When a Los Angeles-based movie-theater chain sent a representative before the Bakersfield City Council last week to formally apply for a permit that would allow beer and wine consumption, Councilwoman Jacquie Sullivan conveyed surprise.
She'd never heard of such a thing. “My first words," she confessed from the city hall dais, "were, ‘Oh no. What next?’”
No doubt others in Bakersfield are similarly taken aback by the idea of movie-goers sipping something stronger than Mountain Dew against the flicker of digital celluloid.
Brace yourself, Jacquie. The fact is, over the past two years 32 states have relaxed their laws, allowing theaters to serve alcohol in any auditorium, and New York, long a holdout, is likely to become the 33rd this spring. In all, some 700 to 800 U.S. movie theaters allow patrons to sip merlot with their Meryl, including more than a dozen in Greater L.A.
It doesn't take a Beautiful Mind to understand why. Concessions, which for decades have been movie theaters' primary profit center, are growing in importance as attendance numbers have stayed flat or declined, and alcohol has been a prime mover. AMC, which six years ago had six locations offering beer, wine or spirits, now has 178, and food and beverage revenues have jumped during that time from $647 million to $910 million, a 41 percent increase.
Little wonder librations are coming to a theater near you.
No fewer than three theater chains have or will soon apply for permits to open Bakersfield movie houses with beer and wine, as well as restaurant-type fare a notch or two up from buttered popcorn and Jujubes.
There's a small irony in the fact that Bakersfield is somewhat late to this party because it could well have been first. One of the innovators of this business model was Alamo Draft House, created by Tim and Karrie League of Austin, Texas.
Before they set out for Texas, the Leagues leased the Tejon Theater on Baker Street, turning it into a concert venue-slash-art film house with an expanded food menu and, they hoped, a beer and wine license.
The whole thing ended in financial disaster, in no small part because their beer and wine application was rejected. So when the Tejon closed in 1995, the Leagues loaded a truck with 200 theater seats, a projector, screen and speakers and headed to Austin.
There, in the artsy, booming Texas capital, they tweaked it, massaged it, refashioned it and in 2001 opened their first theater. Now their Alamo Drafthouse dine-while-you-watch-a-movie concept is a wild success, with 25 locations, including 15 across Texas and at least eight others in the planning stages.
Alamo Drafthouse has no plans to come to Bakersfrield, but another Texas-based chain founded in 1993 on a similar theme does. The Studio Movie Grill, which has 24 locations, including two in California, wants to convert an abandoned Rosedale Highway grocery store into a restaurant-movie theater. The company has submitted preliminary paperwork to the city.
AMC Theater-6 on California Avenue — a second-run theater known to many as "the dollar movies" for its low ticket prices — has also applied to the city for a permit to serve alcohol. Its ABC application is pending.
The Bakersfield City Council denied without prejudice Reading's application for a conditional use permit, saying it differed too greatly from what the Board of Zoning Adjustment had initially approved, but kept the door open for a return evaluation.
Some might worry about mixing families out for an evening of animated penguins with the adult environment of a bar and grille, but according to In Focus, an industry magazine, many theaters make special accommodations to ease those concerns and generally make the experience safe for all concerned.
Some theaters have separate family and adult-only areas; others enforce over-21 policies. Some require patrons who buy a drink to wear wristbands, and two-drink maximums are typical at mainstream theaters.
This type of theater works and the Bakersfield City Council ought to warm to the idea. Hundreds of other cities have, with no ill effects.
Robert Price writes a weekly column for The Californian. Reach him at email@example.com. The opinions expressed are his own.