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Popcorn, Milk Duds and a Double Scotch, Please

Hoping to wring more profits out of moviegoers, theaters are asking cities for permission to serve alcohol. Despite some strong pushback, they're mostly getting their way.

Guy at the movies drinking soda and eating popcorn
It started as a trickle; it's now a torrent. National theater chains, followed by spooked regional and independent movie exhibitors, are turning to liquor to reverse the damage of sagging ticket sales.

Exhibitors are showing up at city council meetings in places as diverse as Cape Girardeau, Mo., Hilo, Hawaii, Lexington Park, Md., and Muncie, Ind., pressing local policymakers to let them serve liquor along with popcorn and candy. Meanwhile, state legislators are being lobbied to relax laws governing liquor sales in theaters; as of this February, 32 had done so over the previous two years, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

As a result, the nature of movie-going in America is changing before our eyes. In recent years, theater owners have succeeded in acquiring hundreds of liquor licenses from coast to coast, sometimes over dogged local resistance. They've brought in teams of lawyers to city council meetings and, in at least one case in which a big theater chain was denied a license, sued a local government.

For the most part, though, lawsuits have been unnecessary. Many local elected officials want to aid struggling local theaters and avoid the prospect of a shuttered multiplex in their district. They may also be sympathetic to the pleas of regional and independent exhibitors who believe they, too, need to serve liquor to be competitive with the big chain multiplex across town.

But there are social costs to all this. Booze in theaters is -- and ought to be -- controversial, since, according to the Motion Picture Association of America, people ages 12 to 17 and 18 to 24 continue to be overrepresented among frequent moviegoers relative to the total population. At theaters of one national chain, it is not reported to police when an adult is found to have purchased liquor for an underage patron. The chain can then point to the lack of police reports at its existing full-liquor theaters to obtain liquor licenses elsewhere.

With the alcohol comes plenty of eye candy certain to draw the attention of underage moviegoers. Cinépolis theaters, reported USA Today, served blue martinis with red raspberries around the June 2 release of "Wonder Woman." AMC served a Gauntlet cocktail -- vodka, grenadine, house-made lemonade and Blue Curaçao -- for "Wonder Woman."

It's not hard to see why the theaters are desperate to boost revenue any way they can. Exhibitors have been left in disarray by the habits of cord-cutting millennials, along with a flood of new and high-quality content that can be binge-watched at home, years of box office flops and the high cost of marketing films.

Hence the allure of alcohol, with its high profit margins. AMC, with 380 locations in total, is leading the way. In 2010, only six of the chain's locations served alcohol. AMC announced in June it had opened its 250th "Adult Beverage Concept Theater." With 566 locations, Regal Cinemas, based in Knoxville, Tenn., is reported to have more than 150 theaters that serve alcohol, with 75 more to be completed this year. And Plano, Texas-based Cinemark, with 337 theaters, now has about 100 that serve alcohol. Those are the big ones. There are hundreds of smaller chains and individual exhibitors.

In the state of New York, some believe the idea of sending drinkers into darkened auditoriums may be a bad idea. Gov. Andrew Cuomo isn't among them. He's been urging the legislature to allow the practice in the name of boosting tourism and the state's distilleries. But lawmakers in Albany recently rejected a bill allowing the sale of alcohol in the state's theaters.

Even where state law is no impediment, however, there can be considerable community pushback. In Aliso Viejo, Calif., Regal Entertainment Group took the city to court in January, three months after the city's only movie theater was denied a permit to sell beer and wine.

Regal alleged a procedural violation on the part of a city council member after the council had voted 4-1 to deny an alcoholic-beverage permit. The decision came during a four-hour meeting in which all of the 47 attendees who provided public comment were reported to have voiced opposition to the sale of beer and wine at the location.

The Aliso Viejo lawsuit remains unresolved. But it's clear that, lawyered up and well funded, the theater chains will continue to try to peel off individual cities and towns from the herd, figuring they can push through their agenda most effectively in piecemeal fashion. So far, they've been right.

A real estate appraiser and writer on land-use and finance issues
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