Since the first nickelodeon opened in 1905, going to the movies has become a treasured American pastime. Jump forward a century and some change and it’s hard to imagine life without a multiplex in every town and an overpriced Saturday night screening as a date night option. Or is it?
A quick Google search of movie theater performance for 2016 paints a pretty bleak picture.
While theaters generated over $8 billion in ticket sales, the summer of 2016 saw attendance decline by 3.5% and 2015 marked the fourth consecutive year that frequent moviegoing fell in every demographic save two (the 25-39 and 2-11 demos). What this signals is a change in the kind of audiences movie theaters are pulling in — and larger changes in where we’re going for entertainment and what kind of entertainment we seek.
The rising popularity of streaming platforms and on-demand services coupled with higher-than-ever ticket prices and concessions means home entertainment is slowly creeping in on the cinema’s turf. Netflix now boasts over 98 million subscribers, adding over 5 million paying members between October and December of last year alone. Those numbers are telling compared with the drop in theatergoers and the underwhelming summer box office performance of 2016.
But a few independent theaters are scrapping the factory-line model of moviegoing – cutting out kiosks, reserved seating, generic snack options, and gargantuan screens in order to revisit and revise why movie theaters became so popular to begin with, all in the hopes of driving crowds back to the cinema.
They’re looking to the past to inform the present and possibly save the future of movie theaters by recreating the feel of a bygone era where the experience of going to the cinema is just as important as the movie you’re paying to see, and where each trip to the theater offers a unique outing tailored to their desires. In short, they’re trying to make going to the movies into a destination and an adventure.
Tim League and his wife opened their high-end theater chain, the Alamo Drafthouse, in Austin, Texas 20 years ago because they recognized, even then, that going to a movie isn’t always enough to hook people. League was looking to get out of his current job as a mechanical engineer for an oil company in Bakersfield, California when he passed a 1940’s cinema on his way to work. He’d seen it hundreds of times before, but one day it had a “For Lease” sign in the front and, as he says, the “metaphorical light bulb” went off.
“I didn’t know anything about running a business at all, let alone a cinema,” League tells us. “My only qualification was that I really loved movies. I was young, arrogant and naïve — a heady mixture — and thought I could pull it off.”
League knew the kind of movie-going experience he wanted to provide early on but actually achieving it proved difficult. He wasn’t able to get a liquor license in Bakersfield and eventually, had to give up his dream of owning a cinema in the town.
“That was one of the main reasons we ended up closing down that theater and moving to Austin to start the Alamo Drafthouse,” League says. “Ironically, just this week a former customer from those days sent me an article. The Bakersfield city council just denied another movie theater’s request for a liquor license, citing the likelihood of increased crime and violence.”
For League, though, pairing movies, food and booze was a no brainer.
“My three biggest passions are food, drink, and movies,” he says. “We are at our best when we combine food, film and drink. During the first two weeks of showing Moonlight, for example, we served the exact same Cuban meal you see onscreen in the final act of the film, complete with red wine in a Styrofoam cup. If you experienced that meal at the exact same time as the stars in the film were eating and drinking, it was a magical experience. If there is a clear food tie-in, like the Cuban sandwich in John Favreau’s Chef, we are all over it.”
League and his wife may have started out with a small cinema that served single-screen showings of second-run titles at a discount, but eventually, their theater morphed into a cinephile’s dream – one that shows feature films, cult classics, and arthouse items all while serving specialty food and drink options at reasonable prices. They’ve got theaters in 22 cities across the country and are looking to add more.
Along the way, they’ve branched out into events as well, like their Rolling Roadshows which take them across the country for special showings of films. (Ever watched Jaws while floating in murky water on an inner tube while downing a beer?) They’ve also got a Hopped Up series which pairs cult classics with local breweries showcasing their special offerings and a Master Pancake series that basically lets local comics troll some of Hollywood’s worst movies – think of how much more enjoyable it’d be to watch Twilight with a stand-up comedian mocking it.
For League, it’s all about catering to specific audiences, one the theater cultivates over time, using food, booze and the promise of a high-quality screening to entice a younger demographic of frequent moviegoers – in other words, the people that have recently stopped or at least cut down on their theater visits.
“We try to offer up great experiences for all tastes: classics, cult classics, action films, exploitation, silent films, sing-alongs, comedy events, you name it,” League says. “We hire a creative manager in every market and encourage that person to build an audience around about which they are passionate. Our company mission statement is ‘Ensure every guest has an awesome experience and is excited to come back,’ and my job is to ensure that the mission lives with every employee and every theater in the company.”
As for smaller independent cinemas across the country that have adopted the Alamo’s style – unique food pairings, special programs and adult drink menus – League says he’s happy for the competition.
“I have an ‘all ships rise’ mentality when it comes to competition from other cinemas,” he says. “My opinion is that in order for the cinema industry to be healthy and compete against all other out-of-home entertainment options, we all have to deliver a great experience. I think there are enough interpretations of a great movie experience for all of us to thrive. I also like being pushed to do better. So when I see a competitor doing something great, I take it back to the team to investigate adopting it ourselves.”
A Trend Grows In Brooklyn
For Texas native and movie buff Matthew Viragh, the Alamo experience of having food and drinks tailored to films made a lasting impression. “It lubricates the social element of going to the movies,“ Viragh tells us while discussing the Nitehawk Cinema, an indie movie house that he owns and operates, which has brought that same kind of experience to Brooklyn, New York.
Stepping into the Nitehawk Cinema in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn feels more like finding an off-the-beaten path restaurant than one of the city’s most beloved boutique theaters. There’s a bar up front that serves local beers and specialty cocktails. And once you’re corralled into an intimate theater space (the largest of which seats around 90 people), seating is up for grabs with tiny fold-out tables, full-service menus featuring items like a duck confit sandwich or a root beer float with a shot of whiskey added that won’t cost you an arm and a leg.
It’s a refreshing experience that doesn’t rely solely on the screen or on over-processed, over-priced snack options (which is what most of the bigger chains still consider their bread and butter) but instead customizes each trip to the theater through food and, perhaps more importantly, booze.
Nitehawk is famous for specialty showings that include midnight screenings, Western brunches and Saturday morning cartoon marathons. All of which sound fun in and of themselves, but when liquor is added to the mix, well, it explains why they sell out fairly quickly. Who wouldn’t want to watch Looney Tunes while drinking a white Russian topped with Cocoa Puffs or downing cereal shots? Why not celebrate the 20th anniversary of J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel with an actual Butterbeer made with rum?
But while this approach is starting to become more and more familiar, the Nitehawk and its effect on the New York theater community offers a unique story, because actually getting to serve beer and liquor in his theater was a lengthy and litigious process.
New Adventures In Prohibition
When Viragh first showed up in New York in 2002, he was pretty shocked with what he found after being exposed to places like the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. At the Alamo, people came for the complete, unique experience there where the food, booze and community were as big a draw as the movie itself but in New York getting creative with adult beverages wasn’t an option available to theater owners.
A few years later when Viragh decided to open his own theater, he did some digging into why booze was banned in New York cinemas and quickly found the culprit – an old Prohibition-era law still on the books which expressly forbid the consumption and sale of alcohol in movie theaters. That this rule survived so long, even with most Broadway theaters now serving adult refreshments with each showing, seemed particularly odd but Viragh — who had a job in advertising at the time — didn’t think much of it other than that his hopes of enjoying some good food and a cold beer during a movie were now squashed.
When Viragh decided to leave his advertising job and open the Nitehawk, that law became more than just something that affected his own movie going experience. It was a roadblock to what he wanted to achieve with brainchild in Brooklyn. He decided to challenge it and took inspiration from another independent theater a few states to the south, the historic Commodore Theatre in Portsmouth, Virginia. Originally built in 1945, the Commodore was the first first-run theater to serve alcohol during showings.
Owner Fred Schoenfeld, who reopened the theater in 1987, grappled with strict laws in his state that required restaurants to adhere to defined food-to-alcohol ratios. He chose to just serve beer and wine, along with a full dinner menu, to make things easier.
“We had to juggle with the ABC [Alcoholic Beverage Control] board,” Schoenfeld says, citing the organization’s condition that the theater couldn’t be totally dark when serving alcohol and food. Schoenfeld’s theater brings in an older clientele, so he doesn’t worry about running into issues of underage drinking as much, but even if that were a concern, the benefits of serving alcohol and food with his films far outweigh the potential consequences.
“We couldn’t survive,” Schoenfeld says. “That’s where the money is. I couldn’t pay my bills without that extra revenue.”
Viragh knew of the theatre’s dine-in reputation and emailed with owner Schoenfeld and his wife who ended up offering him free room and board at their house and a chance to work at the theater and learn the ins and outs of managing a full-service restaurant and theater first-hand.
“They took me in, let me work pretty much every position in the theater to understand how to run one,” Viraghn says. “They’ve been, and continue to be, great mentors in this.”
Fighting For Your Right To Party
While fighting an antiquated, Prohibition-era liquor law should have been easy, Viragh faced some impediments. Specifically, some more conservative members of local government were not easy converts.With the help of a lobbyist, Keith Sernick, and his lawyer David Pfeffer, Viragh worked for over a year, meeting with lawmakers and senators in order to get his bill into the right hands. For Viragh, the process of actually drafting the bill was, surprisingly, an easy one. He spent a year tweaking it and showing it to key local representatives like Joseph Lentol and Martin Malave Dilan who were amenable to the change.
Eventually, the bill landed on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s desk – one of only a handful of bills to be passed into law that year. Viragh knew it was a longshot, but he also knew the potential revenue couldn’t be ignored. “It’s a great way to revitalize old, single-screen theaters. It’s really hard to survive as a small, one-screen theater and if you’re able to add this other experience of a restaurant and good food and drinks it definitely helps stem the tide on closing theaters. That’s how we packaged it and sold it to them.”
“It’s a mystery why it stayed on the books for so long,” Viragh said of the outdated rule. “I think that’s why the lawmakers were receptive to the change; it just didn’t make a lot of sense.”
But the theater owner was careful in how he ultimately crafted the bill.
“We wanted to reflect a responsible approach by requiring any movie theater with a liquor license to also be classified as a restaurant so there was more sustenance on the menu and the experience would feel more like a restaurant and less like a bar,” Viragh explains, citing that as another reason he thinks the Cuomo ultimately passed the bill. “When people are drinking, it helps to have real restaurant-quality food and also our operation has servers in each theater monitoring the space to ensure a good experience and limit any distractions. Without these checks and balances, it could become a less desirable experience if you just have drunk people disrupting movies.”
The High Cost Of Doing Business
While Viragh’s approach certainly yielded results, there are many who hope that it’s only the start and that theaters will eventually be able to sell alcohol without the requirement of a full kitchen in New York — following the example of states like Illinois, California, and Texas. Because for a lot of these smaller theaters, it comes down to cost and survival.
These are businesses that are struggling to make rent payments, afford movie rental prices, and keep costs down in order to attract more people. They often don’t have the extra income to hire more employees, full kitchen staffs, head chefs and bartenders in order to offer dinner and drinks with every screening. And even if they did, the return of investment isn’t guaranteed to offset the costs.
Perhaps that’s why Governor Cuomo recently tried to pass another bill, that would have loosened the requirements for serving alcohol in theaters. Under the proposal, cinemas would have been able to serve wine and beer without offering a full dinner menu during the show (for PG-13 and above movies).
But while the bill passed in the New York Senate, it stalled at the State Assembly level over concerns that local governments wouldn’t have enough say in which theaters were serving alcohol. It’s something other small cinemas across the country are also grappling with. The Commodore had to work with their local ABC board to get permission for beer and wine sales operating under a strict food-alcohol ratio.
In Washington State, a bill recently went through the Senate to ease restrictions on liquor laws in theaters. There, cinema owners are required to serve full menus, have table top dining, an approved alcohol control plan and keep seating under 120 people if they hope to serve booze during a film. Other cinemas in states like Utah and Missouri are battling local government and ABC boards for the right to serve alcohol in what they often label “family-oriented” spaces. For some reason, it seems that the idea that booze be allowed in the movies challenges traditional values and poses a threat to families and young children wanting to spend a night out at the theater.
And while Viragh’s victory and the continuing spread of Alamo and larger chains with dine-in options represents an overall step forward, there are still roadblocks as cinemas across the country find themselves battling liability issues and local laws like the one in New York. Like the local theater Brewvies in Salt Lake City that was fined $25,000 for showing a screening of Deadpool in February of last year while serving liquor. The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control for the state claimed the theater violated an obscure obscenity law generally used to regulate strip clubs after it served alcohol during a film that includes “nudity and simulated sex, including a suggestive scene in the film’s credits involving a cartoon unicorn.” Thankfully, Ryan Reynolds donated a few thousand dollars to help the theater fight the case.
Until local governments can be convinced that serving booze won’t upend their moviegoing routine or scandalize their children, however, independent theaters are going to face the biggest hardships — be they those brought on by not being able to compete with theaters that serve alcohol and food or by having to pay the high cost of competing with those theaters and, in some cases, massive chains with money to burn.
Regal, AMC, and Cinemark have all capitalized on loosening liquor laws and others will likely follow, especially if those laws ease and eliminate the need for costly full-service kitchens — even though they’re in much better shape to absorb those costs. The big chains are also in a position to keep prices down thanks to their ability to deal at a higher volume with vendors and their ability to pair the drinking (and dining) experience with other amenities like iPic’s plush recliners (with pillows and blankets), or technological innovations like larger screens, IMAX showings, 3D viewing capabilities, even seats that shake and wind machines can be found in some theaters.
This kind of competition isn’t something Nitehawk or the Commodore can defend against, not directly. But they can still, in some cases, market the specialness of their facilities and a community aspect that can get lost in a massive and characterless multiplex.
Building A Community
Schoenfeld has been in the business of restoring old theaters since the 1950s. When he saw that the Commodore had closed down, he knew he needed to be the one to reopen it. The process took years, but restoring the theater to its original condition – complete with balcony seats, hand-painted murals, 300-pound Italian crystal chandeliers, a THX certified sound system, smoking lounges and even a workable vintage pay phone from the ’40s — meant Schoenfeld could attract an audience of cinephiles who would keep coming back for the venue and for the special experience his cinema offers.
“Single-screen theaters in this country find it difficult to make any money,” Schoenfeld admits. “Film rental is expensive and your return on investment needs something more than just selling popcorn and Cokes. I think, in order to survive, [those theaters] have to do what we’re doing. We’re locally owned and operated, we have much better customer service than these big multiplexes. The whole experience is totally different here.”
It’s something the Nitehawk is trying to replicate in Brooklyn.
“We’re creating a community,” Caryn Coleman, senior programmer for the Nitehawk tells us.
Coleman’s in charge of choosing which films the cinema shows on a monthly basis and runs some of the theater’s favorite events like the Short Film Festival, Booze & Books and Nitehawk Naughties – a series that explores the early days of erotic film. In order to have a diverse line-up of films and cater to different niches of the New York film community, Coleman and her coworkers consider a wide array of features and nostalgic titles when planning their specialty events but one ingredient remains key.
“It has to be relevant. If we’re revisiting an older film, we always ask, ‘Why now?’ There has to be something there that will speak to an audience or spark interest.”
Once they’ve decided on the film, everything else is planned around it.
“We always start with the movie. That’s our hero,” Viragh says. “We try to build interesting experiences around that whether it’s food and drinks inspired by the movie or having special guests in to give insight on the making of the films. We have bands creating live scores to different films. It’s all about enhancing that experience.”
Each signature series at the theater caters to a different, niche audience. From their “Live Sound Cinema” where a band performs scores to silent and cult films, to their “Local Color” segment that highlights movies made by independent New York filmmakers and their popular “Booze & Books” program that pairs books with their film adaptations and often features writers and critics hosting intellectual battles over which is better, the Nitehawk takes a different route in drawing a crowd. It’s quality over quantity — a handful of small nets for certain fish instead of casting a wide net, dragging in the whole ocean and hoping a few prove to be worthy catches.
“All of a sudden this movie you’ve seen a million times becomes this new experience,” Viragh says of the concept. “It’s the storytelling but it’s also that communal experience. When you compare that to a giant soda and an overpriced bucket of popcorn we’re giving you something more interesting at a better value.”
The truth is, watching films online and on mobile devices is not going away. In some ways, this might be good in that it can open up indie and arthouse films to a wider audience. But the experience of going to a movie has a kind of nostalgic grace and practical value as something we all still do together in a world of solitary on-screen options. Because of this, we should all root for theater owners that are trying to push back against that inevitability by whatever means are available to them — food and drink pairings with screenings of classic films, forums and Q&As, and other fresh and meaningful experiments — especially the independently owned small theaters that are putting it all on the line.
Alcohol alone won’t revolutionize the theater industry, but in as much as Viragh believes it “lubricates the social element of going to the movies,” it may also lubricate further innovation by keeping these theaters and owners like League, Viragh, and Schoenfeld in the game so they can keep finding ways to make going to the movies enjoyable and vital. In an age where desperate theaters are trying to hook us with bigger screens, 3D glasses and jungle gyms (yes, jungle gyms) a refreshing craft beer seems like a simpler, more seamless answer to the question of how to make going to the movies fun again.