Fastest Growing Concession Item?
by Ryan Stern
May I see a photo I.D., please?’ It’s
Friday night and the cavernous lobby of Pacific Theatres’ Arclight
Cinemas is buzzing with the energy of Los Angeles cinephiles
eager to sample one of the many new releases screening that
Carding is nothing new to moviehouses,
of course, but I’m
not digging out my driver’s license to prove I’m
older than 17; I’m trying to establish that I’m
at least 21. “Alfie” opened nationwide today,
and if I want into today’s only “21-plus” screening
of the Jude Law comedy-drama in California, I have to verify
that I’m of drinking age.
As I get closer to the designated
auditorium, I exchange my ticket for a blue wristband – a
signal to the nearby bartender that I can, indeed, legitimately
purchase the Amstel
Light I’ve earmarked for my cupholder armrest.
in line ahead of me come away with chardonnay, Cosmopolitans
and apple martinis.
If “Alfie” may underperform
in most American cinemas, this over-21 screening of the film
is a sell-out,
packed wall-to-wall with blue-wristed grown-ups, almost all
of them cradling some manner of libation alongside their
popcorn, red vines or gourmet grinders.
To echo the on-screen protagonist,
what’s it all about?
In August, the Arclight became
the first first-run cinema in California licensed to permit
alcoholic beverages into
one of its auditoria, a landmark accomplishment in a state
with, when it comes to movie theatres, a reputation for some
of the nation’s least-permissive alcohol-licensing
The Arclight’s popular “21-plus” screenings
represent the crest of one of the fastest-growing trends
in American exhibition. As recently as early 1990, no first-run
cinema in the nation allowed alcohol in its auditoria. Research
suggests that by early 1997, a total of 14 first-run auditoria
permitted it. Today, more than 270 first-run auditoria nationwide
allow alcohol, and the movement’s momentum shows little
sign of abating.*
*Alcohol-friendly sub-run auditoria
have been around a lot longer (at least since the 1970s
in the United States) than their first-run cousins, but
the first-run side of the market has grown much bigger,
much faster. Note that there are currently fewer than 100
alcohol-friendly sub-run auditoria in the country, compared
to more than 270 alcohol-friendly first-run.
Why the boom in cinema libation?
Experts agree it largely comes down
to how the major film distributors evolved their attitudes
toward liquor over the
last decade (See 15
Years of Libation in First-Run Auditoria).
a lot of states, some of the laws have shifted
slightly, because the
cinema-eatery broke the ground for some of us to come
in and be able to serve alcohol in our theatres.”
– Landmark Theatres exec
Marco Theatres general manager Jim Campo,
who operates the country’s 2nd-oldest first-run cinema-eatery, says
exhibitors who wanted to serve alcohol in a first-run facility
had to overcome the stigma of the cinema drafthouses of the
1970s, many of which, he says, nested in older, dilapidated
cinemas that offered substandard picture and sound. “Back
in the early ‘90s, that’s what everybody imagined
a food theatre was like,” says Campo, who struggled
for years before he was able to convince all the studios
to book first-run movies into his Marco Island, Fla., quad. “We
broke those barriers down.”
“The market for dinner and a drink has always existed,
but the studios were hesitant, and had to be educated that
was a different business model,” agrees Alamo Drafthouse
CEO Terrell Braly, whose Texas circuit operates 19 alcohol-friendly
auditoria. The major distributors, says Braly, “want
to make sure that their film product coming out is shown
in the best environment possible. They don’t care if
the beer is cold, all they care about is that the product
is shown properly.”
Brian Schultz, whose Studio Movie Grill
chain serves alcohol in all 13 of its first-run auditoria,
tells much the same
story, describing his efforts in the 1990s to gain access
to first-run product as “a wearing-down process.” “We
just asked them for a chance to show them what we can do.”
Specialty cinemas, catering mostly to
adults and less reliant on major studios for first-run product,
may also have played
a role in alcohol’s sudden emergence at the concession
Served To Your Seat
Alamo Lake Creek 8-plex, Austin, Texas
Alamo Village quad, Austin, Texas
Alamo West Oaks 6-plex, Houston,
The American Theatre twin, Charleston, S.C.
Carolina Theatre/Grill single, Elizabeth City, N.C.
Chunky’s Cinema Pub 5-plex, Pelham, N.H.
Chunky’s Cinema Pub twin, Haverhill, Mass.
Cinema Grill Café, Carrollton, Texas
The Commodore single, Portsmouth, Va.
Hollywood Blvd. 5-plex, Woodridge, Ill.
Marco Beach quad, Ft. Meyers Beach, Fla.
Marco Theatre quad, Marco Island, Fla.
Movie Tavern at Central Park 8-plex, Bedford, Texas
Movie Tavern Green Oaks 8-plex, Arlington, Texas
Movie Tavern Ridgemar 6-plex, Ft. Worth, Texas
Smitty’s Sanford 6-plex, Sanford, Maine
Smitty’s Tilton 6-plex, Tilton, N.H.
Smitty’s Windham twin, Windham, Maine
Studio Movie Grill Addison 5-plex, Dallas,
Studio Movie Grill Plano 8-plex, Plano, Texas
Warren Old Towne 5-plex, Witchita, Kan.
In 1993, when Cleveland Cinemas’ Cedar Lee quad became the first U.S.
specialty house to allow alcohol into its auditoria, circuit chief Jonathan
Forman saw selling wine and imported and draft beer as a natural extension
of any concession stand serving grown-ups. “Adults may choose to go to
a theatre that tends to cater more towards adults – and know that, in
making that selection, they can enjoy a glass of wine,” he explains.
Specialty films, he reasoned, essentially
dictate specialty concessions. “Generally
speaking, people who go to see specialized film are not among the biggest
consumers of junk food. So by introducing things like fresh
foods, beer and wine, you
have an opportunity for the same kinds of concessions sales figures as
you would in the multiplex.”
“If we didn’t have alcohol [at the Cedar Lee],” says Sean Denny,
the cinema’s general manager, concession sales “would be much lower.” Buoyed
by success, the circuit in 2000 began selling alcoholic beverages at
its Shaker Square Cinemas, a Cleveland 6-plex that programs mostly mainstream
Drexel Theatres, another Cleveland-based
circuit trafficking in specialty cinema, began offering
in 1995, at its downtown
Initially, they sought an alcohol license for special events they were
planning, including a Tony Awards party and a “Casablanca” party.
Only when the state of Ohio refused to grant the business a one-day
liquor license did
they pursue a full-time permit.
Alcohol sales rose after Drexel integrated
a café adjacent to the site. “More
and more, our patrons would come in, grab a sandwich or a salad and a glass
of wine, and if it was near show time, they would take it in with them,” notes
Drexel co-owner Kathy Frank. Although patrons were not served inside the auditoria,
they were allowed to bring their purchased items inside for the show. According
to Frank, only one distributor ever refused to book a film there because of
the facility’s alcohol policies. In 2001, Drexel opened Columbus, Ohio’s
Arena Grand 8-plex, which programs mainstream fare and carries a
full liquor license.
Other arthouses have followed suit.
In 1999, the Angelika Film Center circuit opened its Houston
with a full bar area distinct from its concession counter. “The
art theatre has a very smart clientele,” notes circuit
director of operations Terri Moore. “They are very
respectful of the product that is on the screen, and don’t
normally stumble into these theatres by accident. There
has not been one situation of abuse … no rowdiness
you find beer cans and alcohol
bottles in the auditorium, you surmise the fact that there’s demand
for the product. And then the next thing that dawns on you is, ‘Well,
if they’re going to bring it in, I might as well be the one to
sell it to them.’”
– Emagine Entertainment
owner Paul Glantz
Angelika has since opened two more specialty
multis in Texas, a Dallas 8-plex launched in 2002 and a
debuted in 2004. Both have café/bars, but for the
Plano site Angelika even went to the trouble of creating
a unique champagne called Angelika Blue, so dubbed because
its hue matches the chandeliered lobby’s lighting and
decor. “There’s a huge over-21 moviegoing crowd,
and it’s very profitable,” says Moore. “I
don’t believe we would expand anywhere we couldn’t
[sell alcohol] because it’s part of our concept.”
“In a lot of states, some of the laws have shifted slightly, because the
cinema-eatery broke the ground for some of us to come in and be able to serve
alcohol in our theatres,” notes Landmark Theatres operations exec Tearlach
Hutcheson. Within the last two years, specialty exhibition giant Landmark has
opened eight alcohol-friendly auditoria at two Dallas sites. The chain has been
so successful with them, he says, Landmark would serve alcohol “in every
theatre where it was a feasible option.”
“Concessions is an evolving thing. Movie theatres did not start out selling
concessions. It just wasn’t part of the fare. It used to be a corner
stand. Now, as theatres themselves are evolving, there is a lot of competition
forms of entertainment out there.
“We have seen an increase in personal wealth in the U.S. People feel they
are shopping in nicer shops, eating in nicer restaurants, and now we have to
give them nicer theatre experiences … part of that is allowing them to
take a drink in with them into the film, because that’s part of our
experience as adults.”
MOLSONS, MILLER &
For all the inroads liquor has made into
the specialty market, no chain operates more alcohol-friendly
auditoria – 46
in all – than mainstream Michigan multiplexer Emagine
Entertainment. Its first multi, in Flint, Mich., received
its liquor license in 1998, a year after opening. Emagine’s
two Detroit-area 18-plexes that followed in 2002 and 2004,
were fully licensed to serve liquor from the get-go.
Tidying auditoria between shows early
in his exhibition career brought home to Emagine owner
Paul Glantz the potential
alcohol-friendly cinemas. “When you find beer cans
and alcohol bottles in the auditorium, you surmise the fact
that there’s demand for the product,” he says. “And
then the next thing that dawns on you is, ‘Well, if
they’re going to bring it in, I might as well be the
one to sell it to them.’”
“We’ve had people write letters saying they will never come to our
theatre,” says circuit operations VP Ruth Daniels. “But what we’ve
found is that people come back and tell us that it was not what they thought
it would be.”
To prevent alcohol-inspired mischief, Emagine enforces
a 2-drink-per-movie maximum. Every auditorium is monitored
by a surveillance camera, and patrons
who are purchasing drinks must wear wristbands. All alcoholic beverages
are served in clear plastic cups, which helps cameras spot
had one of the highest
grosses in the state with
The Incredibles.’ ... So someone’s going
convince me that we’re deterring families.”
– Emagine Entertainment owner
“I have to harbor the belief that there’s opportunity for many, many operators
in our industry and I defend the alternative,” says Glantz. “It
does not deter families. In Novi, we had one of the highest grosses in the
state with ‘The Incredibles.’ Talk about a family picture. And
we were one of the top ten in the state. So someone’s going to be hard-pressed
to convince me that we’re deterring families.”
Missouri’s Saint Louis Cinemas
is another mainstream chain that operates only alcohol-friendly
Chase Park Plaza 5-plex received its license
in 2001; its Galleria 6-plex followed the next year. Because the Galleria
is located inside a mall, no one is allowed to take alcohol
out of the theatre.
General manager Mike Durham notes that
while it was harder to secure the licensing for the Galleria
location, it would
have been harder
the Chase Park
Plaza not proven so successful. “Even though at the Galleria we’re
in more of a standard family setting, it’s been very smooth,” says
Durham. “Quite frankly, there has not been a single incident
relevant to our sale of beer and wine here, not a single one.”
The circuit was set to open its third St. Louis location
in December, and set to serve wine and beer there as well.
While some of the nation’s largest chains have dabbled in alcohol-friendly
auditoria, few have yet to embrace them as “the next big
“Having managers on the wrong
side of the curve with this
product can put you in a world of hurt in a very short time.”
– Emagine Entertainment
owner Paul Glantz
When Missouri-based exhibition giant AMC Entertainment
purchased General Cinemas in 2002, it came into ownership
of three alcohol-friendly
Boston and Washington, D.C. markets. AMC also allows alcohol
in all auditoria of its Columbus, Ohio, 30-plex, but officials
are no plans
for the chain to expand alcohol sales elsewhere.
Another exhibition colossus, Dallas-based
Cinemark USA, has one alcohol-friendly auditorium in a
City, Mo., specialty
not something we’re even seeing doing elsewhere,” says circuit
marketing VP Terrell Falk. “Our circuit is really more
family oriented, and [alcohol] is not going to be something
that is very important to us.”
Outside The Auditorium
AMC Easton Towne Center
30-plex, Columbus, Ohio
AMC Framingham 16-plex, Boston
AMC Gallerie 7-plex, Washington, D.C.
Angelika Film Center 5-plex, Plano, Texas
Angelika Film Center 5-plex, Houston
Angelika Film Center 8-plex, Dallas
Cinemark Palace at the Plaza, Kansas City, Mo.
Cleveland Cinemas Cedar Lee quad, Cleveland, Ohio
Cleveland Cinemas Shaker Square 6-plex, Cleveland
Drexel Theatre Drexel East triplex, Cleveland
Drexel Theatres Arena Grand 8-plex, Cleveland
Emagine Entertainment Birch Run 10-plex, Flint, Mich.
Emagine Entertainment Canton 18-plex, Canton, Mich.
Emagine Entertainment Novi 18-plex, Novi, Mich.
Landmark Inwood Theatre triplex, Dallas
Landmark Magnolia Theatre 5-plex, Dallas
Metro/Rocky Mountain Cinemas Isis 5-plex, Aspen, Colo.
Metro/Rocky Mountain Cinemas Ski Time twin, Ketchum, Idaho.
Muvico Centro Ybor 20-plex, Tampa, Fla.
Muvico Palace 20-plex, Boca Raton, Fla.
Muvico Parisian 20-plex, West Palm Beach, Fla.
Pacific Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood
Saint Louis Cinema’s Chase Park Plaza 5-plex, St. Louis
Saint Louis Cinema’s Galleria 6-plex, St. Louis
Saint Louis Cinema’s Moolah, St. Louis
Starz Film Center 6-plex, Denver
Though Emagine is currently the largest
U.S. operator of alcohol-friendly auditoria, its owner
is not certain a very
large chain would
be able to implement alcohol
sales circuitwide without precipitating trouble. “I don’t think
liquor is the ideal product for a large chain,” says Glantz. “If
I were responsible for running 200 or 300 theatres, I would have to run them
sort of like McDonalds. I would have to have an operating manual, and everything
would be sort of scripted for your management team. And in the context of that,
inevitably the large, large number results in a bell-curve of management talent.
And sometimes – it’s just inevitable – you’re
going to have managers on the wrong side of the curve. Well,
having managers on the
wrong side of the curve with this product can put you in
a world of hurt in a very short time. So we think as entrepreneurs
and folks who are crafting
a product for each specific market that we serve. And being
a relatively small organization, we can be very attentive
to the quality of our theatre management,
our operations management, so that we can control the product
effectively. I think it would be a substantial challenge
for those who, again, are trying
to run a very, very large chain.”
TAP ANOTHER LEVEL
One major chain with big alcohol-friendly
plans is Muvico Theatres, which has taken to segregating
some multis into “family” and “adult” sections,
with bars at the balcony level and minors restricted to
the main floor.
Muvico marketing VP Jim Lee says circuit
execs trace the inspiration to “club levels” at sports stadia. “The
movie experience has always been one experience: one box
office, one concession stand, one auditorium, one ticket
price, the same thing for everybody. We took [the “Premier
Experience” concept] and that became our club level.”
Muvico introduced the “Premiere Experience” at
the Palace 20 in Boca Raton, Fla. in 2000, with six adult-only
balconies overlooking six of the multi’s 20 auditoria.
These balconies are connected to the Premiere Bistro & Bar,
which takes up the balance of the complex’s second
floor. For twice the ticket price, a Premiere guest gets
free popcorn, a reserved seat, free valet parking and access
to the over-21 level.
The design of the facility makes it
virtually impossible for moviegoers to travel between the
two levels, with Premiere
guests utilizing a separate box office and entrance. “We
don’t want parents to feel uncomfortable about dropping
their kids off, thinking that they could get their hands
on a drink. It’s a huge liability,” explains
Muvico CEO Hamid Hashimi, who adds the circuit would “never” offer
alcohol without the strict segregation.
“We’ve had tremendous success with the concept and we’re
rolling out at this point,” adds Hashimi, noting that,
since the Palace opening, his chain has implemented Premiere-level
bars at its Tampa and West Palm Beach 20-plexes as well.
A similar scheme is earmarked for the 26-plex Muvico is opening
just west of Manhattan in early 2007.
If most liquor-dispensing exhibitors seem pleased with customer
response, they also frequently acknowledge a disdain for
the red tape alcohol typically precipitates.
Securing an alcohol license for the first time is often
expensive and time-consuming, especially for a venue not
associated with alcohol. Cinema owners have to make a case
for their business, and usually present a formal request
at a city council meeting, at which community members can
voice support or dissent. A tentative community can be a
sobering reality for an exhibitor interested in serving a
more conservative area.
"We don’t want parents to feel uncomfortable
about dropping their kids off, thinking that they could
get their hands on a drink. It’s a huge liability."
– Muvico Theatres
CEO Hamid Hashimi
“I know there are folks who think this is sacrilege,
but how do those folks feel about taking their kids to a
game?” says Emagine’s Glantz. “We’ve
had occasional hate mail from a guest who will say that they
will never come to our theatre again, and they think this
is evil. And my response is, ‘Where do you buy your
Even after a liquor license is granted,
maintaining it can require some effort. “You have to have your people
do a training, same as if it was a bar, so that they understand
the state liquor laws,” notes Metro/Rocky Mountain
Cinemas exec Marshall Smith, who allows wine and beer in
the auditoria of two resort cinemas.
In most states, there is usually a stipulation
requiring an of-age employee to handle distribution of
Kathy Frank, of Drexel Theatres, points out the limitations
this may entail. “I can see where the economics of
payroll and employment in a large commercial theatre might
make it difficult when the kids who work at the concession
stands are not 21.” And because anyone trying to purchase
alcohol who appears to be of questionable age must be carded,
distributing alcohol in a traditional concessions line can
hinder efficiency behind the counter.
There are more encouraging tales. Massachusetts’ Dedham
Community Theatre is a downtown specialty twin competing
with a nearby 12-plex. The venue attracts a mature clientele,
and owner Paul McMurtry noticed his customers would often
arrive early and ask where they could go have a drink before
their movie. Although the town rarely grants liquor licenses,
McMurtry credits overwhelming town support for helping him
It did not come without provisions,
though. “For now,
the town has asked us, just because of their conservative
nature and their concern about underage drinking, to have
people just consume in the lobby,” explains McMurtry. “I’m
respecting their wishes for now, because it is a new license
and a very, very rare occurrence.”
McMurtry hopes he’ll soon be licensed to allow alcohol
inside his auditoria as well. “If guys like me and
independents want to continue to exist, yeah, I would recommend
creating an alternative, such as alcohol if it was appropriate.
We have to find other ways to take care of the customer,
to serve the customer something that can at least increase
the profit of the concession stand.”