ALBANY – Ticket in hand for "Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker"? Check.
Popcorn with extra butter? Check.
Pilsner? All set.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signaled Friday he will try again to prod state lawmakers into expanding the sale of beer, wine and alcohol at movie theaters across New York.
The Democratic governor, who has long promoted big tax incentives to the film and craft beverage industries, said his State of the State address next week will include a measure to “give more New Yorkers the opportunity to responsibly enjoy a drink at the movies.’’
Cuomo tried in 2017 to get the same measure OK'd in his state budget plan, but lawmakers rejected the idea.
The renewed effort seeks to end a Prohibition-era law that has kept movie theaters from offering alcohol sales.
So why do some movie theaters already offer alcoholic drinks? New York permits movie theaters to sell alcohol, but only if they have at least five items on a food menu, a full kitchen and things like trays at seats or tables in screening rooms.
The movie industry, which has been trying for years to get the alcohol plan OK'd in Albany, cheered the idea of expanding alcohol sales in movie theaters.
“Theaters all across the state will be able to provide an important amenity to its guests, promote New York State wine and craft beverages and the tax revenues generated from alcohol sales will benefit the state,’’ said Joe Masher, president of the National Association of Theater Owners of New York State and the chief operating officer of Bow Tie Cinemas.
Lynn Kinsella, who owns the Aurora Theater, a one-screen, independent movie house on Main Street in East Aurora, said “many lessons have been learned” from other states that permit alcohol sales in movies. “There is good precedent for how to do this safely, legally and in the best interest of patrons,’’ she said Friday.
“The law is antiquated,’’ Kinsella said of the movie theater prohibition on alcohol sales. She said theaters are one of the only entertainment outlets specifically banned from offering alcohol.
“That is somewhat unfair,’’ she said.
But could the idea turn off some moviegoing patrons who already have to deal with noisy neighbors on cellphones and won’t want to have to deal with patrons who might become annoying after a couple drinks?
Kinsella said theater owners are aware of such concerns. “As responsible theater owners, you run into many issues today, cellphones being the biggest. As we encounter each of these things, we find ways that are successful in addressing to ensure what is most important to all of us, which is the moviegoing experience,’’ she said.
Movie theaters are desperate to cope with ever-declining attendance levels across the country. Enter: booze.
The Cuomo administration notes theaters are trying to cope with high expenses associated with upgrading their facilities in order to attract customers.
The governor put out a couple details of his movie theater plan, mirroring ones he previously proposed in 2017: permitting alcohol sales only to adults attending moves rated PG-13 or higher and limiting to one the number of drinks that could be sold to a customer at one time.
If his 2019 proposal, which will be contained in his coming state budget plan, further tracks his 2017 effort it will also do things like limit alcohol sales to only one hour prior to the start of a movie.
Cuomo said the plan is also an effort to further prop up New York’s alcohol industry. Unlike some legislative efforts, which have sought to carve out certain sales protections for New York-based alcohol producers, the governor’s new plan does not contain such provisions, a spokesman said.
Instead, New York producers of wine, craft beer, cider and spirits, will benefit by having more places to sell their products, the administration said. There are between 175 and 200 movie theaters in New York State, according to the trade group of theater owners.
The alcohol ban in movie theaters goes back almost 100 years in New York State, advocates of the new plan say. It was the vaudeville industry, desperate to beat back the growing “talking pictures” hitting movie houses in the late 1920s, that was able to convince lawmakers in Albany back then to keep alcohol from being served by their newfound competition.
The effort to permit expanded alcohol sales in movie theaters has, in some form or another, been seriously kicking around for a decade or so in Albany.
Most recently, the state Senate this past session in 2019 passed such an authorization. But it died in the Assembly.
“There are members who are concerned that movie theaters are one of the last places you can go with your family and not have to worry about alcohol,’’ said Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, an Albany Democrat and sponsor of the movie house bill. But she said the idea has “generally solid support” among many lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled Assembly and that she’s confident, especially with Cuomo now pushing the idea again, that it will pass in 2020.
Fahy sees it as an economic development issue to help aging main street movie theaters – in rural and urban areas – to survive in an era of video streaming that sees fewer and fewer young people going to the movies. “You need to keep them competitive. To me, this is leveling the playing field with other entertainment,’’ she said.
Another motivation, the lawmaker added, is creating additional outlets for New York-produced craft products. She noted one popular Albany-based cider company sells more of its products in a handful of Connecticut movie theaters than all the upstate New York theaters that now have special permission to sell alcohol products and to be consumed mostly in separate areas outside the screening rooms.
“It’s not that I’m trying to encourage alcohol. I’m trying to help the economy of our main streets where we have aging theaters struggling to get people,’’ Fahy added.