside service, which would complicate the monitoring of who is consuming the beverage in the theater and how drinking around minors would affect the experience overall, Vigah explained, “‘Little Women’ is out and it’s a PG movie, but a lot of adults come to see these movies, not just children.”

While he thinks passing the proposal will be difficult, Viragh does not expect it to hurt the business for already existing dine-in theaters with bar service.

“We try to have a zero-tolerance policy, like our other dine-in competitors, about disruption in the theater during a film, and I think our patrons see the amount of detail that goes into our work,” said Viragh. “We’re more than just serving alcohol, we try to build a bigger experience around movies, it was always a nice thing to have, because we can show creativity through our beverage menu, but were just as creative with our food menu and our events.”