Beverage of choice: Wine or cocktails, anyone?

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The concept of serving alcohol in the movie theatre is not new. The bar at the Alamo Drafthouse, for example, has been around for ten years. But over the course of the past decade, the serving of alcohol has experienced a transformation. At first it was limited to specific theatres, then specific rooms in theatres, then specific areas of theatres at certain times, and finally today’s open acceptance of alcohol in the theatre lobby. So let’s look at the things that have been obstacles, the popularity this amenity has achieved in spite of these roadblocks, and the state of alcohol in theatres today.

Alcohol is a specialty item that could easily be dismissed from the theatre environment. It is not a traditional offering that has cycled in and out over the decades, it is not an easily instituted item, and it is not without controversy. There are many archaic laws that regulate alcohol distribution throughout the country, and navigating them is not easy. They vary from state to state. For a theatre chain with locations in multiple states, this is work. It is also a demographic choice for large metropolitan areas versus smaller towns where the work that goes into serving alcohol may not be worth the cost.

Another big obstacle is the cultural acceptance of alcohol in public places. The idea of serving alcohol where minors and adults are mixed together has kept it from being a natural fit for the theatre. Depending on the place, the conservative view of alcohol is alive and well and religious views on restrained consumption are offered up around the country.

The dangers of the effects of alcohol go well beyond individual actions. It has taken decades to get there, but drunk driving is heavily litigated in the entire U.S. today. It is not accepted and it is highly punishable to be arrested for drunk driving. The time it has taken to fully legislate drunk-driving laws and the cultural scorn toward driving and drinking have confined the serving of alcohol primarily to restaurants and bars.

Ironically, as the nation has become more conscious of the dangers of alcohol and how to consume it responsibly, we have seen it slowly expand to places previously considered off-limits. It would appear to be an odd contradiction, but it seems to have allowed the general public the ability to embrace the serving of alcohol while recognizing its dangers and following accepted protocol. Blue laws have eroded and beer and wine are being served in places such as arenas, zoos and carnivals. These are all places where children and adults mingle. It was really only a matter of time before alcohol became common at movie theatres.

The movement toward true restaurant menus in cinemas has also helped open the door to serving alcohol. The fact that the last ten years have seen restaurant offerings come into the theatre at the same time as alcohol is no coincidence. The availability of alcohol is such standard practice in the restaurant industry that it made its entry into the theatre environment much more acceptable. You serve a full menu? OK, you serve alcohol. But what that did was open up the acceptance of alcohol in general to the point of actually having a standalone bar in the theatre, with or without food.

This generated a move from just having the alcohol in a specified VIP section, or an adults-only section, to wide acceptance throughout the theatre. You still have these areas, but they are now being used to create an upscale environment for the entire experience at the theatre, not just to separate the adults from the kids so they can enjoy an adult drink.

Today you see full bars, mobile bars that can be moved around the theatre, alcohol in cinema cafés and restaurants, and the allowance of drinks in the auditorium. It still depends on city, state and local laws. But you can see adults take large containers of beer into an auditorium to drink while watching a movie where teenagers and kids are present, and that did not really happen even just one or two years ago.

So the acceptance of alcohol as a beverage choice for adults over the age of 21 has really entered a new phase at the theatre. There will always be exceptions to this trend and places where it is not accepted practice. But the general ability of theatres to build an alcohol program into their theatre experience is no longer a fringe practice—it has gone mainstream. Theatres are not alone; fast-food restaurants such as Burger King and Sonic, as well as Starbucks, are also joining this trend and selling beer and wine. Choosing specific places and cities to introduce these programs in 2011, they began offering these products in order to compete with casual dining. So are we.

We are always competing with other venues for the consumer’s time, attention and money. Alcohol is just another way to do that. Considering that the time a customer spends in the theatre is typically over two hours, sitting down, would it not be a great place for an adult to enjoy a glass of wine? For many cinema operators, the answer is a resounding yes.

E-mail your comments to Anita Watts at anitaw@reactornet.com.